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Grilled In a Minute: Jenn Louis

Julie Mautner / June 21st, 2012

Jenn Louis is the chef/co-owner of Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern, both in Portland, Oregon. She was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs for 2012.

Born and raised in Pomona, California, she graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and set out to travel the world. Back in the States, she took a job cooking at several Outward Bound base camps, and that’s where the epiphany struck: Cooking was her passion, and it could lead to a successful and fulfilling career. So off she went to the Western Culinary Institute of Portland and soon found herself on the line at one of the city’s most prominent restaurants, Wildwood.

In 2008, with her husband, David Welch, Louis opened Lincoln Restaurant, known for pristine Pacific Northwest ingredients, rustic yet elegant cooking, and a sophisticated beverage program. In 2011, the duo opened Sunshine Tavern, serving “unfussy soul-satisfying” food made from high-quality ingredients.

Louis also owns and operates a full-service event planning company called Culinary Artistry, offering everything from floral arrangements and valet services to elaborate culinary spreads. She works closely with the local Conventions and Visitor Bureau to serve as Portland’s unofficial culinary spokesperson and often travels to share news about Portland’s vibrant restaurant scene.

What was it like cooking for Outward Bound? What skills did you pick up that have helped you in your restaurants?
It was amazing! I could cook anything I wanted, and the staff was always hungry, so they were game to try anything. I learned to cook creatively and how to make something when you think you have nothing.

Such as?
Just simple things. When I had no food deliveries coming in for a couple days, I might make a vegetable curry with rice, a frittata with lots of vegetables, or fresh pasta (eggs and flour on hand) with a bit of bacon, adding egg and grating cheese for carbonara.

So what’s it like working every day with your husband?
It’s great and challenging at the same time. Working with a spouse can be very intense, so we have to work on it all the time! Vacations are key!

Best advice you ever received?
A sous chef took me into a full walk-in and asked what I saw. I said “food.” He said, “No…money.”

Meaning?
Running a kitchen is wonderful, you can be incredibly creative. But if you can’t run your kitchen well financially—and manage your inventory well—your kitchen will fail. Business and creativity come hand in hand for a great kitchen.

Worst advice you ever received?
When I messed up a project with a new ingredient, a culinary school teacher once said: “Don’t be so creative, stick with what you know.”

Best tip for a young chef just starting out?
Don’t get rigid. Keep trying new dishes and keep learning. Don’t be afraid that every dish won’t be perfect. Practice makes better.

Best tip for a young restaurateur?
Listen to your customers and never become disconnected from them. Be flexible. You have to be able to make fluid changes in order to keep a thoughtful and strong business running well.

What’s been the hardest part of your career?
When the economy fell apart, my successful catering business of eight years lost the support of regular clients. I had worked so hard for so many years, and it was hard to lose momentum because of something I had no control over.

Did you have a mentor? Who was it, and how did they best help and nurture your career?
I’ve never had a mentor.

Any chef, alive or dead, you'd particularly love to work with…and why? I would have loved to work with Julia Child. Her energy and spirit for learning was amazing. I met her in Portland when she dined at the restaurant where I was working. She was vivacious and amazing.

Last great meal in a restaurant not your own?
Maialino in New York City. A really special celebratory meal.

Thing you would most like to change about yourself?
I wish I were more patient.

Thing your husband would most like to change about you?
Ha! Patience, probably.

For an eating trip, where would you go now…and why?
I would definitely go to Spain. I haven’t been in years and would love to learn more about their food.

City/country you most want to visit for any reason next…and why?
Montreal: I hear it’s amazing. And I’m a big fan of Canada.

What’s your idea of late night snacking bliss? What do you eat when no one is watching?
Is Bourbon a food?

What do you do for fun?
I play the drums.

Biggest regret?
I don’t really believe in regrets. You can’t go back and change anything, just learn from what you’ve done and do a better job in the future.

How important is culinary school these days?
Culinary school is just a foundation; lots and lots of practice is needed after.

How do you train your team to handle customer complaints?
We try to be very thoughtful and filter all feedback. Much of it helps us grow as professionals. We try to make issues better for the guest and make our business stronger by implementing new systems when needed.

What are you serving a lot of these days?
Octopus, rabbit, strozzapreti, and lots of varieties of gnocchi.

What is Portland like for an ambitious chef/restaurateur? Is the public demanding, supportive, etc.?
Yes, they love food! Portlanders tend to spend more entertainment dollars on dining and are very excited about trying new dishes, as well as cooking themselves.

If not this, then what? What would your second choice of career have been?
I love business and think that marketing is very interesting. I also love playing the drums, but think that touring would be tiring.

For someone who dreams of a career like yours, what’s the very best advice you can offer?
Whatever you do, work hard and do your best every day. Craftsmanship.