Lisa Schroeder didn't intend to become a chef and a restaurateur — she'd always seen herself becoming a lawyer. But law school never happened. Instead, she entered the world of corporate marketing, developing and marketing products for Weight Watchers International, while taking on occasional catering gigs on the side.
It was this heavy work schedule, coupled with raising a daughter, she says, that made her realize she needed to make a change. She'd always loved to cook and feed people, but at the end of these long days she found herself turning to pizza and Chinese takeout all too often. She missed cooking, so she decided to make cooking her job.
In 1992 she enrolled in and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and learned to "cook four-star dishes in four-star restaurants," like New York City's Le Cirque, all the while planning her dream restaurant that would one day be known for cooking and serving food the way your mom (hopefully) did.
Fast forward five years: Schroeder moved to Portland (for love, of course), stepped out of her line cook's role and earned her "breakfast stripes" as the chef at Besaw's. In 2000 she finally launched her dream restaurant, Mother's Bistro & Bar (which later that year took home Willamette Week's Restaurant of the Year award). In the 15 years since, she authored a cookbook (full disclosure, with the help of Eater PDX editor Danielle Centoni), opened and sold a second downtown restaurant, hosted countless fundraisers, and last year married Rob Sample, the man for whom she moved to Portland in the first place.
We caught up with her earlier this week to see how these last 15 years have treated her.
How would you sum up your menu?
Well, our motto was almost "Home cooking like mother never made," but I thought that might offend some moms. But really, I know that there is this generation out there who has never had this style of home cooking, and I wanted them to come in and be able to have a taste. Where else can you choose from all the classic dishes without any of the twists? Nowhere. And I'm all for people eating like this at home, but we want to be there for them when they can't.
We also don't discourage substitutions, none of that "substitutions politely declined." I want people to eat what they want the way they want it, so if you want to swap out mashed potatoes from something else, you should be able to. You should be able to have things your way.
After all these years, you still offer a special Mother of the Month tasting menu that showcases the signature dishes from other moms. How do you find candidates?
Oh man, sometimes they just fall from the sky! But on our menu we ask our guests to nominate a mom they know, and there's a space on our website where you can nominate them, too. But mostly, the word is out there, so we're always getting suggestions.
How would you reflect on your 15 years, measuring the good with the bad?
I'm living in my dream come true. But, honestly, it's not easy. In fact, it's one of the hardest things you can do for a living. And sometimes it's a nightmare. [Here she references something all restaurateurs periodically face: When you lose one valued member of your team, there are times when six or seven of their peers quickly follow them out the door.]
I think a lot of people go into this wide-eyed and doe-eyed, and don't really realize what they're getting into. To make it to 15 years, you have to have drive, tenacity and will, and God knows I have that.
But I love what I do, I love feeding people, I love making people happy. Seeing happy faces in the dining room is the nourishment that keeps me going. It feels so rewarding to me that I don't think I'd change places with anyone.
Some of those people you feed, quite a few in fact, are celebrities passing through town. Not that we necessarily want you to drop names, but ... care to crop some names?
Let's see, there have been so many. Most recently, Reese Witherspoon and Cheryl Strayed both came in. We've fed Ron Howard, Tom Hanks, Robert Plant, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Harrison Ford, and President Clinton, when he was up here campaigning for his wife. We've fed lots of bands, including K.D. Lang's band and Stevie Wonder's band. And every time Mike McCready's in town, we cook up something special for him, because he's got celiac disease. Let's see, Dave Chappelle on numerous occasions, Teri Garr, Sinbad. Chuck Barris from The Gong Show loved our food — he even wrote a love letter to our salmon hash. And, of course, the cast of Grimm kinda lives here.
Yes, we heard you made a Jewish holiday dinner for Grimm actor Sasha Roiz, right? And didn't you deliver it to his house?
Well, he needed help making a Jewish New Year dinner for his girlfriend, so I brought over a matzo ball soup and supervised the cooking of the chicken. It was just for the two of them, but they invited me to dinner and asked me to stay, so I stayed.
We also know that you've been very involved with nonprofits in town. Can you tell us more about that?
I don't sit on any boards of directors, but I have done fundraising for the Bradley Angle House and Raphael House, both of which provide shelter for victims of domestic abuse. I've helped raise funds for Sparks of Hope, which is a camp for children who've been victims of sexual abuse, as well as for Basic Rights Oregon for marriage equality. I've done a lot of public speaking to MBA students at PSU and to students at Madison and Lincoln high schools. I'm also lucky enough to have a public space, so I like to donate that, and my time, to nonprofits who need a space.
What about wild salmon? We know you're passionate about that, too.
Ah, yes, I've given several presentations about why wild salmon populations need to be preserved. I try to convey why wild salmon is so much better than farmed salmon, not only for the environment, but for the wild populations, as well. And I was very involved in keeping the mining out of Bristol Bay up in Alaska, which, as you know, is home to the largest native sockeye population in the world.
So you decide to go into cooking because your work and parenting schedule meant lots of take-out. But once you opened Mother's, you've been as busy as ever. So, do you ever cook at home?
[Laughs] Not a lot! But I can get a lot of great take-out from my own kitchen. And when we don't feel like it, Rob and I go out. But I do like to try to do family meals with my four grandkids on Tuesdays, and on certain occasions — we have a table at home that seats 20 — I'll cook big for large groups. But cooking at home for just Rob and myself? Not much.
Sounds like Rob's got a pretty sweet gig.
Well, the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach — it's the quickest way to anybody's heart.