7/12/2013 04:00:00 PM

Portland Chef Jenn Louis on Competing to Become a Top Chef Master

She helms the kitchens at two of Portland, Oregon’s most popular restaurants (Lincoln, Sunshine Tavern). She’s been named a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards’ “Best Chef Northwest.” And last year, she was named a Food & Wine “Best New Chef.” Now, chef Jenn Louis is throwing her apron in the ring to become the next Top Chef Master. Though she won’t reveal at what point she had to “pack her knives and go” (if at all), Louis was happy to chat with us about her experience on the popular culinary competition.

Zagat: Why did you choose to compete on Top Chef Masters?
Jenn Louis: I thought it would be a great experience to work with a lot of national colleagues. One of the things that is really interesting about the television show is that it is a bunch of really talented chefs who are at really different places in their careers and everyone has so much to offer. More than anything, I enjoyed our downtime, being able to talk about work or personal things. It was pretty great to make new friendships.

Zagat: Which other chefs were you most excited about meeting?
JL: Well, you don’t know ahead of time who else is going to be there. It was really fun to walk in and see two colleagues that I didn’t know super well but I’m incredibly fond of - Neal Fraser and Sang Yoon. I was really, really excited to spend more time with them because I knew them a little bit ahead and it was great to be able to spend a lot of quality time together.

Zagat: Have you followed the show previously?
JL: Only last season, I watched it after I committed to be part of the show. 

Zagat: How did you prepare for the competition, if at all? 
JL: I think the main thing I did to prepare in a sense was to always remember to cook the food that I cook—that it was mine; that it was soulful. In this type of competition, you also need to think about cooking appropriate food for the venue or occasion that you are cooking for and having a catering business for many years that is something I always think about. 

Zagat: Did you turn to any other chefs who have done Top Chef Masters in the past for advice? 
JL: Yeah, I know Chris Cosentino, Anita Lo and Rick Bayless. They all said it was a very intense experience and they just said to do what you do, because you can’t do what anybody else does…at least not very well. 

Zagat: Was it hard to draw the line between camaraderie and competitiveness with your colleagues?
JL: I’m really competitive with myself and hard on myself. I work really hard and take my job really seriously, probably more seriously than I should. I laugh at myself sometimes because it’s not like I’m a doctor, it’s not like I’m doing life or death surgery, but I care a lot about what I do. The only thing I ever have an issue about with my colleagues is being professional. At the level all of us are at, we are all very professional, and there’s usually not a lot of dirty stuff that goes on. There’s this point where you know your strengths and weaknesses very well, and you know what to work on. Plus there is so much to know about cooking. Even someone who is super accomplished has stuff that they don’t know, and there is stuff that they don’t do well. So I didn’t feel competitive, I wanted to learn from my colleagues. 

Zagat: I understand each chef’s sous-chef plays a role in this season. Did you find that helpful or a hindrance? 
JL: My sous-chef is Cory Chunn. He started as a line cook and he quickly became my sous-chef at the restaurant. He’s really young, but he has a lot of great experience. His first job was making cotton candy when he was nine years old. He’s as gritty as they come, and what I mean by gritty is he does whatever needs to be done to get the job done. He is incredibly loving and he never does anything less than 120%. He’s always got my back. There were challenges where he had to perform to do a good job so that I was set up and he always set me up. Since the show, he got a promotion to chef de cuisine. 

Zagat: What was the best part of Top Chef Masters for you?
JL: I think it was the colleagues. I travel quite a bit so I’m fortunate to do that and since the show I’ve seen almost half of the other chefs while I’ve been traveling at other events, and it’s nice because the community is really important. Just like anything, the people are what’s most important. 

Zagat: What was your least favorite part of the experience?
JL: (Laughing) They don’t want me to tell you that! I mean, I even jumped out of a plane, and I thought that was really easy. I’ve had a tremendous amount of adventure in my life, and I live in intensity, that’s just the way that I live. It is my personality and lifestyle. So I was ready for it and there really wasn’t anything that was my least favorite part. 

Zagat: Tell me about the charity you are competing for, City of Hope. 
JL: It is a hospital in Duarte, California, about half hour east of Los Angeles. My mother passed away in November and I spent her last week with her in the hospital there. It is a tremendous facility that used to be a tuberculosis hospital in the old days and they turned it into a cancer facility for research and hospitalization and care and treatment. They are doing a great, great job.

Top Chef Masters Season 5 premieres Wednesday, July 24 on Bravo at 10 PM EST


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