If Portland were to elect a culinary ambassador, Jason Francis French would be high in the running. He wouldn’t necessarily be appointed for his own exceptional cooking skills, nor his notoriety as a restaurateur, but rather his belief in the energy of our city and the artisan food culture that makes Portland a primary destination for anyone who loves to eat.
When I first met Jason to discuss an idea I had to promote a Portland food-based vacation to New Yorkers and others who might enjoy the unexplored territory of the Northwest and its artisan vibe, his eyes glowed widely behind his horn-rimmed glasses, like a kid who had just discovered the coolest candy store in town and couldn’t wait to tell all his friends.
When French and his former business partner visited a failed pizza joint that had only a wood-fired oven and no room for a stove or traditional kitchen, they decided to make it work. He planted a garden behind the space and used the produce to supplement ingredients that he sourced at local markets and farms.
French recently took time out of his hectic professional and family life to talk a bit about Ned Ludd, the Food Network and his top five, ok seven, Portland food highs.
What drew you to Portland?
Yeah, the story is I was teaching culinary school in Boulder, Colorado and I was having an awesome lifestyle, but I was like itching to get back in the kitchen. You are either a cook or a chef, and I wanted to be a chef. The woman I was dating was moving out here. I had worked for a chef in D.C. He came out here, and he was like freaking out about God’s Country and the seasonal milk shakes at Burgerville, you know. So, after going through some radical food transition stuff myself – I had done vegan, I had done raw, I had done cleansing and then I get out here to visit her and I went to the Farmers Market on this rainy day in October. It was like the most transforming experience just because I realized like, oh all of this stuff is here. It’s all happening here like 70 miles, a 100 miles, a 120 miles from the city, whereas in Colorado you would talk about peaches from the west range, and that’s like four and a half hours away and lamb from Wyoming was three and a half hours away. Access here was really different. I got back in the car and I had this epiphany moment. So I moved here to be a chef with my ten-page resume because, in teaching I had done a lot of TV spots and had a lot of like newspaper articles written about me. So I had all the big spots that I knew here. And then I met Vitaly Paley at a party.
You are a marketing guy, but you don’t want to be considered a marketing guy.
Yes, I’m always marketing. As a chef you don’t get into this without wanting some recognition for what you do. But the game is the game. If you get recognized in anything, you then start the game. You know there are a lot of chefs who are amazingly talented, kicking out great food and running great businesses everywhere in the USA that never get any recognition. So then the game begins and well, now it’s been put out there. Can you keep it up? I pay attention a lot to branding
and marketing and I don’t think I’ve figured out away that I want to best represent Ned Ludd yet.
You wear so many hats. Doesn’t it require discipline to run a successful Portland restaurant?
I was probably faking it in the kitchens where I was required to be super disciplined. I am not a great discipline person. But I’ve worked in so many kitchens, and I have been doing it for so long and have studied the masters, so I know how to be that. I can be super-focused and intense, but it’s more creative spontaneity that drives me.
Who has influenced you here most as a chef?
As a chef it would be Morgan [Brownlow] and Vitaly [Paley] who were the two people who I worked for. But the funny thing about Vitaly is that we didn’t really get along and we get along better now than when I was working for him. It was partially because of Vitaly’s ability to come up with a dish, whether it was influenced from outside or not, but his ideas were pretty amazing. And just the way that they ran that restaurant versus every other place in Portland – like nothing touches it. They kind of remind me of Chanterelle in New York, where I think they both worked, where it’s fine-dining and it’s like they care so f**king much.
It’s almost obsessive caring about their staff and all the attention to details, that it almost shouldn’t work. And of course Vitaly’s a dreamer, a musician and very creative and so he’s like got projects and side things and self-promotion. But seeing him operate in the Northwest and the difference of like coming from New York to Portland was a very real thing and yet, then he would call me too East Coast. And then Morgan and just because Morgan’s so crazily awesome. You know he is just, he is so good. So talented. (Morgan Brownlow now co-owns Tails and Trotters, producers and suppliers of Northwest-grown hazelnut-finished pork and charcuterie).
Where do you see Portland in the food universe?
