Entertaining

For the Seder Good

Go old school with a Passover feast from Portland chef Jenn Louis
Photos: Katie Foster/Tasting Table
Passover Feast

"Seder is all about order. I think that's why I'm a cook," Jenn Louis jokes. "Cooks do things the same way every time."

We're talking about that all-important meal coming up later this week, the Passover seder: the story of Exodus, or how the Israelites were liberated from the ancient Egyptians, told through an elaborate meal of jiggly gefilte fish, fat matzo balls, lots of Manischewitz and other time-honored dishes. However, the story comes together a little differently in the hands of the James Beard-nominated chef behind Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern in Portland, Oregon, and a soon-to-open Israeli restaurant in L.A.

"The whole service is about the 10 plagues and religious freedom, so you have different elements of the seder plate," Louis explains. "You have the bitter herbs, or horseradish, so each part of the seder, you talk about them."

As a kid growing up in Pomona, California, she remembers the seder plate the family brought out for the dinner, the fine china and the fancy clothes she wore for the special occasion. Her mom was the cook, whose matzo balls had perfectly light, squishy outsides and dense, chewy centers. Her soup was always two balls in a clear chicken broth—no more, no less.

Louis may have loathed the Haggadah, the text that dictates the ritual of the dinner, but she loved the jarred fish and syrupy-sweet wine. For us, though, she's created a dinner that is clearly conceptualized by a chef, though not too far off the spectrum of tradition: brisket braised with porcini mushrooms (see the recipe); spongy quenelles of halibut and salmon poached in wine (see the recipe); Sephardic-style haroset made with pomegranate juice and cloves (see the recipe); and broken, hazelnut-stuffed meringues topped with Manischewitz-spiked conserva (see the recipe).

"My background as a chef isn't French. I learned Italian technique, and now I'm focusing on really Israeli stuff," Louis says.

That explains the porcini mushrooms for the brisket—"It's a matter of talking flavor and building flavor," she says—and the meringues (aka brutti ma buoni) made by cooks in the Piedmont region of Italy with extra egg whites from all the yolk pastas. Last year, Louis even published an entire book about the regional pastas of Italy, from dimpled orecchiette to plump little dunderi.

However, she got her start in food working on a dairy kibbutz right out of college, which eventually led to her attending culinary school in Portland, opening a catering business and then her two blockbuster restaurants. These days, she's geeking out about Sephardic haroset, a completely different type of chutney compared to the apple-loaded Ashkenazi kind she grew up eating, and brainstorming names for her upcoming restaurant.

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"I want to keep this restaurant inclusive," Louis says. "So I wanted a word that was borderless, but it wasn't just Israel but Palestine, for people who care about that land. I think everyone should be included."

And that's what she loves about the seder. This year, Louis is going to two, one casual for the Jews and non-Jews and the other with longtime friends who have kids of their own. She's taking along those meringues to share for dessert, of course, which brings up a funny seder story.

"There was the prophet Elijah, and when you open the door to let him in, you put out an extra glass of wine," Louis remembers. "During the meal, you would have four glasses of wine, and as a teenager, I would find Elijah's glass and take that one down as well."

Talk about a spirited holiday.

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