The Musings and Movings Of Jenn Louis

It takes a lot to become one of the most acclaimed and sought after chefs in Portland, Oregon, but Jenn Louis is not you average chef. Inarguably a wearer of many hats, she's the author of multiple cookbooks, a three-time James Beard nominee, a Top Chef Masters Alum, and founder of some of the most popular Portland restaurants this side of the 21st century. Perhaps most importantly, the decorated chef has a voracious hunger for learning, traveling, and tasting the best food the world has to offer. We sat down with her to talk about unexpected culinary surprises, how to work with exotic ingredients, and how cooking fuels creativity.

Q

Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you became a chef?

A

Becoming a chef wasn’t really an option when I was younger. I grew up in a pretty conservative family and cooking was never really presented to me. What was expected of me was to be a teacher and have kids, you know, the traditional path. After college I got a job, almost on a fluke, in cooking and my world changed. It was the creativity that I always wanted, since I couldn’t draw or paint. I started thinking differently, and it got me really excited. From there I went to culinary school and that was the most creative and energetic thing I’ve ever done.

Q

Where did you go to culinary school?

A

I went to a little school that doesn’t exist anymore in Portland, Oregon. Typically with culinary school, it’s more about what you do when you get out; getting your hands in (the business), getting them dirty, and learning how to cook. It’s a never-ending process. You can specialize in one thing or you can continue to learn about all the facets of cooking, like different vegetables, ethnicities, grains, or meats. There’s so much learning to be done that there’s always more to experience and taste.

Q

From the menus of the your former restaurants, it’s clear that unique, adventurous dishes are appealing to you. What inspires you to think outside of the box when it comes to creating dishes?

A

I’m not one of those cooks who can specialize in only one thing, but I also like to delve really deeply into specific things. Travel inspires me. I love traveling and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel all around the world. Seeing different ingredients, different lifestyles, and unique ways of eating/sharing food is really cool. I think that sometimes there are foods from different cultures that overlap in beautiful ways. It can be elegant or it can be really choppy, so finding that elegance between different ingredients is key. It’s like an artist’s palette. If you’re an oil painter and someone gives you some pastels and paper, you’re going to ask “Oh my god, how do I use this?” It’s that creativity of asking how something works and applying it to your own understanding.

Q

You recently got back from a trip to Israel. What inspired that trip?

A

It was actually my fifth trip! Most people in America have no clue what’s going on there because it’s so diverse. Walking down the street feels like New York City; there are people who’ve moved there from all over the world. The food culture is crazy rich and deep. They’ve got a huge Arabic culture, who have brought flatbreads from nomadic cultures in North Africa and the Middle East, and Israeli breakfast. When Israel was being formed as a Jewish state, they didn’t have much beyond their farms. So they began this thing called Israeli breakfast. There are delicious cheeses, fresh salads, beautiful pastries, and smoked/cured fish that are all amazing. The richness of Yemenite food, Egyptian food, and Libyan food is so legit because it’s such a young country.

Q

They have an up and combing wine scene as well right?

A

I’ve been visiting Israel for about 25 years and the wine scene has completely changed. Israelis are big travelers and they live abroad for large chunks of time, so a lot of them have studied wine around the world. They have world-class facilities and delicious wines, but they haven’t gotten a ton of recognition quite yet. It’s a wonderful community.

Q

What inspired you to write "The Book of Greens?"

A

I wanted to write a book on vegetables, but there are so many great vegetable books out there and I felt like I couldn’t do something new in that realm. "The Book of Greens" came from my desire to dive deeper. I had written a book about pasta and it was very specific book about dumplings (like gnocchi) that hadn’t been talked about throughout much of the country. I got to really dive into all of these handmade pastas that never made it out of the Italian countryside. I wanted to do something like that again so I chose the very specific facet of greens. It goes back to the idea of travel that I love; I would go to Asian markets in different countries and see really cool greens. Different cultures eat greens in all of their foods, but we only eat them in a side or a salad. The book was a really creative way to say “how do we incorporate more greens into our diet and how do we learn about the unique greens we get from the farmers market?”

Q

What underrated greens would you like to see have a greater presence in America?

A

I think we’re doing a really good job right now actually. I break it down into four categories: the stuff you get from the grocery store, the stuff from the “fancy” grocery store, produce from the farmer’s market, and what you’ve grown in your garden. I think the tricked out stuff you grow in your garden is really fun. In my garden, I grow Spanish tarragon and Vietnamese coriander, all these things you don’t typically find. But overall, I think we’re doing a good job of using more chicories! Bitter greens are a challenging flavor for Americans and I think we’ve been growing them a lot more. Asian greens are coming into play too; we have so many Asian grocery stores that stock deep, rich greens. Overall, I think we’re doing a much better job of growing more, having a bigger variety, and going to the farmer’s market to try something unique.

Q

You’ve been known to plan menus around fresh, local produce. What are the benefits and challenges for this type of approach?

A

I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for over 20 years so when I look at menu planning, I think about the season. Whatever is in season produce-wise is what your body needs at that time. There’s a reason that citrus is in season during the winter; your body needs the vitamin C to fight colds and keep your immune system healthy, so I try to go with what’s seasonal. What’s interesting is that what’s seasonal is typically what’s local. We grow enough stuff locally year-round on the west coast that we can provide the best nutrition from nearby places.

Q

What piece of advice would you give to chefs looking to experiment with unexpected or exotic ingredients?

A

When I’m working with something new, I give myself a lot of leeway to fail. That’s okay because failing is part of learning and it will make you better at what you do. So learning to be cool with that and starting with something small is important. A lot of stuff that I ended up doing in my restaurants started with me cooking on my weekends off. I’d do things and think “Oh, that’d be great” and tweak it to fit the restaurant. Also, think about what (the ingredient) is. Take a chicory. If it’s a little bit bitter, then you’ll need to soften some of that bitterness. You can do that by soaking it in some ice water for a half hour and then drying it or by pairing it with softer flavors. For example, try taking radicchio or endive and pairing them with a richer dressing like Caesar. I have a dressing that’s almost like a caesar but I put a lot of tarragon in it and it pairs beautifully. Learning how to balance that is important. Asian Greens, on the other hand, have a ton of flavor on their own and don’t need a lot of other things. They may need a dash of salt, so anchovies or soy sauce can be good options. So when you cook them, keep it simple! Whenever you try something new, think about where it comes from, pair it with flavors from its own ethnicity first because those flavors will go nice together, and experiment from there.

Q

What new and exciting things do you have coming up?

A

I took a little sabbatical after I sold my last restaurant. It’s funny, because I thought I wouldn’t do anything work related, but that didn’t happen. I did some traveling and I’m writing a new book called "The Chicken Soup Manifesto". It’s about chicken soup all over the world and how there are different types of soup, recipes, and flavors based on where they’re from. That’ll be out in the U.S. by the fall of 2020. I’m going to South By Southwest to do some cooking these weekend and I’m also doing some consulting for food service operations and one of my favorite nonprofits, “Alex’s Lemonade Stand”. They raise money for pediatric cancer research and they’re a phenomenal organization. So I’m working in lots of different facets and I’m having a great time.