Portland Chef Jenn Louis's Kitchen Essentials and Secret Weapons

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Chef Jenn Louis. [Photographs courtesy of Lincoln Restaurant]

At Portland, Oregon's Lincoln Restaurant, chef Jenn Louis is all about keeping creativity in her kitchen. In addition to changing her menu almost daily, her cooks constantly shift through stations, which keeps them on their toes while inspiring their loyalty. She has platforms, through Sunshine Tavern and Culinary Artistry, to train younger cooks and play with specific diners' tastes. And her upcoming book, Pasta by Hand, shares more than 65 recipes that build basic pasta skills but also show how far Italian dumplings can go.

As well as competing on Top Chef Masters and winning a 2012 Food and Wine "Best New Chef" award, Louis was a James Beard Award semifinalist two years running. Here are some of the tools that keep her kitchen running.

Favorite Small Tool

I have this little French oyster knife that I love. It's small and sharp, the perfect size for prying open even the most delicate oyster.

Item Worth Saving in a Kitchen Fire

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Steaks searing on the plancha in the back.

We're a mom-and-pop shop, so everything is valuable, and caring for equipment is important because there's no one else to buy something if it breaks. This is our seventh year at Lincoln, and we were finally able to get rid of the grill we never liked and get a plancha instead. It's such a beautiful piece of equipment.

The plancha is amazing for its intense and even heat; what a powerhouse. It sears beautifully and can be heated to different temperatures along its surface. We cook flatbreads on it, sear steaks, keep caramel warm, and cook vegetables—all with one tool. At home, I suggest using a cast iron flat top that can be placed over two burners to simulate a similar cooking surface.

Vital Ingredient

I really love citrus, and the versatility of using the juice, pith and zest in different ways. If I were cooking somewhere without citrus, I'd sub in pickle brine or vinegar, anything to get the acid I want in a dish. There are so many ingredients I'd consider pretty vital—olives are another—but as a chef it's my job to be flexible, and that's the fun part, too.

Favorite Travel Find

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On a fairly recent trip to Italy I got these pans called tigelle pans; they're specific to Bologna, and they are really amazing. Basically they're pans that have two handles and two plates, and are connected by a hinge, and you make something like a thin English muffin on them. The bread they make is so, so delicious. I really like the traditional use as a small sandwich base for cheeses and cured meat, so I don't often vary how I serve them.

Why am I telling you about them? Because they are uniquely Bologna, and they celebrate a local style of bread that makes a great vehicle for the salumi and cheeses there. Some tools are pretty darn great when left to their original designs.

Secret Weapon Ingredients

I'm pretty transparent, so there's not really a secret ingredient in my arsenal. Rather, it's about keeping a restrained hand; knowing what to use or when not to use anything is something I try to constantly practice.

But as far as flavors go, I like thinking about how cultures cross, using similar ingredients and naming them accordingly. Like fish sauce; we associate it primarily with Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, and don't often think of it with an Italian mindset, but Italians have a fish sauce of their own—colatura. I use fish sauce in non-Asian dishes where I need to bring full, round umami flavors in. I specifically love Red Boat Fish Sauce 40N; the number on the bottle correlates with the higher amount of protein in the sauce. Most chefs use fish sauce, so it's not a secret weapon of mine particularly, but building flavor with those little things you might not associate with the Mediterranean palate is what I'm good at.

Indulgent Ingredient Worth the Money

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I really like resins and syrups. There's a pine resin called mugolio, which comes from pine buds in northern Italy that are gathered and pressed into a syrup with the consistency of honey or maple syrup. It's really expensive and luxurious. I use it like you might with maple syrup, drizzling it on game birds or panna cotta. It's really special stuff, and you rarely see it. It's really intense; piney, just on the sweet side, and beautiful.

Kitchen Mindset

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I have two restaurants, Lincoln and Sunshine. At Sunshine we can hire people right out of culinary school because we have more of a training program there. At Lincoln, you have to know your chops. We print a new menu every day since what I do is extremely ingredient-driven, and we move stuff around all the time. It lends itself to cooks learning how to be flexible, and how to be good cooks. Rather than working a sauté station, doing the same thing for weeks on end with a menu that doesn't change, we move everyone around every month or so, so you have to be able to work all stations. It's about discipline and craft. We're constantly challenging ourselves.