When Jenn Louis first landed in Portland, OR to attend the Western Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts), the southern California native recalls there were just a handful of chef-owned restaurants—including Cory Schreiber’s Wildwood, where she launched her own life in the kitchen as a line cook. “You kind of forget because you are so busy doing your own thing every day, but now there are so many,” she says. “The hippies put a lot of energy into farming in the Sixties and Seventies, and there is always such great product available here.”
Amid the saturated culinary landscape of Portland, where a die-hard reverence for the locavore movement is immortalized—and playfully mocked—in episodes of Portlandia, Louis often finds herself in the limelight for her honest, simple cooking. Lincoln, which debuted in the city’s “fifth quadrant,” or North Portland, in 2008, embraces a sophisticated spin on Pacific Northwest ingredients, gracefully bridging the gap between modern and rustic through dishes like semolina apple fritters with crispy apples and pickled chile aioli, and carrot risotto accompanied by fennel pollen and a poached duck egg.
Three years later, she and her husband, bar manager David Welch, debuted Sunshine Tavern. At this more playful affair in Southeast’s restaurant row, guests drink margaritas from the slushy machine, wait for their crispy oyster sandwiches with a game of Ms. Pac-Man, and end the night with soft-serve honey ice cream.
But while she success is clear now, Louis says a cooking career was never an option growing up in her conservative family. She went to Pitzer College, obtained a liberal arts degree, and started traveling, with plans to become a teacher. “I had a friend who worked for Outward Bound cooking for basecamp instructors, and when she told me she was leaving she suggested I take it. I begged myself into the job,” she recalls. It was during those enlightening stints, cooking in the wilds of North Carolina and Florida, that Louis realized the artistic dreams she always harbored could best be articulated in the kitchen.
Paying homage her family’s Jewish and Eastern European roots, Louis’ cooking style is rooted in tradition and comfort. “I was lucky as a kid in the Seventies that we didn’t eat fast food. Occasionally we’d have a Hungry Man frozen dinner, but my mom cooked. We had fresh challah every Friday, roast chicken, and brisket. A stay-at-home mom was a luxury,” she says. “My grandmother made cottage cheese pancakes that she’d roll up and bake and serve with sour cream. When someone immigrates, you usually only have two or three generations where the food stays intact.”
Louis, however, is not one to forget the rituals of the past. The curious, James Beard Award-nominated chef is an avid traveler who finds inspiration in seemingly humble settings. Here, she shares the 10 dishes that solidified her appreciation for the craft of cooking.