By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Chef: Food, and all that surrounds it, is her passion

After more than 30 years in the food industry on both coasts, Chef Sarah Schafer said she is looking forward to working in McMinnville with Humble Spirit and catering for Stillwater event space.

As long as she’s working with food, she’s happy. “Food is my passion,” she said, speaking in the days just after working with a James Beard seafood festival in Portland and prior to preparing Valentine’s Day specials at Humble Spirit.

It’s been that way for as long as she can remember. In fact, she said, her earliest memory involves making chicken soup with her grandmother — a broth so rich, “it could grow bones back.”

She learned then that technique and timing, along with great ingredients, are critical to making food that’s delicious and nutritious. And that special je ne sais quoi provided by her German grandma — “she was superwoman,” Schafer said — or another passionate cook elevates a bowl or a dish to incomparable levels.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Schafer spent time at her grandmother’s house when she was growing up in Boston. “It is a huge seafood town,” she recalled.

Her upbringing also explains her lifelong love of seafood and crab boils made with lobster, corn and potatoes, as well as the title ingredient. She recalled working at a restaurant on Cape Cod that let customers select their own ingredients, which were placed in a net and boiled for the all-in-one dinner.

After the Cape, Boston and a dozen years of cooking in New York, “it was definitely a change” to move to the West Coast, she said.

For instance, soft-shell clams are beloved for East Coast clam rolls and fried clam dishes. Here, she discovered the joy of cooking and eating razor clams, as well as other Pacific Coast fish such as pike and salmon.

She cooked in the Napa Valley and San Francisco before moving to Oregon.

Schafer spent many years in Portland, first at Irving Street Kitchen, then at a new place she opened during the pandemic, Italian Marketplace Cooperative.
“I learned at Irving Street that it’s best to have something on the menu for everyone — more diversity,” she said. “At Humble Spirit, everyone will find something that appeals to them.”

Both of the Portland places used local ingredients, just as Humble Spirit does, she noted. Consequently, at all the restaurants, the menus changed with the seasons, with winter produce shining in the colder months and different vegetables featured in summer.

She decided to join The Ground, the parent company of Humble Spirit, Stillwater, Tabula Rasa Farms and the Source Farms, because she loves what it stands for and aims to do, she said.

The collection of businesses all have a common goal: to preserve the land and water and offer sustainable products.

“A lot of chefs try to be as sustainable as possible,” she said. With the Ground, she can do that in all aspects of her work: ingredients are fresh, local and thoughtfully raised, from the Brussels sprouts and squash on plates this winter to the animals that live on the farm west of Carlton.

“It’s the cycle of life,” she said about the sustainably raised meat animals. “We treat the animals humanely and give them the life they deserve,” she said.

It’s important to her as a chef to know how animals are raised so she can cook them properly, she said. The age and cut of meat also determines the technique she uses, and that affects diners’ experiences, she said.

For instance, Tabula Rasa’s grass-fed, free-ranging steers produce beef with less fat than those that are raised in feed lots. So Humble Spirit uses the ground beef in smash burgers, rather than preformed patties, to create its flavorful entrees.

She encourages diners to think about the ingredients in their meals. “People should be aware what they are eating, for the environment and for their bodies,” she said. “That’s always been important to me.”

Schafer said she enjoys working with Chef Brett Uniss and others at Humble Spirit. “Bret and I have the same voice,” she said, noting that he will take over the catering side while she focuses on the restaurant.

She also will work on developing more partnerships with producers and increase culinary offerings of The Ground. She said she enjoys working with local farmers and finding the freshest ingredients.

She also will be “experimenting with desserts” at Humble Spirit, bringing more sweet offerings to the restaurant. She’s recently been working on a lemon lavender pound cake.

“I’m looking at different recipe techniques, trying things, adjusting flavors,” she said.


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