Jenn Louis Contemplates a Chef’s Life After Restaurants
Portland chef Jenn Louis has enjoyed her share of success; she was a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2012, and is an alum of Top Chef Masters. Her second cookbook, The Book of Greens, was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation book award and won an IACP cookbook award. But those triumphs haven’t made her exempt from problems. In late April, she posted an essay on Medium that detailed years of abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, which culminated in a April 2016 altercation at their restaurant that led to her arrest on domestic violence charges. They divorced, and in March 2017, after her plans to open a Middle Eastern restaurant in Los Angeles fell through and she closed her bar, Sunshine Tavern, she transformed her Italian small plates restaurant, Lincoln, into the Israeli-inspired Ray.
After running Ray by herself for a little over a year, Louis went public with two big decisions this spring; first, writing and posting the piece on Medium. Louis wrote that even though Portland prosecutors quickly dropped the charges against her based on her claim of self-defense, the incident continues to follow her and she felt compelled to share her experience in the hopes of helping others facing similar situations.
Then in late May, Louis announced her plans to sell Ray, which struggled to gain footing with diners, and her plan to leave the restaurant business after almost two decades. She spoke with us about what inspired her decision and plans for the future, and what advice she has for young female chefs.
You recently announced that you are selling Ray and implied that you are leaving the restaurant business altogether. What inspired this change?
I’m leaving restaurant ownership for sure. I don’t think I’ll own another restaurant. I’m realizing that I don’t love it like I used to. When we lose a bit of the passion for what we are doing, we can’t do it as well. I love cooking. I love my customers. I just don’t want to be the owner anymore.
Owning a restaurant is a lifestyle. You have to give up certain holidays, certain things with family, and it was always okay with me. I realized one day that I want some of those things back and that [idea] made me happy. I have a really rich life and good friends and I want to spend more time with them. I don’t want to miss some of the things I’ve missed before. I want to do things that people who don’t work 60, 70, 80 hours a week do. I want those other 40 hours.
As a business owner, I’ve learned so much. I started my first business after being a line cook for a year and a half. There were very few, if any, female chefs in Portland at the time and in the country. It’s been a long time and I’ve had a lot of experiences [for which] I am grateful. I’ve gotten to travel; I’ve gotten awards and recognition and written books. I kind of feel like I’ve done it and I’m satisfied.
What are your plans?
I have a book that I’ve been writing and I’m going to work on selling that. I think I’ll take a little bit of a sabbatical. I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years; I’ve been self-employed for nineteen. I just need a little bit of quiet. There’s a weird expectation [with chefs] that you do this for the rest of your life. [Chefs] want to retire, too and we want to have a life. This is something I realized I was ready for. I’ll be doing some consulting as well; some restaurants and recipes. [And] much more freelance.
It is hard to imagine you not cooking. Will you miss that?
It’s interesting because I have been able to spend a little time every day being mindful of what I do at work and what I love doing. When I am visiting tables, I am really conscious of how I love being able to talk to my guests. When I’m [teaching] my employees and they feel good about what they are doing, I feel great about being part of that. I won’t leave all those things behind. They are part of who I am now. I’m going to find other ways to feed people. I’m still involved in charity organizations that involve cooking: Alex’s Lemonade Stand and No Kid Hungry are two of my bigger ones. And I’ll continue to be involved and I’m going to let that evolve a little bit. I’ve been so planned for so many years and it’s nice to be open and see what evolves.
You’ve been a chef and restaurateur in Portland for almost twenty years. How has the restaurant scene has changed in that time?
So much! So much has changed. [Portland] is unique because it’s a small city but there are a lot of restaurants. When I moved to Portland in 1997, there were five chef-driven restaurants. Now there are hundreds, from sandwiches and burritos all the way up to fine dining.
When I started, it was easy — and I think it is still pretty easy if not quite the same — in that you don’t have to have quite as much money as [you do in] other cities to start a business. So it allows you a lot more opportunity. Compared to other cities, [dining out] is relatively inexpensive, but for Portlanders, it’s not. I have people from San Francisco or L.A. come in and say, ‘Oh my gosh, [the restaurants are] so inexpensive up here.’ But for people from Portland, that is not their take, because we don’t make as much money. It’s an adventurous city and people like to go out to eat. You have to balance that with the fact that there are so many restaurants and not as much disposable income as in other cities.
You mentioned that when you started, there were so few chef-owners who were women. What advice do you have for women chefs today?
Well, if [we are gaining] anything from our current government, it’s the [strength] of women in a different way than I have ever seen in my lifetime. Out loud, we are equal now. And none of the bullshit that I saw growing up in restaurants is going to happen. Or if it happens, it’s not allowed. When I was working at my first restaurant, the guys that would rub up against me when I was clocking in and clocking out—that won’t be allowed anymore. If there is the support in the workplace to say something—which I hope there is—then, there is more opportunity for women. You can’t just skip over someone because of their gender anymore.
I never wanted to talk about being a female chef when I was younger; I just kind of ignored the question. Is it a thing? It’s totally a thing. I did a TV show once with a bunch of male chefs and when it came down to taking notes, they all volunteered me to be the secretary. I went through all of those things and I had it my whole career. I didn’t let it stop me, but I certainly had to work really hard. Ideally, if the environment is as it should be, this next generation [of female chefs] has a step forward. It’s not right yet but it’s getting better. I watched a lot of young female cooks who want to do savory choose catering or pastry because that’s been the role that a lot of females have gone into. I say if you want to [cook savory], just do it. It’s going to be hard and exhausting but do what you want to do. The doors are open now.
Girls are not necessarily raised to be tough. Not that I was raised to be tough—I just am! If you are a man or a woman in a kitchen, you’ve got to be tough. It’s a hard job. It’s a lot of hours and it takes a long time to learn to do it well. It’s hard on your body. Whether you are male or female, it’s a hard job. You got to be tough either way. It’s not a cushy job. Physically, emotionally and intellectually, you have to work hard.