6 Questions with Aaron Barnett

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.

How did where you grew up influence your tastes?

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.

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.

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.

How do food and travel work together for you?

Typically, I like to go all over the place—high end places, street food places. I like going to places that are fun. When I go to Paris, I’m not just going to Guy Savoy every time. Recently it’s been about going to the 11th Arrondissement, where there’s like 28-year-old chefs who are doing incredibly well-thought-out and beautiful food in tiny spaces and making an incredible statement. I love eating in delis, or random small places, not looking for what’s cool or what’s hot. I like eating what’s good.

So, how do you find what’s good and how does that inspire you?

Every day I show up to work and every day I make food. And you can read books and do research, but more often than not what I find is when I go to places like New York or Straussberg or Montreal or LA, it’s more important to find places on a couple ends of the spectrum. I like to find places that are old that have been doing the same thing for a long time, because you see someone who’s perfected what they do for 50 years. And I also like to see the young guys who are working somewhere new and making a statement. When I come home, that’s what’s fresh on my mind.