Interview with Chef-owner Lisa Schroeder of Mother’s – Portland, OR

April 2011

Francoise Villeneuve: What first inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Lisa Schroeder: I was working for Weight Watchers International, spending 13 hours a day at a job I didn’t love, trying to get people to buy things they didn’t need and catering on the side. I was doing takeout because I had to feed my daughter. I would always do Thai, Mexican, or Chinese, but there was no place to get food I would make if I had the time. That's when the idea of Mother's hatched. I was determined to open up a restaurant that served the kind of food mothers would make if they had the time. I would spend all my spare time reading about food, talking about food, and catering, and I didn't care how little I made, I had to follow my passion.

FV: How did it evolve from there? How did you get to Mother’s?
LS: At the age of 35 and with a child to support I chucked it all and went to The Culinary Institute of America. It was the best 21 months of my life. I cooked at Le Cirque and Lespinasse. When Le Cirque closed, I decided to go to Europe, first to Spain, then Italy, France and Morocco. I staged in France, and learned a lot on my trip and ate my way through Europe. I returned three months later and began working at Lespinasse. I met a guy here in Portland and I always knew I'd open my dream restaurant in a city other than New York. Then, when I met Rob it was crystal clear ‘Portland needs me.’ So in 1997, I moved to Portland, Oregon, and spent two years working as chef in a small café—Beesaw’s in Northwest Portland. Then I opened Mother's in January 2000. The beautiful thing is that my food is perfect for Portland. This is a city of SUVs and utility vans and filled with immigrants and pioneers and people who appreciate hearty fare. You'd think chicken and dumplings wouldn't sell in July but in Portland it does. There's so much rain and discomfort outside, they really do love the warm and fuzzy of Mother's inside.

FV: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
LS: The Culinary Institute of America was the best 21 months of my life. I'd spend my whole life there if I could, living, breathing, talking about food. Chefs come from all over to teach there. I don't necessarily require a culinary school background to be successful at my restaurant. The most important ingredient for a cook is intelligence and common sense. If you've got those two things the rest is easy.

FV: What advice would you add to young cooks who are just getting started?
LS: Accept the fact that you have to pay your dues. You have students coming out of cooking school thinking they are chefs. When I graduated at 38 I was cleaning cases of ramps. I understood that I had to earn my stripes, pay my dues, and develop skills to be a good manager in a kitchen. Nothing happens overnight and you have to learn by doing. Culinary school is merely a foundation.

FV: Did being a mother change your ideas about what kind of business you wanted to run?
LS: Absolutely. I think that a lot of chefs have no idea what a family might want to eat. They know what their clientele wants to eat but that rarely includes children. Once you’ve been a mother, cooking is low cost and doesn’t take a long time to prepare, so it bodes well for family members that won’t always arrive at the table at the same time. I remember hearing Eric Ripert saying he didn’t cook at home and he just got his first toaster oven. It’s interesting to take the knowledge of a chef, and apply it. [For the ‘M.O.M.’ section of the menu] mothers show me way they do something, then I adjust and make it culinarily sound.

FV: Does your role as a mother and grandmother inform your success as a chef and business owner?
LS: No. What’s led to my success is that I paid my dues and took the necessary steps. Back in 1992, I knew how to cook, but I was adamant about wanting to go to cooking school, work in good restaurants, and work the line—and that’s what led to my success—the understanding that it doesn’t happen overnight. I set out to learn it before starting my own restaurant.

FV: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
LS: Well, I'm a member of IACP, WCR, Chefs Collaborative, Slow Food, then I teach when I can. In fact, I'm doing a free class on salmon gefilte fish here. We use salmon because whitefish and pike are not common ingredients here! I'm also involved in the business community. I talk to business owners about my business success. I was the keynote speaker on business success when I spoke to women entrepreneurs recently. I’m going to a local elementary school to talk about my career choices. I try to be involved in the entire community, but also a piece of a greater whole that is Portland, not just food. It's just really important to me that I use my restaurant for causes I believe in. I donate meals and let people use my space for their causes. Again, I'm thankful that I've been given the gift of having my own restaurant. I want it to be for the public, not always for financial gain.

