We partnered with with the team at Ned Ludd, a Portland restaurant that feels like home, to bring our Open Kitchen collection to life this season. Its cozy, casual vibe pairs perfectly with its rustic menu, which highlights peak-season produce and handcrafted, locally sourced ingredients. Read our interviews with the owners, chefs and partners behind Ned Ludd and try their original recipes here.
Jason French worked in the food industry for years, cooking on the line in restaurants and teaching culinary classes, before finally finding his way to Portland, Oregon. There, he fell in love with the area’s natural landscape and high-quality ingredients, which continue to inspire the menu at his restaurant, Ned Ludd. Read our Q&A below to learn his story.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started cooking?
I was born and raised on the East coast; my parents were in politics early on, so I started out in Washington D.C., moved to Manhattan for junior high school, and then my folks moved to Maine. I started cooking at about eight years old – it was something that always attracted me. I had a large extended family, so holidays and family reunions were spent around the table. We also went out to eat a good bit when I was a kid. I loved restaurants and their energy, so that was a treat. In Manhattan we were eating tons of ethnic food; my mom was great at exposing us through travel and dining to a lot of different experiences. For me, the ones that resonated the most were restaurants and food.
We also entertained quite a bit, so there was catering going on in the house, and I started involving myself with that in my teens. My mom was head of the Democratic party in Maine, so she did a lot of entertaining and fundraising in the house.
With New American cuisine starting to come to fore, chefs were getting away from classic French. I saw an article about Charlie Palmer of Aureole in The New York Times Magazine, and I decided I wanted to be a chef. Something about the training and rigor and schooling involved, and learning how he climbed his way up in kitchens, as talented American guy – it really resonated with me.
In my family, there was no line of chefs; the expectation was that I’d do something more than chefing, because it didn’t have the cache that it doesn’t have now. I worked in chocolate shop at 16, then at a bakery and restaurant and washing dishes in Colorado. The head chef kept asking me to cook, but I really liked showing up at 4:30 and washing dishes, rather than at 1:00 and banging out dinners. By the time I hit college I started in kitchens: a breakfast spot, a chicken shack, a bistro –culturally, that put food in a context to me. I was really attracted to food on different levels: history, chemistry, art. I was always athletic and competitive, so the environment of the kitchen pulled me in.
In college, I was deciding if I would go the academia route, but I couldn’t figure it out. I left college and moved to New Mexico and got a job cooking in a restaurant, and it all clicked. I dove in head first and was buying and reading four to five cookbooks a week, working long hours in the kitchen – a high-volume New American restaurant that was popular. They did catering seven days a week, lunch, dinner, Sunday brunch – really, really good food. I learned about balancing finesse and getting food on the plate and out the door. I realized I wanted to go the classic, formal approach. I bought Michelin guides, Relais & Chateau guides; I loved those. I would thumb through and look at pictures of the properties and the food.
I decided to leave and go to culinary school. I moved home worked at handful of restaurants in Portland, Maine. I worked for Chef Sam Hayward and spent a year looking at schools. I was doing a total farm-to-table thing with Hayward — wood-fired oven, 110 seats – he was an institution. He worked with tons of farms and had whole halibut coming, guts in, along with oysters, lobster, etc. Being in that environment, with his attention to quality product and farms, really inspired me. I was also really into Charlie Trotter; I wanted to do super high-end Michelin food. I developed a big interest in wine, so I was trying to develop palate and giving chefing a more cultural context.
That led me to culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in Washington D.C. I graduated at the top of my class and was awarded a James Beard scholarship, and I used every ounce of what school had to offer. I was driven to be a Food & Wine Top 10 chef, an award-winning chef – I thought that was what I really wanted. But by the time I left, I just wanted to be really good cook. I realized it wasn’t about accolades and awards, but about who are the best cooks. At the end of the day, that still holds true, and I try to impress it upon my staff as much as possible.
How did you find your way to Portland?
