The Mother of Mother’s

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno
April 2011

Chef Lisa Schroeder has turned “maternal” into a business model. After a career change and training at the top echelon of New York’s fine-dining restaurants, Lisa Schroeder moved to Portland to open a restaurant designed to nurture customers the way a mother would—with kid-friendly comfort food. She took a mother's aptitude for maximizing product utilization, and above all, a reasonable budget, and made them into a successful business.

The idea for Mother’s was born years before its opening, when juggling a marketing job and part-time catering gig left Schroeder little time for cooking for her daughter. She searched in vain for take-out food that could substitute for the food she would cook for her daughter if she had time. Schroeder was determined to create a restaurant that served that kind of food. On a leap of faith, she cast aside her jobs and enrolled at the CIA. “I wanted to know ’the’ way of doing things and that’s why I went to the Culinary Institute of America,” she explains. After graduating, she worked at Le Cirque and Lespinasse in New York before taking her training to Portland.

In 2000, Schroeder opened the restaurant she had dreamed of eight years before. Mamma Mia Trattoria followed a few years later—the same concept of Mother’s approachable comfort food, but with regional Italian dishes.

Working Mothers

Schroeder’s daughter was older by the time she opened Mother’s, but juggling the roles of mother (and now grandmother) has had its challenges. Schroeder felt it was important to pay her dues without complaining. “There’s very little support in a restaurant kitchen for any weaklings and any kind of special need. There’s no crying in baseball, and it’s the same thing in the kitchen,” she says. And she didn’t see a support network in the industry for working mothers. Women “working in some of the bigger kitchens have to figure it out for themselves. While a guy might not hesitate to help another guy lift a stockpot across the room, women have to do it themselves and are made to feel like if they ask for help they’ll be demeaned or put down.”

Schroeder thinks her success is due to her earning her stripes and not leaping into opening a business before she could hold her own in the best kitchens. And clearly it has paid off, as Mother’s and Mamma Mia Trattoria are wall-to-wall packed with customers every day.

A Constant Juggling Act

The breakfast crowd at Mother’s is a table-turning, fast, and furious juggling act, and on Mother’s Day it’s more akin to miracle-working. The restaurant feeds 830 people in five and a half hours of Mother’s Day brunch service. And they all want to get their table immediately and linger over their special occasion meal. “What really sets Mother’s Day apart is that a lot of people want to eat at Mother’s and they expect a reservation—we have to respect [the] fact [that] they don’t want to have to wait,” says Schroeder.

As if the sheer volume wasn’t enough of a challenge, Schroeder adds an entire menu of specials on Mother’s Day, in addition to serving the regular menu. If it were up to Schroeder, she’d order the Portobello Asiago Scramble, lightened with egg whites, but her signature breakfast dish will always be Crunchy French Toast, made with challah bread and coated in corn flakes. In her cookbook Mother’s Best Schroeder showcases recipes like this in a home cook-friendly way, including detailed notes for the cook in the form of “Love Notes.”

Biscuits and Gravy is another perennial favorite. The dish also exemplifies a mother’s horror for throwing out good product: toasted and sausage gravy-smothered biscuits served on the breakfast menu had their first life as a side at dinner the night before.

During her time in fine dining restaurants, tossing out the scraps from her tournés and juliennes, Schroeder was appalled by waste. Almost every dish on the menu at Mother’s is cost effective and geared towards avoiding waste. And while she maximizes product, Schroeder never cuts corners when it comes to the ingredients. “Being in the Pacific Northwest, we can’t resist including fresh wild salmon even on our breakfast menu,” says Schroeder. And so her Salmon Hash sees local wild salmon and creamy leeks play side by side with roasted red potatoes. She also insists on an in-house bread program, regardless of the cost.

Wearing Many Hats

Beyond gaining the technique and experience to pull off comfort food the way she does, Schroeder’s role as a mother ultimately prepared her for Mother’s. As a mother first and chef second, she learned to make food “[that’s] low cost, doesn’t take a long time to prepare, and keeps well in case family members don’t all get to the table at the same time.” In that respect, Schroeder had the best preparation for the comfort food-obsessed of Portland. “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 clientele rarely includes children.” Schroeder translates the demands of a working mother into a viable empire, and ever the determined businesswoman, she’s already hard at work on another upcoming project, about which she’s currently mum (so to speak).