FV: What’s your philosophy on food and dining?
LS: When I was working at Lespinasse and had the job of making roasted vegetables skewers, we would roast whole beets, turnips and sweet potatoes. We cut them into a perfect square, then we threw away the rest of the vegetable. I swore as I was trimming them that I would never open up a restaurant that just caters to the rich, that I needed to feed more people and didn’t want to be just a special occasion restaurant, and didn't want to cater to just people who could afford my food. Even though I earned my stripes in 4-star restaurants, I can't abide some of the waste and disrespect for the universe that often occurs in those kitchens. I understand that chefs say, “this mise en place is from yesterday” and throw it in the garbage, but really? I can't do that. So I find ways to use things so they're still great. The biscuit that’s on the table for dinner is still amazing topped with gravy so there’s a way of being economical and respecting the universe and simultaneously offering delicious food like mother would do—because those are the values that are important to me. Mothers always cooked locally because mother wasn't serving her children strawberries in December. She waited until they were in season. That's how we roll. It's challenging, but I do it when I can. As asparagus season hits we buy local asparagus and use it in a Mac and Cheese, serve it as an appetizer, and it becomes our veg at night, so I wait until it's peak season and then go whole hog. That's how families always used to eat.

FV: What goes into creating a dish?
LS: I'm always inspired when I dine out and I do eat out quite a bit. Whenever I travel I'm always trying local favorites as well as more haute cuisine restaurants. I'm always inspired, so we'll start with a spark then I'll see how I can apply it to what I do, my philosophy on cooking, and adapt it for my guests.

FV: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
LS: Serving quality food for every guest every day is a challenge in and of itself. On Saturday and Sunday we feed 750 people for brunch and I always say Mr. 653 does not care that 652 people were fed in front of him, so I'm constantly here. I'm always tasting and making sure the food is done correctly. The biggest challenge is ensuring quality even though we do the numbers, it’s serving quality while still doing quantity, and I never cut corners. Even in these economic times when people might be raising their prices, if my eyes are opened to something that's better…like I did a butter tasting and I could not ignore the fact the one tasted like cream and the others didn't. Now I'm paying more for butter and that's happened with lots of things. I've learned a lot about salmon over the years. I thought farm raised was OK, then I learned about how it effects the environment.

FV: What trends do you see emerging here in Portland?
LS: Portland is very value-oriented and earthy and no matter how may la di da restaurants open up in this city, they're challenged to stay in business because I don't think there’s the clientele. As much as they keep trying to say it's the next culinary capital, they get good press and serve delicious food, how busy they are and how long they'll be there…I just don't know if this community can support it. In New York everybody’s looking for the next thing. I don't think people are hell bent on finding the next thing here.

FV: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career?
LS: Besides my grandchildren, the fact that I had a dream of opening up a restaurant called Mother’s. Everything I did for 8 years was preparing me for it. I did it and I'm still doing it 11 years after I opened, and 19 years after I had the idea, and thank God, we're thriving. I’ve expanded this space and I have Mamma Mia Trattoria down the block.

FV: Where do you go on your days off?
LS: More and more restaurants are trying to do their own charcuterie. Olympic Provisions do their own charcuterie. John at Toro Bravo—his stuff is very approachable. It's not radically different, but it's really good. And the Thai food in this town is really exceptional. There’s one trying to be upscale—Typhoon—it's not cheap, it's tasty, but some of the more down and dirty ones are good. Esan is really delicious. Their food is just exceptionally delicious. Not too fish saucy. It's not on the map but it's just really good. I think a really good Mexican place is Nuestra Cuisina. Ben Gonzalez is Mexican food on the east side—really refined and delicious Mexican cuisine.

FV: What’s next for you?
LS: Cutting back. I need to start living life. Life is too short and I need to start living it. I work a minimum of 60 hours a week but every day is a double day. When somebody works a double and they're all tuckered out, I just laugh. That’s one double! Yes, I would like to do some TV. I rent a little space around the corner. I'm calling it Mother’s Cupboard maybe? I'm not committing. I'll probably sell some of our food retail, packaged stuff, and do classes there.