After I stopped chasing that dream and just wanted to be a cook, I worked an externship at The Dahlia, where the chefs hammered me. They saw I had a certain amount of potential and chose to push me. I consider that to be my primary finishing school. I had worked in a whole range of restaurants, but I got to that place and realized I didn’t know anything about anything, and I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Those guys really took the information and bad habits you pick up and fine-tuned them and impressed technique, which solidified me as a cook.
I ended up moving to Boulder, but I couldn’t find a restaurant I was interested in checking out. They were all either super old-school or New American trapped in the late ‘80s (this was in ‘97-‘98). I ended up teaching culinary school for four years, which was super fun and allowed me to play and run and ski and bike and swim. I sold wine with master sommeliers at Boulder Wine Merchant. That really opened my eyes to quality and sense of history and place. I worked with them for four years while I taught culinary school, developed classes, and did demos on healthy cooking. I was in negotiations with publishing companies to do a cookbook that never panned out. Having come up wanting to be a Michelin chef, I’d flipped a lot of that around in my teaching time, getting healthy and fit.
Ultimately I wanted more of a city, a coastal city. I was attracted to the West coast, and I was dating woman who wanted to go to medical school in Portland, so I followed her. In 2001 I visited Oregon on a super rainy weekend and realized I didn’t want to teach anymore, and that I really wanted to a open restaurant. Portland had everything. I did this trip to the coast, which has the amazing history of the Lewis and Clark expedition. There was Tillamook cheese, jams, jellies, wine, artichokes, oysters – I had landed in heaven! I ended up in Portland and decided to move here. There were mountains, oceans, farms, and I wanted that connection.
How did you decide to open Ned Ludd?
Chef Hayward had said I would have a chef crisis, when I would realize that no matter the techniques or cuisine, it all boils down to product. Oregon was the place that had amazing product and producers: farmers, ranchers, wine makers. I started meeting those people, and they were amazing. I worked at Paley’s Place, opened Clarklewis, and then I burned out and needed to take break. I also got engaged to be married and wanted a family; I wanted to plant roots and still do a restaurant, but I needed a break. I worked at a grocery chain, New Seasons, where I managed the butcher shop with other people. It was a totally different perspective of the food system. We knew the farmers personally, so I saw how you could have an expression of people and land and product, and that really kept resonating with me.
I started doing culinary research developing an idea for a restaurant and developed a business plan – but the recession was looming, and I was trying to find money for this half-million dollar project. I got cold feet. Finally I got a call from a friend to check out a pizza place that had gone out of business. I didn’t want to do pizza. I met with the landlord, and the space was nothing to look at but it had this beautiful brick wood-fired oven. We talked and he said, “Just sign the lease.” It was like being handed a restaurant; I just had to run it. We are still very good friends to this day.
I pulled in a business partner and we opened for very little money. It was slow out of the gate, as business was in December 2008, but I was really committed to the idea of making my dream happen. We tripped along for three or four months, and then a friend of friend came to town who was a travel writer for the New York Times travel blog and we got picked up in “36 Hours in Portland.” At that point Portland chefs could do almost anything we wanted. Having a fire and a sense of connection with famers got the ball rolling for us. It’s been crazy ever since.
We’re not the busiest restaurant, but we get national and international press, and we tell a very Portland story. We try to do a very honest and simple approach: a wood fire and a two-burner hot plate. The challenge and excitement is to push yourself and see the possibilities of wood-fired cuisine, and to believe in farmers and seasons. I’ve been here 14 years, and never has one year been the same as the one before it. Our menu changes every week; we don’t have a locavore agenda, but we offer a snapshot of Oregon this week.
People ask, “What inspires you?” For me, the weather is inspiring. What people perceive as rainy is just a dynamic pattern that has to do with the mountain range and two river valleys, and it makes for a dramatic and beautiful place to live. It’s one thing to get product and make plate a food, but it’s another thing to feel that connection. As a chef you’re a medium, getting amazing product in and imparting your will in a way that’s exciting for diners. Ultimately, you have to respect and understand the whole process.
