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St. Jack's Aaron Barnett on Portland's Dining Scene and Dealing With Media Scrutiny

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Photo: Dina Avila

Portland chef Aaron Barnett opened his Lyonnaise bouchon St. Jack three years ago, teaming up with ChefStable restaurateur Kurt Huffman on the restaurant that he'd been dreaming about for years. Barnett — a Canadian who grew up eating frog legs, snails, and lots of offal with his gourmand parents — had a background in French cooking. He worked at high-end Vancouver restaurant Lumière before moving to San Francisco to work at Restaurant Gary Danko. Though he held down a couple of other head chef jobs when he moved to Portland, the opening of St. Jack shot him to success given the intense local buzz that later turned into accolades from the Oregonian's rising star restaurant of the year to Eater PDX's Restaurant of the Year, to a James Beard semifinalist nod for Barnett in the Best Chef: Northwest category.

In the following interview, conducted shortly before the kick-off of the second annual Feast Portland food festival, Barnett talks about the evolution of St. Jack as well as why he decided to partner with Portland's somewhat unusual version of a restaurant group ChefStable. He shares some detail about St. Jack's forthcoming new location — cheese carts and table-side flambés just may be in store — and offers an insider's perspective into Portland dining that he says is so often stereotyped in the national press. Finally, Barnett reflects on why chefs have gotten such increased scrutiny in the media when, he says, "It really does boil down to people who cook for a living and wear rubber shoes and are not classically handsome."

So how did the St. Jack concept develop?
When I started thinking about doing my own place — because I had always done more modern French — I was in this town that really loved rusticity. I was thinking about rustic French, and I wanted it to be a moderate price point. I wanted to debunk the myth of fussy French food. No towers of things. This is what French people actually eat. Lyonnaise bouchons are unpretentious, unstuffy, use a lot of offal meats, [and] cook in very traditional methods that not a lot of people do anymore because they're kind of a pain in the ass. So the idea was, look, I'm going to start cooking food that has been done the exact same way for two, three, four hundred years. I'm not going to use any gadgets. It's all real, old-school cooking techniques.

How did you hook up with Kurt?
One day I was at the dog park with my dog and ran into [a friend who] was like, "Oh hey, you're trying to open a restaurant right? I just met this guy named Kurt. You should talk to him. He seems to be on a hot streak right now." When I met him, he didn't have very many restaurants. So I knew vaguely of him, but I didn't know him well. He'd been written up in a couple of things as a new, up-and-coming guy. And he was working with well-known chefs, working with Andy Ricker.

I went into their little dinky office and hung out, talked for about an hour or so. He was really inviting and warm, and he liked the idea a lot so it was like a very quick conversation. And then it was a matter of developing a relationship with him, so that took a couple months. And then shortly after that, he and I just started hunting down spaces, trying to wrangle money, doing the whole thing you do. And we did it.

Why was that, for you, an attractive way to go?
Because he's done it before and he knows what he's doing when it comes to opening restaurants. Over the years it's changed, too. He's far more streamlined now when it comes to opening places. It's not even like a thought. I was having situations before I met him where I would find the money and then I couldn't find the space, or I would find the space and the money would fall through. He's more savvy when it comes to all these different things.

My relationship with Kurt versus the other partners that he's got, they're all different. Chefs can be legitimately weird and, well, and Kurt's a funny guy, too. So the relationship that I have with him in a business sense is different just because some partners put money in, some don't. They're all based on different things. We have a very sort of even-steven way of doing things. But ultimately, yeah, it was just about making sure things happened in the appropriate manner. All the paperwork and legal stuff he kind of has dialed in, so I didn't have to worry too much. It was getting handled while I was trying to work my menu out or source farmers. It's kind of a "you do what you do and I do what we do." It worked out pretty well. Concept-wise, he was pretty happy with everything, so it was a happy opening.

[Photo: Dina Avila]

How do you see this group being different from your typical restaurant group?
All the restaurants are very different. I think that's something that's very challenging for him. For him, it would be great if he just had this blueprint for restaurants. But he doesn't. Every time, it's a chef with a different vision, dream, idea, whatever, who has this specific list of things they want to do. So each model is completely different from the other. A place like Gruner is different than we are is different than Roe is different than whatever. And plus, for the most part he stays out of the chef's vision.

You can do whatever you want?
Right. I think the difference between most chefs and most businessmen is the fact that for me opening this place has been a dream that I've had for a number of years. [My idea] was opening this cute little quaint restaurant that was ultra-charming with cool music and great food and is like buzzy and loud and fun at night. Some people don't want that; they have different ideas. As long as it's working, it doesn't bother him.

And so how was the opening? I know there was a lot of excitement.
Yeah, more than we thought. I mean, it's not a fancy fussy neighborhood. And that's what I always wanted, a neighborhood restaurant. We opened and we started out pretty strong, and then shortly after that it started getting lots of accolades. All the local press was super enamored with us and that was great. We were shocked, honestly. Surprised. When that happened, we got hit with a tidal wave of business that we were ill-equipped to handle. Nothing went wrong, but we didn't know what busy was until we started getting a lot of press. And when we started getting all the press, this place is 46 seats, but we were doing almost 160 or 180 people a night. It was just like what the hell is going on? None of us knew what to do. Things normalized after a period, so now we're at a nice place. But the first year was just craziness. We made everybody's lists and so that was kind of a whole deal. National attention, we never got really except for StarChefs and the James Beard nomination.

