Jenn Louis has it all at her beloved corner spot, Lincoln, in Portland, Oregon: a devoted following, a rep as both a neighborhood joint and a destination restaurant, the sort of place that launches cookbooks, wins awards, makes diners happy. So why on earth would this chef and restaurateur take a gig in far-off Los Angeles opening a new restaurant for a corporate hospitality group?
Over coffee (what else in Portland?) on a recent morning in a sun-drenched window at Lincoln, she laid it out in plain terms. Louis is a Southern Californian by birth, so opening a restaurant in L.A. will serve as a homecoming of sorts. Plus, somebody asked. That somebody is the Sydell Group, a chic and growing real estate and hospitality company run by hotel developer Andrew Zobler and his billionaire partner, Ron Burkle. In the past few years, they’ve opened the NoMad in New York, launched the Freehand nouveau hostel brand in Miami and Chicago, and brought the Line to Los Angeles, working with A-list chefs and hospitality folks like Daniel Humm, Roy Choi and the Broken Shaker team along the way. In the works are a Line hotel in Washington, D.C., with restaurants by Erik Bruner-Yang and Spike Gjerde, a NoMad in L.A., and an evolution of the Freehand concept in downtown Los Angeles, featuring an Israeli restaurant by — you guessed it — Jenn Louis.
“I love the concept. I love the food,” Louis tells me. Oh, but there’s more to it than that. Read on for our brief (condensed, edited) chat about why Louis will open in L.A. (date TBD, but sometime in 2016), what it means for her life in Portland, and how Israeli food fits into Los Angeles’s culinary landscape.
What can you tell me about the L.A. project?
This is my first corporate job. This is the first West Coast Freehand — [it] is probably a little higher end of a Freehand than they’ve done in the past. I don’t know how many rooms, but it’s a 12-story building, a 1924 office building. It’s beautiful brick; it’s super-cool. The bones are just amazing.
Where is it going to be?
Downtown L.A., West 8th Street and South Olive Street. It’s got a huge sign on it that says “Commercial Exchange.” That’s the name of the building. The Broken Shaker will do the beverage program. In the two outlets, I’ll do the food in there in the bars, and then I have the full restaurant and that bar.
What’s it called?
We don’t have a name yet.
Was it your choice to do Middle Eastern?
It’s Israeli. They asked me to open an Israeli restaurant for them. What a lot of people don’t realize is that Israel is incredibly diverse. It’s the size of New Jersey and has more cultures than maybe the U.S. It’s European, it’s Mediterranean, it’s Middle Eastern, it’s American, it’s African. There are Ethiopian Jews. So the food is really diverse. It’s really rich, and it’s really flavorful.
And it’ll play well with L.A.’s health-conscious crowd?
Since it’s such a Mediterranean culture, it’s super-nutritious food. It’s really vegetable driven. I think there’s a real cool commonality between L.A. and Israel. Especially Tel Aviv. It’s an old city. It’s incredibly liberal. They call it the “Bubble” in Israel, and it sits on the sea. Here’s city, here’s beach. It’s a public beach, and everyone goes and hangs out. It’s just like Santa Monica; it’s super-similar. The life is similar — the beach life and the desert life. The use of vegetables is really similar. The influence of Mexican cuisine in L.A. has a similarity to the Middle Eastern cuisine in Israel. They’re the same spices, they’re the same richness and the same complexity. It’s a really interesting blend to compare, like the produce that I’ll use in the cuisine.
You’re going back and forth to L.A. as you prep for the opening later this year. How have you been developing recipes?
I’ve been serving hummus here [at Lincoln], and I’ve been trying things out on customers here to see what people’s palates like. I’ve developed different vegetable-based hummuses with asparagus in the spring. We’ve done a carrot and we’ve done a beet. It’s really cool to see how people react. It’s so flavorful, and it’s clean and nutritious to eat but you feel like you’re eating something really awesome because it’s so flavorful.
Israeli food has become really popular in New York, Philly and New Orleans. How do you think it’ll play in L.A.?
L.A. is the largest Israeli community outside of Israel in the world.
I know, super-crazy. It’ll be interesting. I’ve served Israeli food that I’m doing to a bunch of Israelis, and they loved it. I think there’s a big movement in Israel right now to kind of spin the cuisine, so it’s really fun to see what’s happening there. I don’t think there’s a lot on the West Coast, but I think that it’s a cuisine that’s becoming very popular, and people love the flavors because they’re incredibly flavorful. We love Vietnamese and Thai food; they’re super-flavorful without being overly rich.
How did you come to do this? You’re based in Portland — you have two restaurants here.
It’s a really great opportunity. I’ve been in Portland for 20 years. I love the market up here. I love it up here. I’m not moving. I’m from Southern California. My dad grew up in L.A., and I grew up east of L.A. It’s a really awesome opportunity. It’s an opportunity for me to get creative. It’s a different market both with urban density and opportunity. It’s got a really good platform, and it’s a good company. The company is amazing to work with. I’ve been incredibly impressed.
They’re putting together quite a lineup of chefs affiliated with their projects.
Yeah. It’s funny, because when we have meetings and we go around the room and get reports from every department, it’s phenomenal. The talent in every department that speaks to what’s happening in a project is incredible.
How do you feel about the state of things in Portland?
I love it here. I love living here. I own property in Portland. I’m a landlord. I own businesses. I have a really great community of friends. But it’s an opportunity, and I love being a part of a group. I’m learning a lot more in terms of business and restaurants. So that’s really exciting to be able to do. Being a chef in a restaurant is amazing, but if you never leave your restaurant, your learning slows down, and I love learning. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to travel a lot, and I learn a lot from traveling and working with friends and colleagues. But being able to work with a larger group, that just expands how you think about food, how you think about the business side of that. It’s support, and it’s a totally different platform.
Plus it’s in downtown L.A., this once-forgotten place that’s redeveloping.
It’s amazing. The buildings are so beautiful. There’s so much soul down there; there’s so much history. Watching this project is amazing — all the projects around downtown. I saw that with Portland 20 years ago. There were a lot of run-down houses in Portland. Over the past 10, 15 years, so many people have gone in and painted houses and cleaned up houses, renovated houses. It’s a whole different city. There’s so much love in these houses that were run down. The same thing is happening in downtown L.A. They’re giving a lot of life to what was a very vibrant downtown.