I would say ingredient-wise I’ll go to bat with any city in America. I’ll go to bat with a lot of cities with our access to high-quality ingredients. That’s all here. Wine, beer, spirits, cheese, bread, produce and meat. Here, compared to the big cities though, you probably give up polish and you give up service, and I don’t mean service in a way where like you get bad service in Portland although a lot of people complain that you do, cause there’s kind of a “holier than thou” that goes on. But great restaurants in other cities in America, the level of service is old school – as Danny Meyer points out in his book, where they genuinely care about your experience. Not that we care about your life story and your children, but like, we care about you, and we want you to have a good experience.
“I would say ingredient-wise I’ll go to bat with any city in America…. with our access to high quality ingredients….compared to the big cities though, you probably give up polish…”
But here the experience is kind of downplayed and that’s why carts are so popular. Standing in the rain and eating a burrito is not a good experience but relative to paying more, it’s not a bad experience. At a restaurant, it’s food, service, and ambiance. Those are the three things that are engaged every single time. You have a good experience that resonates with you and you have this emotional response to it, but if you are just going to eat to f**king fill your stomach,
you know, what can you expect? And a lot of people do that. Welcome to the American food culture.
Restaurants are a fully class-based reality. Are there poorer people living in Portland than other cities? No. Is there a creative class that also likes food? Yes. Oh, there’s the carts. How weird? How weird that that demographic is a reality in our restaurant scene. It’s not really weird. It’s basic sociology. Cuisine comes out of disposable income. If you look at the history of cuisine you know, at Ned Ludd we cook a lot of like what we call our grandmother’s cooking or peasant American food, and yet I’m French-trained so it’s sort of like this mashup of food ideologies. I want people to have an awesome experience, like they would in restaurants of old. But you know, I am not afraid to do, kind of like country cooking, but the reality of cuisine is that it is always the dominant class who created the cuisine. You know, the peasants weren’t going to the big Roman orgies and feasting, but nobody is really reading about what the peasants were eating. They were living on whatever they could scrape by on.
What has the food media like the Food Network done to our culture?
The studies are there. It’s entertainment. The whole thing about the Food Network and Bravo and Top Chef, like people don’t really f**king want to be a chef, they just want to see how dismal a person who wants to be a chef can be made to feel.
It was born out of the cult and personality of chefs and then the focus shifted because suddenly there were celebrities, and you know, none of those top guys got to where they are because they are super nice and really thoughtful with their cooks and really committed towards being a good person. They were like brought up in a world of hardcore military-style kitchens, where you learned a ton. And if you had the passion to drive, you could be whatever you wanted. You could write your tickets from those kitchens, but like they were f**king a**holes, like straight up, you know, hard people to work for, demanding. But then that became what everybody wants to see.
So then who are the a**holes in Portland?
I’m an a**hole in Portland, if you want to know the truth (laughing). No, no, no. I’m saying that in my early days in kitchens in Portland, I was considered East Coast. And that’s slang for a**hole.
Alright, as an East Coaster myself, I have experienced that. Top five food experiences in Portland. Go.
John Gorham’s duck gnocchi when he was at Tuscany Grill. Vitaly Paley’s bone marrow and escargot. Anniversary with my wife at Le Pigeon. A picnic I had in Laurelhurst Park with my wife – everything from Cheese Bar for that one. Late night alone at Biwa. Actually Troy MacLarty made a family supper, and it was the first time my wife ate chicken. He made Boudin and he just nailed it. CJ asked what was in it and at the time didn’t eat winged creatures. After that she was like a bona fide chicken fan. Those would be my top.
Oh and another one! Dinner with Wille from Heart [Roasters] and his wife Rebecca and my wife at DOC was pretty f**king magical. It was amazing actually. I think that’s the jam of Portland right now. Oh my god between Austin and Tim they just they put together the experience… and you can do different wines with every course and these are wines that you will never get in any other restaurant in town. Like Austin does such an amazing job.
That’s seven. How about one here at Ned Ludd?
I say this past New Year’s was epic.
Oh, and another one was Morgan Brownlow’s sole with tagliatelle. Morgan’s pastas at ClarkLewis were phenomenal. It’s a bummer that Morgan’s still not a chef.
Think he’ll ever do it again?
It’s in his blood.
I asked Jason for five of his best food experiences in Portland, and apparently he just couldn’t stop. Visit Ned Ludd for the rest of the list, which, like his menu, probably changes daily.