Jason French is the chef and owner of Ned Ludd in Portland, Oregon. Equipped with only a two-burner hot plate, a small alto-shaam, a steam table, and most significantly, a wood-fired oven, he has turned the place into one of the most celebrated restaurants in the city. Earlier this morning, he got on the phone with me to talk about how he came to open the restaurant, why Portland is right for him, and how it's possible — and in many ways crucial — to channel the great restaurants of Europe within a business that specifically bills itself as rustic and small.
For those that might not be familiar, please run through your story.
I was born and raised on the East coast. I grew up between DC, New York, and Maine in a pretty political household — the world of fundraising. We got to eat out quite a bit. That was my introduction to restaurants. When we hit Manhattan, it was just great.
What were some of the great, formative experiences in New York?
We lived there in my junior high years. New York was pretty fucked up in 80s — a lot more rough-and-tumble than it is now. But it was a huge exposure to ethnic food. Actually going down to Little Italy, actually going down to Chinatown were things that I definitely didn't grow up with. I remember the first time I ate sushi. It was on 52nd and 3rd. My mom called me and said I needed to come meet her and try this cool place. I sat at the sushi counter for three hours and got my mind blown. I wasn't going out to high-end places with my parents. It was more noodle houses, shabu-shabu places, Chinese restaurants. The range of flavors I was exposed to was crazy. And then, being a little older, it was great having this sense of freedom to explore the city with my friends, going down to the East Village and having a Sabrett hot dog or street food. It was very much the 80s, going down to have a slice and sitting next to the guys from Quiet Riot.
I ended up going back to New York right before culinary school and went to places like Bouley and Gotham. And that sort of sealed the deal in terms of knowing that I wanted to go for that perfect, high-end, three-star experience. The sense of perfection they were striving for made it such a comfortable experience.
Let's go back to the rest of the trajectory.
I did construction work when I was young, in the summers, but I started cooking really early and got into restaurants when I was about 17 or 18. It hasn't really stopped since. I went to college and thought I was going to be a Buddhist philosopher, but I got myself back in kitchens. I couldn't really fathom doing intellectual — I called it "academentia."
I left college, moved out to New Mexico and got entrenched in the local cuisine there. That's when I really started ramping up, reading lots of cookbooks. This was about 1993/95, when the ski valley had lots of great chefs that had come from Europe. I was looking to get classically trained, especially since I was reading things like Wine Spectator, which was really hip on the European three-stars. A lot of that was starting to come into America, with the money that was flowing into New York — big dinners at Le Cirque and things like that. The thing is, most of those chefs that came to New Mexico didn't really want to train someone in the classical way; they were all semi-retired.
And so, after five years working sous chefs jobs in New Mexico, I realized that I needed to solidify my training if I was ever going to go the distance. I wanted that excellence and precision. So I ended up going to Maine to see about the culinary school route. I worked with Sam Hayward for six months before going to school, which was a great experience. It was my first wake-up call to farm-driven, rustic cuisine. He had a wood burning oven and rotisserie and grill.
I ended up moving to DC and attended L'Academie de Cuisine. I staged for a year at Vidalia with Jeffrey Buben, because I was basically looking to work in the toughest kitchens in the city, and that was one of them. I loved Buben, even though he was a maniac, and Pete Smith, who was such a good teacher. But I ended up leaving what would have been a good career in DC because of the woman I was with. We had made an agreement that if I went to culinary school, she could decide where we'd go after.
So where did you end up?
Next I was a ski bum in Colorado. I couldn't find any restaurants in Denver or Boulder that were worth working for, so I sold wine with two master sommeliers and taught at The Cooking School of the Rockies. I really made a career for myself there, and I was getting some exposure being involved as a consultant for athletes on nutrition, but it never had the intensity I was looking for.
I ended up in Portland ten years ago, with a four-page resumé. I was overqualified. But it was here that I realized something that Sam Hayward had told me about chefs and their mid-career crises: you realize that the most important thing isn't necessarily creativity or ideas for dishes. It's the need for amazing product. I found that in Portland, where there was everything from seafood to fruit to cheese to wine to beer. This has been home every since. I opened clarklewis, then took a break after having our first kid and worked at a market. I worked there for three years as a butcher and eventually manager, but I realized I wanted to go back to working in kitchens and to open my own place. A bunch of potential projects fell through, and it was looking bleak. But I got a call from my friend about a pizza place that had gone out of business, and that was it. In my 39th year, in December 2008, it became Ned Ludd. And the rest is kind of history.
