Women Chefs: Sarah Schafer

In our women chefs series, I spotlight Sarah Schafer this week, executive chef at Portland, Oregon’s Irving Street Kitchen. 

Raised in Boston, Sarah’s love of food and cooking can be traced back to a childhood immersed in it by her mother and great grandmother, both ardent fans of Julia Child.

Schafer earned her stripes working with chef Ken Orringer in Boston, and in some of the most prestigious, michelin star  kitchens in NYC. Her talents did not go unnoticed while at Gramercy Tavern under chef Tom Colicchio,  where she was quickly promoted to sous chef,  the first female sous chef in a Danny Meyer restaurant.

From there she opened Eleven Madison Park as executive sous chef where she remained happily until deciding to go back to the West Coast where she had completed her externship upon graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).   She worked in San Francisco as chef de cuisine at Frisson, becoming executive chef upon chef Daniel Patterson’s departure. Sarah opened the new San Francisco restaurant, Anchor and Hope, and after two years there was offered the opportunity to move to Portland for the company to open Irving Street Kitchen.

Irving Street Kitchen

Chef Schafer is often called “a chef’s chef” due to her classic French techniques, dedication to her purveyors, and daily pursuit of excellence.

Sarah’s passion for hospitality and great understanding of the relationship between the restaurant, the customer, and the community, she credits to her long working relationship with the great NYC restauranteur Danny Meyer, whom she considers her mentor.

The link between kitchen and community is of utmost importance to Sarah, and she is an active participant in many charities on the local and national level.  She was invited to, and hosts, the annual fall “Share Our Strength/ No Kid Hungry” dinner at Irving Street Kitchen in Portland.

Chef Schafer is known for her soulful approach to food deeply rooted in slow cooking, and a commitment to fresh seasonal ingredients.

Irving Street KitchenPhoto: bunrab.com

[box]How did you get your start in the restaurant business and what was your inspiration to become a chef?  [/box]

My mother got me a job in a bakery making cakes.  She would drop early in the morning and pick me up on her way home from her work.  I did everything from wash dishes to finish wedding cakes.  My mother and my great grandmother are both stunning cooks and very strong women.  They showed me that anything is possible.

[box]What was it like to meet Julia Child? How did she inspire you?[/box]

Julia was like a dream come true.  She was just a force of nature standing over 6 feet. Watching and idolizing her on TV in Boston, then meeting her by chance was just mind blowing.  She was just so humble yet strong willed.  Nothing could stop her.

julia child, photo credit www.cntraveler.com

[box]You’ve had an opportunity to work at so many great restaurants on both coasts. Why did you select Portland to put down roots?  [/box]

My brother is here.  It’s been so long since I’ve had family around me.  I thought it was time.  You miss so much when you get sucked into this life.  I wanted to come up for air and look around.

[box]What is it like to work for the Rosenthal brothers?  [/box]

They are great.  It’s like working for family but in a good way.  They know what I can do and they let me do it but keep a close eye at the same time.

[box]When preparing a menu, do you consider what wine might pair best with the dish? What are some of your favorite pairings?  [/box]

I love a good rose, especially with our barrel to bar program.  Everything tastes so crisp and clean, not a corked wine in the barrel!

rose wine

Right now I have a grilled watermelon and heirloom tomato salad on which I love with the Chehalem Pinot noir, Willamette valley, Oregon Sans Soufre’ Rose.  No sulfites are added because it’s tapped from the barrel directly to your glass.

[box]What are some emerging food trends or ingredients that you’re noticing and using these days?  [/box]

It’s all about local and sustainable.  It’s been that way for years as chef’s but know the public sees it.  What’s funny to me is that things I was using at Gramercy Tavern 10 years ago people are so fascinated by now like Ver Jus.  It’s everywhere.  Makes me laugh.

[box]If you could cook anywhere else in the world, where would it be and why?  [/box]

Paris or Italy.  I’m too old now but I wish I had.  I love slow cooking.  Not enough attention is paid to the basics.  Everyone is in such a hurry.

[box]Where are some of your favorite places to dine and drink on your days off?  [/box]

Mi sen (best Thai outside of Bangkok). Funny enough, I’ve been cooking for over 20 years and hated going to “my restaurants for a drink” but I love to just sit in Irving Street Kitchen and have a glass of wine.

Irving Street Kitchen

[box]Has being a woman been an advantage or a disadvantage in your journey?  [/box]

Both.  I remember when Tom sent me out of the room so he could “talk trash with the boys.” I remember being bullied by male cooks in school and work because I could work faster, cleaner and better.  I remember a cook who poured hot stock down my leg before service so he could take my spot as lead cook but the sous would not let me go to the hospital so I worked service with one leg in a 5 gallon bucket of ice water.  I would never let them brake me.  It made me stronger.