At the beginning of the week, John Gorham was among the most successful chefs in Portland, owner of a dozen restaurants, co-author of two cookbooks and a world traveler known to fly prominent chefs from Spain to his gleaming Pearl District “gastronomic society,” Plaza Del Toro.
That came to an end last week. On Wednesday, Gorham emailed The Oregonian/OregonLive to say he had checked into the hospital and would “not be returning to the company” after aggressive Facebook messages directed in late May at a trans woman of color surfaced online.
In a phone interview later that day, Renee Gorham, John’s wife, said that her husband would sell his stake in seven of the restaurants and that she would assume control of what remained of Toro Bravo Inc., a restaurant group that now includes events space Plaza Del Toro, the brunch-focused Tasty n Alder and Tasty n Daughters as well as John Gorham’s first restaurant, the Spanish-themed Toro Bravo, a smash hit when it opened in 2007.
It was a stunning fall from grace for one of Portland’s best-known restaurateurs, one that took place amid the ongoing protests over police brutality and systemic racism, and that only came to light last week after the victim approached the Gorhams and asked for money. John Gorham becomes the latest in a growing number of prominent public figures across America to step aside over resurfaced social media posts during the Black Lives Matter movement, a list that includes magazine editors, elected officials and CEOs.
The Oregonian/OregonLive spoke with the main participants and reviewed screenshots of email correspondence, private messages and Facebook posts to put together this account of how the incident unfurled.
In late May, Toro Bravo’s small fleet of catering vans were tagged while parked near Southeast Portland’s Tasty n Daughters. According to the Gorhams, the graffiti was part of a string of break-ins and vandalism that had cost the company a combined $75,000 as they struggled to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the chef on edge.
On May 23, John Gorham took to Facebook to vent about the incident, posting a photo of a paintball handgun with exploding pepper spray “bullets” and the caption, “I would love to talk with other business owners about getting out and patrolling our property.”
“Vigilante might be the only way,” Gorham wrote, offering a $5,000 reward for information about the taggers.
Gorham’s post was soon shared to a bartering and exchange Facebook group where users offer free items for pickup. That’s where Xochitl, a trans woman who asked to only be identified by the first name she uses online, spotted the post. (The Oregonian/OregonLive is granting her request, as Xochitl has faced harassment and threats from Gorham and his supporters.)
To Xochitl’s eyes, the tagging looked like the amateurish work of teenagers, and Gorham’s calls for vigilante justice were “absurd.”
“What is this grown-ass man doing trying to play internet tough guy?” Xochitl asked in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive. “Couldn’t those 5k been used to buff out the cheap spray paint polymers and have plenty left over to further support his staff who are also suffering due to the pandemic? Couldn’t he have used this as an opportunity to reach out to youth-centric non-profits to try and understand the factors that lead kids towards property damage?”
Xochitl said she “decided to mock him for his lack of impulse control and his fake tough guy act,” writing what she calls a “sarcastic” Facebook post offering to drop a box full of spray paint on the corner of Northeast Glisan Street and 60th Avenue. According to Xochitl, the spray paint was fictional and the location was chosen at random.
Below the post, Xochitl added a photo of Toro Bravo’s spray-painted van, writing, “Art fills me with such joy.”
Alerted to Xochitl’s post, John Gorham and some of his followers began to “doxx” Xochitl — scour the internet for personal identifying details for public exposure — believing that she was responsible for the vandalism, according to a statement posted to Toro Bravo Inc.‘s website. On his Facebook page, Gorham posted Xochitl’s full social media name, writing that she “might be one of the bad guys.”
In the comments of that post, Gorham posted a picture of Xochitl posing with her band and another picture of a luxury SUV, its license plate visible, that Gorham and his followers had found on her Instagram (she calls it an “old vehicle I owned”).
“This is his property,” Gorham wrote above the photo of the SUV, again using Xochitl’s incorrect gender. “Maybe something should happen to it.”
In the comments, followers called for violence against the vandal. One offered to track down the SUV. Chris Angelus, founder of Portland Food Adventures, which offers “international culinary adventures,” as well as Portland-based events led by well-known local chefs, including Gorham, wrote that whoever spray painted the Toro Bravo vans “deserves citizen justice, not the lame criminal justice system.”
“Spray paint in his eyes for starters,” Angelus wrote. “Then let everyone who owns a business he’s tagged get 30 seconds to kick him in the balls.”
In an interview Friday, Angelus said he had “zero idea the person was trans when I posted,” saying that he never intended his comment to be an actual call for violence, and that he deleted it as soon as “someone posted about the sexual identity of whoever it was.”
In Toro Bravo Inc.‘s statement, Gorham also said that he was not aware of Xochitl’s gender or race at the time. “I would never call on violence because of sexual orientation or skin color,” Gorham wrote. “I was reacting to a crime, not a transgender person of color.”
