Daily Blender Exclusive: Portland James Beard Semifinalists Matthew Lightner and Jenn Louis

What I love about the James Beard Foundation Awards is this – anyone can win. It doesn’t matter if you’re big or small, young or old, with twenty years of hard kitchen experience or five years out of culinary school. Nominees are recognized for their fabulous contributions to the culinary world regardless of their road to the kitchen. It’s a snapshot in time – a notice of those who are putting out great food with great flavors right here and now.

Early next week, finalists for the 2010 James Beard Foundation Awards will be announced, and the ranks of the nominees will be thinned out just a little more. The awards, considered to be the equivalent of the Academy Awards within the food industry, are given in a variety of categories, from rising stars to cookbooks to restaurateurs. My homebase of Portland, Oregon garnered eleven semifinalist nominations this year, and many of us anxiously await to see if the land of bridges, bikes, and baristas will be represented at the New York City awards gala in May.

Recently, I had a chance to meet with both Matthew Lightner, nominated as a Rising Star Chef, and Jenn Louis, nominated for Best Chef: Northwest, to chat about their nominations and taste the great dishes coming from their kitchens. Though there was some discussion about our fair city being a bit smaller than some of the bigger culinary meccas like New York and Los Angeles, both chefs agreed that Portland offers a food culture that goes hand in hand with developing a winning menu.

Clocking in at only twenty-nine years old, Chef Matthew Lightner is one of the younger nominees in James Beard bunch. Prior to his current position as executive chef at Portland’s beloved Castagna, Lightner worked with Chef Phillipe Boulot at the Heathman Restaurant after spending an 18-month apprenticeship in San Sebastian, Spain, working under Chef Andoni Aduriz of the renowned Mugaritz. He took over the Castagna kitchen just this past October, shuffling staff and menu offerings in an effort to build on the strong reputation developed by previous head chefs Kevin Gibson and Elias Cairo.

Q: Were you surprised by the nomination?
A: Yeah, definitely. It’s been six months, and we’ve done a lot of work, and the right people have come in, but it’s all been happening so fast. Very surprised.

Q: You’ve only been in the Castagna kitchen for a few months, but you’ve received stellar reviews for your work, including the Beard nomination. How would you describe the menu?
A: I apprenticed with Andoni Aduriz at Mugaritz, who is all about natural cuisine, herbs, technique when needed – either ancient or new. So, the menu is very Basque. A lot of Basque ingredients, Basque ideologies. What we wanted to do was to reorganize, reprioritize. We made the proper adjustments – staff, kitchen – so we could produce the food we make now.

Q: What do you think are the benefits to being a chef here in Portland?
A: When I was done with Spain, I spent some time in Chicago and San Francisco, and then I came to Portland to visit my sister who has a farm nearby. I was hiking and foraging a lot. I like being here because it’s a place where you can drive 20-30 minutes and you’re at a farm.

Honing her skills on both the East and West Coast before settling in Stumptown, Chef Jenn Louis has been running the line for a number of years now. A graduate of the Western Culinary Institute (now known as Le Cordon Bleu Portland), Louis worked in the kitchens of Portland staples, like Wildwood Restaurant and Bar, before opening her own successful catering business. Ten years later, she’s now chef and owner of the highly rated Lincoln in North Portland in addition to her catering duties. Much like Lightner, she utilizes local ingredients in all she does, producing delicious dishes that keep her restaurant packed on any given night.

Q: Were you surprised by the nomination?
A: Absolutely. I hadn’t even considered it. I didn’t know the nominations were coming out. I called a colleague up in Seattle for something else, and she said, “By the way, congratulations! The Beard nominations are out.” I had no idea. Complete surprise.

Q: Was your staff supportive of the nomination?
A: Oh yes, I think the cooks were especially excited. It’s not just a representation of one person – one person does guide the kitchen – but they listen very carefully, they listen to how I want something done, or how I want it tweaked, and they add collaboration when I need it. They’re a big part of it.

Q: What do you think are the benefits to being a chef here in Portland?
A: I just think it’s so approachable. Two things come to mind. I always bring it back to the hippies of the 60s and 70s – they really went back to the land and really made farming possible here. The availability of what we have in Portland is incredible. Other people don’t have the availability of the produce, the types of produce, the ingenious way of how farmers are really thinking about their crops. I also think that since we’re in a small to medium-sized city, we don’t have the types of entertainment that a lot of other bigger cities have. People who want to spend their money on entertainment here in Portland really spend it on quality food.

~Jennifer Heigl

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