What was the inspiration behind the menu you created for our Open Kitchen shoot?
We pushed Spring a little to the fore. We do a brunch at Ned Ludd, and we love brunch — it’s that time to gather around the table. Dishes should be really simple, without a lot of cooking a la minute. We were playing with ideas that are here in the restaurant, like making own marmalade and old, crafty techniques. The way we do flavor profiles and dishes, we try to extend the sense of discovery, so something might be intense and bracing up front, with herbs and lemon juice; those flavor spikes are introduced into each dish so people bite into it and it makes them stop and take notice. That is in balance with the rest of the dish. You should never feel like you don’t know what you’re eating, but you should also have an experience as you chew through a dish – moments of excitement and contrast bring everything into balance. Something about balancing an event or menu brings a sense of harmony and calm to people, and that’s something we strive for with each and every dish on the menu. If you’re going to make French toast, it should be deliciously rich and custardy – it should almost be like bread pudding. We are taking those simple, straightforward approaches to cooking and elevating them slightly. Like lemon juice in the trout hash – it’s bracing, but if that’s not there it might just be flat.
What’s your relationship with the other people at the table?
Well, I’m dating Michelle Battista, so that was an easy one. My kids were there – I wanted to give them what my mother and our family gave me growing up. Being out West without my family, they’ve not grown up the way I did, so if there’s any opportunity to bring them into a large gathering, I always get them seats at the table.
Allen Hunter is a bassist and a dear friend. We met at Clarklewis and had an affection for each other right out of the gate, but we only became close a couple of years ago. He’s a huge fan of Ned Ludd and huge supporter of me, and we help each other work through the sensitive, creative space of being an artist and a creative person. He’s the bassist for the Eels, so he goes on world tours with them. We both share this common space of being sensitive guys and creative types, so we’re constantly thinking about our deal and our place and craft. He’s one of my deep thinker friends I really connect with.
Dave and Laurie are both farmers, with Creative Growers. But Dave is more than just a farmer – he’s one of the most creative people I know. They’ve become the benchmark for a lot of local farms here, as far as packing and product and quality. He’s one of the farmers where, I will order his stuff 100% of the time over everybody else.
Wille and Rebekah: I met him when he was opening Heart Coffee. He was a professional snowboarder turned coffee roaster. I love their whole culture and story. We share a love of competition and play sports together. It’s been really amazing watching him grow his business; he’s considered in the world of coffee among the top rankings of roasters. It’s been exciting watching him grow – his coffee is always evolving and changing, which is really refreshing. As a chef I haven’t totally defined what my whole deal is going to be, and I take every opportunity I can to do my best in that moment. Rebekah is the right arm of the business, and she’s become a dear friend as well.
Lucian, my chef de cuisine, I’m in love with. He came to me from SF and is a really thoughtful, smart kid. We hit it off. The first night before his stage I asked him to come in and have dinner, and we ended up chatting. I took him to the farmers’ market the next day, and he staged, and he had great skills and good chops. We just connected as people and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. He contacted me later wondering if I had any openings, and literally one of my sous chefs gave notice a couple of days later. He stepped right into that role, and it’s been an amazing collaboration ever since.
Do you entertain at home?
I love entertaining at home. It’s something I did all my life: having friends over and gathering around the table and feasting. As a chef/founder I don’t have the luxury of time, but I’m trying to get to a point where that becomes a priority for me.
One where – not unlike a good restaurant experience – you are consciously choosing the people. You gather the right set of people and create the right ambiance. It’s all about how you set up your home to receive and entertain guests. The food can be what it is; I like to eat with my hands. Be deliberate about the experience you create. Bring people together, people who don’t necessarily know each other, and create an environment where the people also make the party.
Also, it’s about letting go and not micromanaging. Come up with a game plan for the food and how you set the table, then when you’re cooking, just let go and be in the experience. It’s all about being thoughtful about the people you’re bringing to the table and the food and the experience and how it unfolds and flows, and the music.