Before starting culinary school, Aaron Barnett, the Canadian-born, Los Angeles-bred chef of two of Portland’s hottest restaurants, was on a path to becoming a veterinarian. His decision to make a career out of cooking instead is one any Portlander with an appetite for rich, rustic flavors and an ear for French pop or British rock (heard on Barnett’s self-curated restaurant playlists) can be grateful for.
Here, he dishes on growing up with foodie parents, how Portland diners are changing, and his advice for anyone wanting to open a restaurant.
Let’s start by backing up. I keep hearing that you ate frog’s legs as a kid. Where did you grow up?
I was born in Alberta, and lived in Manitoba for a while. My parents were big foodies before it was a thing, in the 80s. In Winnipeg there were two restaurants that were French in the old-school way. My parents wouldn’t let me order off the kids menu, and I thought it was cool to eat snails and frog legs, and tell my friends at school.
Did you actually like that food as a kid?
Yeah, I mean, frog legs taste good, even just plain. With white wine, capers, dijon, shallots, lots of garlic and butter, I loved it. I would order it as my entrée, and the chef would come out and make the frog legs dance for me. He was a French guy, and he would say it looked like “Zee Winnipeg Ballet.”
That’s a great visual. So, your parents were into French food. Is there French in your background?
No, my family is from Scotland. My dad did a lot of traveling when he was young, through Europe, and a big part of it was eating and drinking wine.
My mom is a great cook, so the two of them would make these elaborate dinners. My dad would make demi-glace from scratch. All this stuff that took days to produce. When we left Winnipeg we moved to Los Angeles, which was a whole new world of flavors we hadn’t encountered much before. The Vietnamese and Thai aspect was a transformative thing, and Indian food, too. My mom glommed onto those flavour profiles. I was a fourth or fifth grader and I’d come home and she’d be making ceviche, or Peking duck from scratch.
Did you always want to be a chef?
I wanted to become a chef when I was 19, and my parents wanted me to finish school first. So I wound up getting into pre- veterinary medicine. I was on a path to becoming a veterinarian, but my math was terrible. At some point I said, “We’re all just wasting our time here.” I wound up going to culinary school after that.
You’ve worked as a chef in Vancouver, San Francisco, and La Quinta. What drew you to Portland?
My best friend from school and his wife had settled here and we would visit them. They were big foodies as well, so they would drag me around to these different restaurants. That was when Pok Pok was opening and these newer restaurants were popping up, sort of the beginning of what Portland’s food scene is now.
Living in San Francisco, it’s challenging to live on a cook’s wages. Moving to a place like Portland—back then it was significantly less expensive. It was a beautiful place, the food was great, and there was great produce. I was like, “Yeah, man, let’s go!
How is the restaurant scene different here?
The influences are what makes the food scene different. When I was in Vancouver the Chinese and Japanese influence was pretty prevalent. San Francisco had a Mediterranean bent. It was hyper-seasonal, hyper-local, and also had far more high- end fine dining.
Moving here, the super high-end situation didn’t exist. It was all based on the product. That’s what really intrigued me. I’d spent all these years learning cool tricks and ways of cooking things, and when I moved here I thought I could do some fun stuff with the amazing produce and meat—developing relationships with farmers, growers, ranchers, and beef guys.
What about the people eating out?
Portland is becoming a place where people are willing to experiment a hell of a lot more than they were ten years ago. Now you’re seeing things like uni and offal meats and sweet breads or pig’s head. It’s become more prevalent that people are willing to try new ingredients and new dishes.
The St. Jack website describes the food as rustic French cuisine. What role does “rustic” play in your food?
My background was in high-end cooking, so there was zero rustic. When we opened St. Jack I wanted to focus more on technique and flavor profiles. So, to make it right you had to use a lot of butter and heavier ingredients. I wanted to stay true to the theme, using ingredients like bone marrow or pigs heads or sweet breads or foie gras, and treating it in a rustic way, which means I’m not doing anything you couldn’t have done in the 1800s. We don’t have any gadgetry; it’s really just fire and time. A lot of our projects take three days to make one dish.
St. Jack has been Eater PDX’s Restaurant of the Year and the Oregonian’s Rising Star of the Year, and you were a semifinalist for a James Beard award. How important is that recognition to your fulfillment?
It feels good. If anybody ever acknowledges that you’ve done something, and people like it and it’s worthy of note, it feels good. I got into this business because I like feeding people and I like seeing them eat it and smile. It’s about making people happy. The thing that’s nice about [the recognition] is it raises attention about your place and draws people in. That’s my primary joy that I take from it. All chefs have egos. I try to think that mine’s not out of control; I try to be pretty pragmatic. At the end of the day I do it because I like it.
How would you describe the difference between St. Jack and La Moule?
There’s supposed to be a casual elegance at St. Jack. The music is picked by me—a lot of mid-sixties French pop. The idea was to have it be a semi-traditional restaurant with some playfulness.
La Moule was designed to be more fun, more user accessible, with more items on the menu that are something you could eat midweek. It’s also a little peppier. Our music is from the era between 1967 and 1983. You get The Cure, but you never have to listen to Morrissey.
When you walk into St. Jack on a Saturday night, you immediately smell browning butter and garlic, and rich, deep thyme. The music is a bit moody. At La Moule you walk in the door and you might be listening to Kraftwerk or T. Rex and it’s meant to be just a little bit more fun. La Moule is a dimly lit, sexy little place.
Do you read the Yelp reviews for your restaurants?
Sometimes. I used to take it very person- ally when we’d get a bad Yelp review. You can read a million five-star reviews, but the two-star one really stands out, because it’s a labor of love. It’s someone’s heart and soul poured into this thing, and you’re hoping people are going to love it as much as you do, which doesn’t always happen. I will glance through it once in awhile, and if there’s something that stands out as being a good point, then it can be useful.
How important do you think wine is to enhancing your style of French food? Are people missing the point if they don’t have a glass with their entrée?
Wine and booze pairing with food is part of the process. It’s a matter of taking yourself out of your day and enjoying yourself. We’ve designed the cocktails, the food, and the wine to pair well together, but it’s up to the discretion of the diner. If you’re a scotch drinker and you just want to drink scotch the whole way through your meal, go for it. We’ll call you an Uber.
Portland’s growing fast. Are you concerned about the food scene getting saturated?
The food scene is already pretty inundated. It’s become the entertainment of the city. The social thing to do is go out for food and drinks. I watch St. Jack and what the numbers do year after year and I see it getting bigger, better and doing more business. It’s pretty insane to watch that growth. So, I’m seeing it help. And there are a lot of other avenues that people are exploring in the industry without necessarily opening a restaurant, like pop-ups. That’s another interesting way the community is growing.
What’s the best part of your work day?
Interacting with my staff. I like hanging out with them, talking to them, working with them. I like teaching people things, and I like them teaching me things.
What do you find most challenging?
Same thing. It comes with good and bad. The worst part can be if service doesn’t go smoothly—it stresses me out. But luckily we don’t screw up too often.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to open a restaurant?
Work harder than you think you need to.