Really? That's strange.
No, we never got much attention that way. I think the thing was we opened at the same time as some other restaurants with a higher pedigree. What are you going to do? But I think we kind of surprised everybody and that was nice. And we've been really lucky with the team of people that we have working here. In the three years that we've been open, I've still got the same GM, pastry chef, all the people who were core are all still here.

And now you guys are expanding. How's that going?
It's crazy. A lot of our business actually comes from that side of town. It's a bigger space, roughly double the size of this. We're actually going to divide it into a 45-seat dining room and a 45-seat bar. We'll have a separate bar menu so that people can come in and just grab a bite and drink. That's something we never really had here because it's so small. I like the idea of having a bar area where people can come in, it has a different vibe. We have a burger available for one hour a day, only on happy hour. You can get one if you ask or if you know. It's not listed. But at the bar you can get a burger any time you want. You'll be able to get snacky stuff. You'll be able to have a different experience altogether. I'm all about catering to the after-work crowd because that's how I eat.

The dining room itself is going to be the same basically as what we do here. The only thing we're going to do a little differently is some more fun stuff that we just weren't able to do in this small space. So we want to incorporate an oyster bar set-up in a French manner. The thing we're going to do a little differently, though, is use more local product in terms of not just doing oysters and shrimp and clams and whatever you're used to seeing on these platters. [We're going to be] doing like local dungeness crab, crawfish when they're in season, geoducks, and razor clams in conjunction with the classics. And we're also going to do them in different price points.

We're bringing back the cheese cart, which I think are super fun and nobody really does them anymore. We already offer 12 cheeses, but they're done in the kitchen. So [now diners] can see and know what they're getting. A lot of people don't know about cheese, so being able to see it helps. I want a runny, stinky cheese and there it is. I think that will be helpful and fun to do, too. And [it will] allow for the servers to have more interaction, but in our own personal style. We just refuse to do it in a stuffy manner. Right now we're trying to figure out if we're going to do table-side flambées as well, which nobody really does except at fancy old-school restaurants. But who doesn't like seeing fire, right? I'm super stoked on that aspect.

[Photo: Dina Avila]

And the patisserie set-up over there is going to be different.
It's going to be slightly limited. Essentially, the patisserie program is going to be morning-only as opposed to being an all-day affair like it is over here. The idea is after we get ourselves settled in, we're going to open for a proper lunch service. Here it's counter service for lunch. There, I want it to be sit-down with a full bar available.

So Feast starts this week. I know Portland's not suffering any lack of attention for its food scene, but what does Feast mean for Portland?
I think it just puts Portland on the map a little bit. Yes, people know it's here and people talk about it and it's always on TV and in the New York Times. But, ultimately, it is a very different food scene from a lot of other towns. Bringing chefs in from other places, too, is great for this city. I think it's awesome for people who don't necessarily go to San Francisco or New York on a regular basis to see what other people are doing. [Portland] is pretty insular. [Flour + Water chef Thomas McNaughton] sent us his menu that we're doing with him [at Feast and] literally half the people who work here were like, "What the shit is that?" (laughs) That's really awesome to see other people's stuff. That's important. When I was in San Francisco, I remember guys used to stage in other restaurants all the time. Up here, it doesn't happen as much.

Why not?
I don't know. It's just not really the culture. Some of our cooks do it. But on the whole it's not as done. People who are interested in doing a bunch of staging typically go to places like New York, San Francisco, Chicago or a big market where there's the really big-name restaurants. Portland's so small and a lot of the restaurants are so small. This was a dive bar when we took it over. The kitchen is probably smaller than your kitchen. So a lot of the restaurants aren't super stoked on doing them.

That's interesting. I actually was going to ask you about the New York Times' obsession with Portland.
Oh man. They love it here. Yeah, it's one of those things that just keeps popping up all the time and I think that's really cool. I know lots of people from New York who come out here a lot. It's got a very different feel than a lot of places. That's why I settled here; I fell in love with it. It's different than Seattle, it's different than Vancouver, it's different from any place in California I've ever been. It's not as expensive to dine out as it is in other cities. The quality is really high, but it's got a very funny bent to it. If you love the idea of bearded flannel-wearing people, it's a good place to live.

What does the Portland dining scene look like from the inside? Does the national press portray a correct mirror of Portland?
No offense, but any time you get somebody writing about something they aren't involved in, it's always going to be a little more twee and charming, you know what I mean? I remember GQ's Alan Richman was not into it. He loved our place, which we were super happy about. [But] he was spouting off about other restaurants, talking about charming as if it was a bad thing. Which is fine. A lot of people just have their own preconceived notions about what Portland is going to be like.

