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Chef Jenn Louis: West Coast Queen of Simple

Photo: Michael Turek
One of Portland's top toques shares the benefits of streamlining. By Tim Cebula

In Portland, Oregon, a city where you can't hurl a pair of tongs without beaning an acclaimed chef, Jenn Louis has come to stand out partly for her refreshing lack of cheffiness. She takes a less-is-more approach to cooking that values clean, pure flavors over flash. Consider her baked eggs, a signature dish at Lincoln: eggs, a little cream, some fruity, briny Castelvetrano olives, and breadcrumbs. That's all. Her pork scaloppine? Six ingredients.

"I like to keep a very restrained hand with my food," she says. "When dishes have too many ingredients, the quality or subtlety of some of those ingredients gets lost."

It behooves the home cook to stick to the basics for many reasons—time, cost, ease. But Louis' food shows how delectable, and often impressive, simple cooking can be, as long as it heeds a few key guidelines.

First, when you're cooking with just a few ingredients, quality reigns. This doesn't necessarily mean they have to be expensive, Louis notes—freshness is the bigger concern. That said, it's smart to have a few top-notch ingredients, like premium extra-virgin olive oil, that you can lean on to elevate dishes: A drizzle on top of weeknight (perhaps leftover) soup can make a world of difference.

When constructing a dish, Louis aims for balance. A green salad may get fresh orange juice in the vinaigrette and orange sections for additional sweetness, some red onion for a little peppery bite, pine nuts for earthy crunch, and some olives for briny notes. Once she's harmonized the flavors and textures, she's done.

Of course, there's a line: You can pare back a dish too much. Louis gives the example of a plate of gorgeously ripe sliced tomatoes topped with Maldon sea salt and a drizzle of good olive oil: pure deliciousness. But without salt? Not nearly as good. "You have to know what's going to highlight your main ingredient," she says.

Louis makes marinara from scratch for her Eggs with Chickpeas, Spinach, and Tomato. For convenience, we call for store-bought tomato sauce, though a little garlic and shallot, fresh rosemary, and red pepper lend it bright, bold home-cooked flavor.