The Culinary Calling: How Celebrated Chef Jenn Louis Discovered her Destiny
Eighteen years ago, Jenn Louis '93 talked her way into a job as a cook even though she couldn't make a cup of coffee much less duck confit. In July, she appeared on the cover of Food & Wine magazine, crowned as one of the country's best new chefs. She has a smile on her face and a glass of wine in her hand—a toast, perhaps, not to success but to serendipity.
"When I graduated college, I honestly had no idea what I was going to do," said Louis, who co-owns two restaurants in Portland, OR. "I always wanted to do something creative, but I couldn't paint and I couldn't draw. Then I discovered I loved to cook."
Louis was always driven, just not in a single direction. At Pitzer, she virtually triple majored in environmental, religious and women's studies. The College fed her belief in life-long and free-range learning. After graduation, Louis traveled to Israel, South America, South Africa and Europe "to do the backpacking thing."
When Louis returned to the US, she heard about an opening for a base camp cook at a North Carolina Outward Bound school. An Outward Bound alum herself, Louis couldn't cook but she "begged for the job" and soon found herself feeding up to 60 people three times a day. She learned how to make coffee, and everything else. As she improvised menus, she realized that there are all kinds of artists: some work with oil paints and charcoal pencils, others with bulk beans and a nonprofit budget. Her restless creativity had found its focus.
"I would go to sleep with a pad next to my bed and scribble down what I wanted to cook the next day," Louis said.
She enrolled in the Western Culinary Institute and worked for well-known restaurants in Portland before launching Culinary Artistry, a catering business that also holds cooking classes for private clients. In 2008, Louis and her husband David Welch opened the upscale Lincoln Restaurant in northeast Portland. They launched Sunshine Tavern in 2011.
At Lincoln, the menu changes daily and almost everything is made from scratch. Sunshine Tavern features craft beers, a 14-foot shuffleboard table and two happy hours. When she's not meeting with a meat purveyor or consulting with her catering manager, Louis holds fundraising events for nonprofits and volunteers with Growing Gardens, an organization that teaches low-income families how to grow their own food.
Her seasonal, simple, ingredient-driven and northwest-centric food has earned national, New York-centric attention, including 2010 and 2011 nominations for a James Beard Award for Best New Chef Northwest. She has a book about gnocchi in the works.
For all her status on the culinary scene, Louis calls her career path more fluke than five year plan. Her advice to recent college graduates sounds like a description of her time as a base camp cook: experiment, keep things fresh and trust that you'll figure it out.
"Do things that interest you. Keep trying new things. Keep yourself open to opportunities," Louis said. "It took me a long time to find out what my path was going to be."
Louis doesn't talk about being named one of Food & Wine's best new chefs as the pinnacle of that path; she emphasizes that the honor is awarded to those who have run their own kitchens for five years or less. It isn't so much about being the best, she says, it's about being "a promise for the future." Exactly what that future will bring, she is happy to say, she does not know.
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