Chef Aaron Barnett of St. Jack

Chef Aaron Barnett of St. Jack
November 2011

2011 Portland Rising Star Aaron Barnett grew up in Canada in a household of foodies—he ate frog’s legs for the first time at the age of eight. Barnett’s family moved to the United States when he was a teenager, where he eventually enrolled in the California School of Culinary Arts’ Cordon Bleu program to pursue his longtime goal of becoming a chef. Barnett externed in his native Canada at Lumière in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was immediately taken with the flavors and produce available in the Pacific Northwest. Diving headfirst into the vast array of available ingredients, he began to put together the building blocks that would become his signature style. During this exciting time, he also became an assistant to Chef Rob Feenie on the television show, “New Classics, with Rob Feenie” on Food Network Canada.

Barnett moved to San Francisco to work under Gary Danko, and he soon took a sous chef position at up-and-coming Myth in San Francisco under Chef Sean O’Brien. In little under a year, Barnett was made executive chef at the Desert Sage in La Quinta, California. After a move and an executive chef role at Olea in Portland, Oregon, Barnett was wooed to the highly regarded 23Hoyt, where he was fortunate enough to participate in a James Beard dinner. After he was introduced to restaurateur Kurt Huffman of Chefstable, the two teamed in 2010 up to open St. Jack—a modern take on a traditional Lyonnaise bouchon. It’s here that Barnett puts the sophistication learned at Gary Danko to work, breathing new life into French bistro staples.

Interview with Portland Rising Star Chef Aaron Barnett of St. Jack - Portland, OR

Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Aaron Barnett: My family. They didn't want me to cook, but it was just one of those things that happened. I went to university in Santa Barbara, at UCSB, and then in Canada, so when I finally went to culinary school, at LA’s Le Cordon Bleu program, I was 23. I was never quite sure what I wanted to do until then.

FV: Do you hire chefs without a culinary school background?
AB: I think that when I went it was far less expensive. I grew up in a household jam-packed with food and food knowledge. For some it's probably a wonderful thing to go to culinary school. My only problem with it is the high cost.

FV: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
AB: Work your ass off and don't complain. You have to understand when you get into cooking that you're probably going to be broke for a good, long time.

FV: How are you involved in your local culinary community?
AB: Right now we're developing relationships with more and more farmers, like people who raise beef, raise lamb, and forage. A good number of things you can get here are foraged from the woods. We have a salad of 20 different mixed greens, using these types of products.

FV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
AB: I don't overthink it. I want guests to sit down and eat the meal and enjoy it. Today people get so caught up with nitpicking every dish and wanting to know how every single detail of that thing is made. They get so caught up in technicalities that they lose the romance of cooking.

FV: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
AB: It hasn’t been that bad here. I work a lot but that's to be expected. The community has been extremely supportive—press, other chefs, and guests were strangely excited for this type of restaurant to open up.

FV: What’s next for you? Where will we find you in five years?
AB: I just wanna get to a stable point. There's still a lot to do here. We need to keep pushing and try to find ways of bringing interesting preparations into our menu.