When you are actually involved in the scene here, it's not as competitive. At Wild About Game for example, I had one person that was going to be able to help me with a large event, so I called a bunch of other friends of mine and was like, "Hey, do you have anybody who might be free that day?" And Jason French from Ned Ludd was like, "I'll do it." So sure as shit he showed up at 10 o'clock in the morning, put on a St. Jack shirt and helped us out for the day. We were doing a few hundred small bites and there was a competition aspect. He just did it to be friendly. You find that a lot. The community here is a little bit tighter.

The business itself, you're done earlier in the night. You're not here until 1 in the morning. I think that's just because it's a smaller market. There's only so many people and they don't like to eat that way. Vietnamese food is huge, so there is tons here. Chinese food, not so much. But essentially it is these people who have this ambition to beautifully make comfort food. More people are coming in from outside of the city, so you get Smallwares for example. Johanna Ware from Momofuku came over here and is now doing sort of non-traditional Asian-inspired stuff. So it's evolving for sure.

[Photo: Dina Avila]

It was three years ago or so that the restaurant scene started blowing up even more?
Yeah, right after the economy really tanked a lot of restaurants shuttered so there were spaces available and they were cheap. Because the economy got really beat up here. It was pretty bad for awhile. Northwest 23rd was empty. It was a ghost town up there. So when it started to pick back up, people were grabbing spaces. And a lot of it was really exciting.

And people here are willing to do a lot of things you wouldn't expect from customers. They'll wait in line in the rain, no problem. For an hour and a half? Shit yeah, man, that's fine. For brunch especially. We've had people outside in a snowstorm for half an hour holding a cocktail. And they're fine with it. It trips me out. I'm like, man, the food's not that good. (laughs) But it's definitely nice to have people who are willing to show up and do that. That's one of the things I always found to be really interesting about this town. People get really excited about new projects and new restaurants. They're opinionated and they're picky, but they love it.

Seems like it could be more exciting as a chef, but also a lot of pressure.
There's always going to be pressure as a chef. That's why they all drink. People are always paying attention, more so now. When I first started cooking, there wasn't this laser focus on every aspect of what we did. A while back, Eater local asked me "where do you like to eat off the beaten path?" I gave them the whole story about it. There was this gyro cart that I found that I fell in love with, it's fucking awesome. So I take my kid there every couple of weeks. And there was a shitty comment on there like, "I thought all fucking chefs were all about going to strip clubs and drinking and now it's all about fucking babies? How fucking boring." Literally, who cares what I do on my off-time with my kid?

But it's one of these things where people genuinely want to know this stuff. It's challenging sometimes because most guys in the kitchen were not meant to be public figures. They might be shitheads, they might be drunks, they might be great, who knows. But most of them are better off hidden away in a different room somewhere.

Most people are.
Yeah, that's true. But so opening anything in this town where people pay so much attention to what's going on... There are blogs where people are just hunting down who signed a liquor license application. They know who's doing what. How do they even find that out? But these things happen and when you open you just have to open strong. If you don't then you're screwed because a lot of people won't give you that second chance. You might not bounce back.

There's that radio program, I think it's called Food is the New Rock. That's the farthest fucking thing from any fucking truth. There's nothing glamorous about what we do for a living. It is a hard, shitty, tiring job that makes you lead a completely alternate lifestyle from everyone you know. It is an inherently selfish job. You're doing this because you love it. I guarantee you my mom does not love the fact that I don't come home because I don't have time. You do it for people on a nightly basis, but it's hard, sweaty work. And oftentimes you don't get paid well. Rock stars get paid pretty well as far as I've read. But I don't drive around a Bentley, and I'm not drinking whiskey out of the bottle with strippers.

It's all been kind of invented. When I first started cooking, no chefs had publicists except for like Daniel Boulud and the big, big, big boys. We don't have PR. Kirsten works for ChefStable and she and I get along really well, so she contacts people sometimes for me. That's fantastic because I don't know how to do that. But, on the whole, it's sort of like this business has become a little bit too overblown. It really does boil down to people who cook for a living and wear rubber shoes and are not classically handsome. This is a job for people who just like doing what they do.

Do you kind of need that PR though to survive in such a saturated dining scene?
PR has become almost an essential thing. I think a lot of people who even a couple of years ago didn't believe in it are starting to buy in. A lot of awards are won that way now. I don't think that's fake to say. In my mind anyway. You'll see restaurants that are dead on the whole, but nationally they're really well-known. Like nobody really goes there, but everyone else in the country thinks it's one of the top restaurants in the city. That's somebody doing a good job at their PR job.

For me, I like to lay low and just do my thing. When people pay attention to what I do, I'm really excited about it. But, on the whole, it's kind of a weird thing that's happened to this business because it just gets ugly. When you read about certain cities, you keep hearing about the same people over and over again, even though you know there are other people in that city who are doing cool shit. Why aren't they getting that attention? They should get that attention.

People are afraid to break away from the consensus of what is great.
That's absolutely true. But at the same rate, there are places that are absolutely fantastic in every city that just don't get much attention, but they're busy. People love them and they're well-received. I feel weird saying that because we do get a lot of attention, which is great. But that wasn't something we strived for. We're lucky enough that people like us enough to say nice things. I just feel lucky.

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St. Jack

2039 SE Clinton St. Portland, OR