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.
Here, we ask chef/owner Jason French all about the story behind Ned Ludd — the inspiration, the philosophy, and what makes the space so special. Read on!
Why Ned Ludd? What’s the story behind the name?
Ned Ludd was an artisan weaver. My old business partner Ben and I were sitting around, drinking wine and coming up with names for the restaurant. We were thinking oven, hearth, warmth, fire, comfort – it was the height of the recession, but molecular gastronomy was also getting big. Our restaurant was going to be so ridiculously honest – pickling, hand-crafted foods – and we couldn’t come up with a name that didn’t sound cheesy. His girlfriend was like, “What about Ned Ludd?” Like Luddites! It was a play on the fact that we have this oven and a hot plate, such a limited capacity in what we have to work with, but that pushes the idea of craft along. When you start to understand his story, it’s about an artisan craftsperson put out of work because of modernization and mechanization. We should keep making things with our hands; we should never lose that. We’re that restaurant that is not going to be doing tons of molecular gastronomy and tight plating; we’re just going to be two guys banging out dishes from a wood–fired oven. It’s about authenticity and playing on words and ideas.
You’ve described Ned Ludd as an “American Craft Kitchen.” What does that mean to you?
History is big part of it. It’s about understanding processes and procedures and the rudimentary elements of good eating. We have charcuterie, cheese, bread and salads on our menu, not because that’s what all restaurants should have but because those are foods we like to eat and get excited about when we go out. It’s also what differentiates cooks and chefs: pickling and charcuterie are craft-oriented and have been around a long time, so we’re not going to reinvent wheel. But to me craft is doing the work for its own sake, wanting to take the time, effort and attention – and intention you have for half a pig, for example – to cure and transform it and deliver it to people. Then you have a lomo or rillette that makes you pause. You can’t mass-produce that feeling from hand-delivered goods. “Craft kitchen” is an idea we hope other people use; we talked about starting a league of craft artisan-style restaurants. It’s about taking the time to use tested methods and techniques to produce what we would normally buy in-house (like mustard, pickles, apple butter or harissa) and achieving sublime results.
The anchor of your kitchen is the wood-fired oven. Has the oven changed the way you cook?
I’m attracted to it because it’s so honest. There were a couple of years of mistakes; we were super inconsistent. It was a challenge to find a range of things we could do successfully. I had worked with a wood-fired oven and rotisserie, so it wasn’t an issue of ,can I light a fire? It was an issue of pulling everything and the organization and prep. I like the concept of cooking from the hip, where you’re taking farm ingredients and proteins as they come in and creating menu on the spot. With the oven, there are challenges in organization because of how hot the fire needs to be. We do everything you do in a traditional oven, like braising, roasting and charring – we’d mess something up and taste it and realize it’s delicious burnt. Also, you have to light a fire every day before you can start cooking. In some ways I get frustrated because I walk in and want to get 10 things going at once, but then I would find myself making coffee or tea and putting on music, and chopping wood and lighting a fire. By then, I totally forget it’s frustrating, because it’s this rejuvenating thing every day. On the line, sometimes the wood is wet or dry, or fires quickly, so you have to be sensitive to the heat source. Everything starts coming in, and we’re doing everything out of the oven – desserts, appetizers, entrees, small vegetable plates, and everything has a garnish and a sauce. It’s a constant thing, and the temp is always fluctuating.
Ben and I collaborated. We had his carpentry know-how, and my mom was an interior decorator. She took us antiquing, to museums, churches, all of that stuff, and that informed me when I was growing up. When we came into the space it was huge and wide open and had little character besides the oven. The bar had a lumberjack-y feel. The opening of Ned Ludd is the story of a DIY ethic. Ben had a friend who was a welder and welded everything; we got wood from a blown down tree on the highway. We painted everything ourselves. We wanted to break up the space so everything would evoke a feeling. The success of any restaurant is based on food, service and ambiance, and all three should be harmonious. That’s where we really deliver – say what you want about the food, service and ambiance, but the connection of the three in the space sells the package. There are lots of moments everywhere, done in an effort to try to make people feel comfortable. The comment I always get is, “I feel like I’m in your home.” It’s a very personal approach. We have the agenda of bringing a sense of discovery back.
Next up for the Ned Ludd team: a new space nestled between the current restaurant and a community garden, called Elder Hall. With a full kitchen and multi-purpose gathering space, Elder Hall will be dedicated to lectures, meetings, tastings, small suppers — and even the occasional raucous party. Above all, their goal is to offer a genuine connection to the Oregon food community and the producers they work with. Learn more on their Kickstarter page and in the video below.
Read more about our brunch with Ned Ludd here.