Xochitl doesn’t buy the apology.
In a private message she shared with The Oregonian/OregonLive, Gorham threatened to kick Xochitl “in your little man (vulgar term for a woman’s genitalia).”
“He knows what he was doing when he used (that vulgarity),” Xochitl wrote. “And he for sure knew what he was doing going through my Instagram pulling screenshots to try and doxx me.”
In the same exchange, Gorham tells Xochitl that local television news station KOIN news was “picking up this story” and that the “police had been notified.” After a heated back and forth over Middle Eastern politics, Gorham asked if Xochitl was a “nazi.” (Until this week, Gorham was the majority owner of several Israeli-focused restaurants, including two locations of Shalom Y’all; Xochitl calls herself part of the “free Palestine gang.”) In the exchange, Xochitl also tells Gorham that she is “not a tagger.”
Gorham has since deleted his Facebook page, according to the Toro Bravo Inc. statement.
About a month later, as Portland protests over the death of George Floyd neared their fourth week, Xochitl got back in touch with the Gorhams, saying she would send screenshots of Gorham’s social media outbursts to “Pdx eater, the portland mercury and kgw” unless they “settle this out of the public eye”, according to emails provided by the Gorhams.
(On Friday, Xochitl declined to answer questions about the emails and told The Oregonian/OregonLive that the “situation has been resolved” and that she is “ready to be done with it.”)
On Monday, John Gorham replied with an apology for his “extremely immature outbreak,” pointing to his struggles adapting to COVID-19, the string of vandalism incidents and his 2018 brain surgery as reasons why he “went red.”
“(I have) had surgery in the part of the brain that controls emotions,” John Gorham wrote to Xochitl. “I have been working hard to rewire my brain but sometimes my anger and depression gets away from me. I take medicines and see counselors twice a week to address these issues.”
John Gorham offered to pay $5,000 — the amount he originally offered as a bounty — “to a nonprofit that focuses on LGBTQ rights or to the rights of people of color, your choice.”
Xochitl countered that Gorham should send the money to her instead “for having to deal with harassment.” She wrote that she would direct half the funds, or $2,500, to the Native American Youth and Family Center, and included her Venmo account.
“I don’t think you understand the scope of the influence you wield,” Xochitl wrote. “I am unwilling to budge on these terms. If there is any deviation from what I have proposed I will go public with this story.”
Instead, John Gorham gave the full $5,000 to the Native American Youth and Family Center, providing a screenshot of the donation and writing that he would ”face the outcomes of the anger I expressed that day.”
On Tuesday night, Toro Bravo issued its press release, which included a version of the apology from John Gorham had sent to Xochitl, plus a breakdown of the incident and screenshots of the Facebook posts and ensuing correspondence with Xochitl. In an Eater PDX story about the blowup that evening, John Gorham said he needs “to learn how to better coexist with the Black and Asian communities in Portland.”
Late Tuesday, John Gorham said he made an agreement to sell his ownership in Toro Bravo’s “Team Ron” portfolio of restaurants — Mediterranean Exploration Company in the Pearl District, two Shalom Y’all’s, two Bless Your Heart burgers, the new Southeast Portland falafel shop Mama Sesame and Southwest Portland’s upcoming Y’alla — co-owned with partners Ron Avni and chef Kasey Mills.
In a phone interview early Wednesday, Renee Gorham said she had been up since 2:30 a.m. comforting her husband through a series of “pretty severe anxiety attacks,” eventually taking him to a psychiatric hospital for help.
In a follow-up interview later that morning, Renee Gorham told The Oregonian/OregonLive that she would be taking control of the company, and that a process would be put in place for transferring her husband’s majority stake in the remaining restaurants to her.
”John has been removed from any private or public-facing role with Toro Bravo Inc.,” Renee Gorham said, acknowledging that her husband’s anger issues preceded his brain surgery. “I do not condone his behavior in any way.”
Asked for an update on John Gorham’s condition Thursday, Renee Gorham responded simply with, “He’s alive.”
In retrospect, Xochitl said that it “may have been in poor taste to mock a business struggling with property damage amid a pandemic,” but that John Gorham is a “wildly successful and influential individual.” She even owned his cookbook, she said.
In a phone interview Thursday, Renee Gorham said she remains open to meeting Xochitl in a safe space of her choosing, as John Gorham had suggested in his apology.
“Had this blown up a year ago, it wouldn’t have been so big,” Renee Gorham said. “But it doesn’t take away from the fact that it did, and in this moment in time, there should be this response, and I understand.”
Asked what she would like to see from the Gorhams moving forward, Xochitl said she hopes the couple learns from the experience, makes improvements for “current staff who fall under the LGBTQ+/POC banner” and continues to support youth programs “without having their arm twisted to do so.”