Was Portland cool yet?
It was definitely cool, and lots of people were coming here. But it wasn't so much the accessibility to food, really. When I came here there were just a few big names: Greg Higgins, Vitaly Paley, and Corey Schreiber. That was it. It definitely wasn't as cool in terms of the food culture, but I think people were just then starting to realize the value of what was here in terms of food. There's a very European element to the food culture here, and that's actually been here for a long time. What was somewhat absent was a restaurant culture to back it, basically.
Now let's talk about Ned Ludd and your style of cooking.
I have a wood-fired oven, a two-burner hot plate, a little alto-shaam for pates and things we'll roll overnight, and a steam table. So, my cooking isn't so much defined by my ideas and what I want to do. It's more about being reactive and responsive to what we can get away with with what we have. Part of my personal ethos is the relationships I have with producers, so my cooking is also very much determined by what the farmers have. The farm orders come first, the ideas come second.
I've been cooking for over twenty years in very different places, so I have everything from fine dining restaurants to chicken shacks in my repertoire. What I've come to learn in the last three years at Ned Ludd, is that the restaurant is in many ways about cuisine grand-mère, from France. On one level, that translates to "grandmother's cooking." But it also means "homemade." We coined the phrase "An American Craft Kitchen" in our first year, since we're really interested in these classic European traditions, like pickling and charcuterie, which we do in house. It's ambitious, but we have a commitment to doing business a certain way and the food sort of follows from that.
Let's take a chef like Sean Brock, who has a very clear set of goals and self-imposed limitations. I wonder how you might compare yourself to something like that, and I also wonder if you sometimes wish you just had a regular kitchen and could do whatever you wanted.
I was talking with my cooks about this the other day. The only big limit I have, really, is space. It's not heat. I'll cook on any commercial burner.
Overall, I believe that if you find yourself within some limitations, it poses a more thoughtful approach to cooking. I'm not about establishing a strict set of rules, though. At the same time, I've yet to feel like, "God, I'd really love to make some fucking french fries." Because I don't believe in fryers, necessarily.
I find that to be unsustainable. The oil goes one of three places: landfills, ladies' makeup, or rivers. Unless a place is super-committed to finding out where it goes, fryers can be really impacting. Part of my emerging ethos which has come out of this restaurant is understanding what sustainability can be for restaurants, which can be some of the most impacting businesses around. I believe in the global food system, on one hand, but I try to support a local food system as well. I know that my cuisine relies heavily on spices, for example, but I'm also very aware that those spices come from the equatorial region. Nobody is growing peppercorns in Portland. I'm okay to support that stuff — I'm not a big fan of drawing firm lines.
In terms of equipment, we don't have a gas line. We collect rainwater off of our building to fill a cistern that helps water the garden behind the restaurant. There are little things you can always do. So fryolators aren't crucial to my endeavor.
I want to finish by going back to your fascination with the great restaurants of Europe. How do you bring that into a restaurant that, at least as you described it, is rustic, casual, and has a limited kitchen?
A lot of it is just trying my staff to be hyper-aware. I've sort of come to the assumption that the best chefs are the ones who pay attention better. You have to pay attention to everything, you have to see everything. When I worked with Buben, I met the guy when he was on his hands and knees and was scrubbing the walk-in. Most nights he was there before I got there, and when I left, he was in the ice machine cleaning it out. When I was in culinary school, instructors would ask why I would worry about wanting to seeing the stove broken down. Well, why would I pay someone to fix something I could handle myself? It's about knowing all the nuances that make a restaurant work, especially when you are a chef/owner. It's paying attention to things right in front of you and also being able to take the blinders off and realize that you are part of a bigger thing, which is a restaurant. And then you realize that the restaurants doesn't just exist to feed people. It exists to create memorable experiences, and that's very clear in the two and three-stars.
And of course, the emphasis on technique, which is the groundwork. I had an amazing experience at Alinea. I was expecting it to be really heavy on molecular gastronomy, but the thing that stood out was the technique. The consommé was perfectly clear, something that was breaded and fried was perfectly breaded and fried. The attention to detail is what raises the bar.
Basically, at Ned Ludd we try to to establish a rustic restaurant that has a world-class attention to detail.