Community Chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant

Community Chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln Restaurant
November 2011

2011 Portland Rising Star Community Chef Jenn Louis has a philosophy on food: “Keep it consistent, simple, and purposeful.” It’s an approach that has driven her culinary career to date, hand in hand with a healthy dose of moxie, and a deep sense of social responsibility. After graduating from Pitzer College in Los Angeles, Louis spent time traveling in Europe, North and South America, and South Africa. A thirst for adventure later drove her from the West Coast of the United States to the deep woods of North Carolina, then on to the Florida Keys and the Everglades.

During her U.S. adventures, Louis began cooking and instructing rehab courses in the wilderness with Outward Bound. She found herself more at home in the kitchen, but her love of working with not-for-profits never faded. Armed with a focus, Louis set about formalizing her training at the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, working her way through Portland kitchens before landing a job at Wildwood Restaurant and Bar.

Working in restaurants kicked Louis’s inner entrepreneur into gear. In 2000, she opened a catering company called Culinary Artistry, and soon earned respect as a top Portland caterer. She built on this success in the summer of 2008 with the opening of Lincoln,and a menu that coaxes the freshest Pacific Northwest ingredients into hearty fare that takes its cue from the seasons. In spring 2011, Louis opened Sunshine Tavern with husband and partner David Welch. The neighborhood spot has kid-friendly bar food, unlimited Donkey Kong/Ms. Pac Man, and soft serve ice cream.

But even while juggling a catering company and two restaurants, Louis carves out time to teach cooking classes at a homeless youth shelter, work with the farmers market, help Growing Gardens provide working kitchen gardens for low income families, and participate in Janus Youth Programs, and Dining with Dignity. Not only that, her cuisine never flags; in 2010 and 2011 she was a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for “Best Chef Northwest.”

Interview with Portland Rising Star Community Chef Jenn Louis of Lincoln - Portland, OR

Francoise Villeneuve: What first inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Jenn Louis: It’s funny because it was never really an option. I went to college and I did the whole thing, four years straight through; it was expected in my family. I come from a very traditional family, but when I graduated from college, I traveled a bunch and I got a job on a fluke cooking with the Outward Bound school. A friend of mine was cooking there. I moved to North Carolina and worked on a base camp with the managers and course directors. Everything had to be made from scratch. I had to work with the budget they gave me, and even as a nonprofit, it was pretty slim. It was the best experience I had as far as being creative and cooking, but also managing a budget and people.

FV: Do you prefer to hire cooks with culinary school backgrounds or without? Does it matter to you?
It doesn’t matter to me. I have some cooks who’ve gone to school, some who haven’t. I can see those who have gone to school have had experience that the cooks that haven’t been to school don't, but those cooks have worked from the ground up, washing dishes, etc. It’s the way you place yourself in the experience you have and the interest you have in learning and growing. Some of my absolute best cooks have not been to culinary school, and they do a great job.

FV: What do you think you’d be doing right now if you weren’t a chef?
Right this second I’d be in the Bahamas. When I was a kid I always wanted to do something creative, but I couldn’t paint and I couldn’t draw. And when I started cooking I realized that was the thing. I realized creativity didn’t have to be fine arts. That is the only thing I’ve done to satisfy that creativity, but I also really love business and the pieces that go along with business.

FV: Tell us about getting your catering business off the ground. How did you go about opening Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern?
When I was 25, I moved to Portland to go to culinary school, and I worked in restaurants for probably two years. I started cooking dinners in people’s homes and very small dinners for 12 people. From there my catering business really took off. My husband’s a journalist by trade, but he has always worked in the food industry and he really wanted to open a restaurant. I had done everything in the catering business, but I was ready for some change. For a long, long time, I said I would never open a restaurant, and when he finally said he wanted to stop doing journalism, we decided to do it. Other than the bank and our loans, we don’t have any investors. We opened Lincoln in 2008, and then in April of 2011, we opened Sunshine as a more neighborhood kind of place.

FV: Is there anything you wish you had known before opening your own place?
JL: I wish I knew that the economy was going to fall apart. That was really hard. The neighborhood we chose for Lincoln is a very interesting and historic neighborhood but there’s a lot of vacant land, and it was slated to be developed right after we opened. All of that got pulled. We’re certainly a destination restaurant, and that was challenging because it’s becoming a busier neighborhood but the condos that were supposed to open would have brought a clientele that would have been good for our business. That’s probably one of the hardest things.

FV: How are you involved in the local culinary community?
JL: I teach cooking classes at a homeless youth shelter. I work with the farmers’ market. I do a lot of philanthropy for target youth. I also work with Growing Gardens; they go into low income families' homes and teach them how to grow food in their gardens. We've participated in some fundraisers that are citywide for the Tsunami in Japan, as well. There are so many people who love food and embrace food. A lot of people who don't work in the industry end up doing a lot with those organization; you just find projects and charities you want to be a part of.

FV: What’s next for you?
I have a few thoughts, and they’re probably not restaurant related. But one of my goals is to give my chef de cuisine a vacation. Right now I’d like to get Sunshine off the ground and balance my creativity before I jump into everything else. Right now, I’m focused on getting everybody what they need. I’d like to be as present as I can for a while to keep everything well balanced.