Interview With Lisa Schroeder | Mother’s Bistro & Mama Mia Trattoria

By Sasha Burchuk

Chock full of succulent and wholesome “Mother Cuisine” recipes for traditional mainstays like black bean soup, chicken and dumplings, and cioppino as well as innovated classics like almond poppyseed pancakes and roasted garlic, prosciutto, and provolone macaroni & cheese, Mama Mia Trattoria/Mother’s Bistro proprietor Lisa Schroeder’s  new cookbook Mother’s Best is a must-have for any cooking enthusiast. The focus is on using fresh, local produce to create healthy homey food like they do at Mama Mia and Mother’s. In fact Lisa’s emphasis on following her passion in life and cooking with love are main ingredients at her two stellar restaurants …Why not take your valentine there for a hearty meal?

So you’ve been on a roll lately — your first cookbook is out, you were recently on The Today Show, you’ve been getting tons of media coverage — is there something in your life that you especially attribute all of this success to?

Lisa Schroeder: I think it’s really just that the cookbook did come out, it is news. I know that there’s no restaurant that serves mother food, so I know that we’re unique — but now that there’s a cookbook out, that gives people something to talk about. So I gave them something to talk about and they’re talking about it.

Having traveled and worked in France, as well as having travelled and worked in other places where dinner was more of a family affair, how do you see comfort food, mother food, as fitting in to the “niche”  dining market in the U.S.?

LS: Well I just felt that even back in ‘92 when I had the idea for Mother’s, there was no place to get the kind of food that I would make if I had the time. Thai, Mexican, Chinese, there was all of that — but no place that served “mother food.” While there were even back then places that served comfort food, mother food is a particular segment. It’s not just fluffernutter sandwiches. It’s cooked food, things that take hours to prepare and things that are made with love. In many places mothers live to feed their children, this is their whole reason for being. We’ve left that behind in America but we still need to nourish our families. There are a lot of two people working families — and that’s why I exist, so that families can come and eat mother cuisine that they can’t get anywhere else. Really the idea is that we all want to eat mother’s cooking, but there really is no place to get it.

You’re like a mother to us all.

LS: Well there was a time when mom made meatloaf, on the weekend, or mom made spaghetti and meatballs, so you would want to dine out to eat something different. But now mom doesn’t make meatloaf, or spaghetti and meatballs, so where do you get that stuff? There’s so many restaurants out there that do nouvelle takes, meatloaf with shitake mushrooms and lamb meatballs, but what about the real thing? What about the original?

Is there anything that you’re particularly enamored of in terms of food right now?

LS: It’s difficult because there’s not that much produce available now*, so we’re really making due with scarcity. I’m rethinking the Mother’s menu and trying to think of ways to elevate things a little bit. I’m thinking of going to prime rib instead of rib eye steak, and offering potatoes au gratin and maybe varying the cheeses in that, just to keep things interesting, bringing in braised greens and making that available all the time. I’m always thinking of ways to expand the menu. We’re also thinking about doing our own food cart, using our company van, because it just sits in the parking lot, so it’s pretty likely we’re going to be doing Portland’s “best balls” and offer matzoh balls, meatballs, and mozzarella balls around town.

I was going to ask you what you thought about the flourishing food cart scene in our city.

LS: Well, I figured, if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, so I have a parking spot anyway and the van just sits there…we’re thinking of being roving though, just taking our balls around town and selling them, and making it fun.

It’s worked for Koi Fusion — and in New York City there’s Intelligentsia Coffee and a few other carts that move from place to place. You have to follow them on Twitter to find them.

LS: Exactly — we’ll put it up on Facebook, where our cart is going to be — so that’s the idea, to make it available to people around town so that they don’t have to come to us. Or maybe we’ll even park it right outside Mama Mia. People think it’s cheaper from a cart? OK. We’ll make it cheaper from a cart.

It’s still a prime location for the Saturday night bar crowd, they don’t necessarily want to come in and sit down.

You’re really generous to put your recipes up on your blog. A lot of chefs guard their recipes. I was wondering what allows you to be that free.

LS: Well, a lot of people can’t follow directions (laughs)! One of the things I found out about giving out recipes: no matter how much I tell someone to follow it to the letter, they’re going to do what they want. So even in the cookbook I gave the recipe for my Pomodora sauce in Mama Mia — and no Italian restaurant in their right mind gives out their tomato sauce recipe — but I do because I feel like no matter how many descriptors I give for how to make something, invariably someone will do it their way, not my way. So I really don’t think anyone is going to put me out of business any time soon. And I really believe that’s why I exist — because so many mothers guard their recipes and don’t share them with their family, and they feel like if they give them away they’re giving away this deep dark secret — but if we don’t pass these secrets along we won’t have these recipes for future generations, and that is my whole raison d’etre. To capture these recipes and share them so that they don’t get lost and so that they don’t die with this generation.

So does this idea of sharing recipes tie in to your vision of community?

LS: I just hear people say aren’t you worried? You’re doing a cookbook of all the food that you serve here — but I believe that the more people can cook at home for their families, the better this world will be. If people spend just one day a week at home cooking with their family and sitting around at the dinner table, then there’s no doubt that this world will be a better place. It’s proven! Newsweek did an article with statistics to prove that families that dine together not only stay together, but their children are better off — they do better in school, they do better socially and they get in to less trouble.

People do bond over the table, I believe it.

LS: They really do! And it’s one time when you can sit with the family and actually have a conversation, and not stare at TV, and not run around, and actually be with each other and pay attention to each other. I think that’s a beautiful thing.

* This interview was in January.

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