Chef Aaron Barnett’s French-inspired restaurant, Restaurant St. Jack, is what I like to imagine as the connection where Portland and Lyon meet. The menu is produce-heavy, the decor a delicate interior design, yet the kitchen isn’t afraid of hearty meat dishes (fried tripe, escargot and bone marrow, without shame, thank you). It’s a welcome combination of elegance inside the restaurant, with a careful, homestyle-cooking style, ensuring precision without the air of pretension.
So it didn’t surprise me at all that behind the restaurant’s graceful charm is a chef with similar qualities – heavy on the talent, without a trace of overblown ego. Chef Aaron Barnett has not only been recognized as a Portland Star Chef in 2011, he was named a semifinalist to this year’s James Beard Foundation Awards, with a resume full of culinary greats from Vancouver, British Columbia (Lumière) to San Francisco, California (Gary Danko). I’m just glad he stopped in the Northwest.
I caught up with the chef just after the JBFA semifinalists list had been announced.
Q: Before landing in Portland, you cooked in San Francisco and Canada. What’s different about the food scene here in Portland?
A: San Francisco is heavily influenced by Mediterranean cooking, Vancouver (BC) is all about Pacific Rim cooking, but Portland is Portland. It is hard to say what makes it different. I think the local product drives the cuisine and the chefs have a distinct view for the product and what they want to do with it. There is less pretense, the restaurants are smaller and more intimate and the food speaks directly to the people. Food and drink are the stars in Portland and I hope that never changes.
Q: Your restaurant St. Jack is in good company with a handful of other fantastic French restaurants in Portland. What do you think makes St. Jack stand out amongst them?
A: Our staff and management team, plus we snagged a great location. The Lyonnaise style of cooking is something I thought would fit well in Portland. It is one of the hardest to styles to get right but is also completely unpretentious. It always has a bit of heart in it. Maybe literally.
Q: You were nominated for a regional James Beard Award this year. How are you feeling about that?
A: Obviously it’s an incredible honor. Since I started cooking, it was always something that I had dreamed of but never thought would ever happen. The restaurant has received so much attention and had so many accolades this year and [the nomination] just topped it all off. Everyone works very hard at St. Jack, and I hope it shows, but I do feel like there’s a lot of luck going on here too.
Q: What would you be cooking if you weren’t cooking French?
A: I really like Scandinavian cooking–all that fish! And the marriage between sweet, sour and herbaceous is so refined. Actually, anything involving fish would be right up my alley.
Q: Where’s your favorite city to eat outside of Portland?
A: I like Vancouver, BC, for Indian and Chinese; San Francisco for Italian; and New York for everything else. Where else can you eat at a James Beard award-winning restaurant at 2am?
*Photo credit: Restaurant St. Jack