Food is her Forte: Head chef Jillian Forte uses travel, community to set the tone At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe
As a child, Jillian Forte had her own play cooking show.
It was "taking condiments and pretending to cook them above the stove," she recalled.
Since then, the Duluth woman has traveled around the globe. She's learned from chefs as close to home as the Gunflint Lodge north of Grand Marais to as far off as Oregon and Costa Rica — and today, she runs the kitchen At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe.
As executive chef, Forte checks the inventory and product quality daily. She writes the menu and manages the kitchen staff, but most of her day is spent with food — and she doesn't mind.
"I'm a tactile person, so I find cutting vegetables meditative," she said.
This time of year, there's an abundance of garden goods: peas, beans, cabbage, beets. "It's fun, but the pressure's definitely on. ... All of a sudden, it's all coming at once," she said.
Nature and the garden are big influences in how Forte conceives of dishes for the restaurant at 1902 E. 8th St. in Duluth. She always considers what's in season, what she craves eating and what's available in the area.
Forte is also mindful of how the food will support the community, a philosophy that can be seen in the menu.
Sauce for the cafe's Biscuits & Gravy menu item is made with chorizo from Yker Acres in Wrenshall. The Bent Paddle Cupcakes are made from the brewery's Black Ale. The starch in the Smoked Salmon Bagel is from Ashland Baking Co. And a big source of goods is the garden located kitty corner from the cafe, she said.
Recently, Forte used ingredients fresh from the garden for a pesto served a couple of hours later. Critically thinking about food in this way and plotting recipes based on local ingredients is typical in Forte's work — and it preps the stage for her favorite part: getting in the flow with cooking.
She describes it as a "surreal state."
"When you're doing what you do, and you do it really well, and you almost don't have to think about it.
"I get to that when I have four or five things cooking at once," she said.
During lunch rush at the diner, a sign reads "Eat more pie." On display are brownies, gluten-free cupcakes and vegan cookies in the shape of running dogs. Bookshelves hold locally made maple syrup.
Customers dig into eggs, French toast, home fries; others form a long line, awaiting their turn.
In the kitchen, chefs move among each other as energy flies and dishes chatter. On the grill, steam rises from blueberry dotted pancakes the size of hubcaps. "Hot hot hot" says a line cook to a dishwasher as he hands him a pan.
Forte glides through the kitchen aisle, a steady force. She checks a monitor of digital tickets. She flips an omelet. She preps a salmon sandwich with onion, capers and spinach.
"Lots of short-term memory happens on the line," she says in a spare moment. "It's very taxing on the brain."
Soon after: "We're out of scrambled," she says. A line cook answers with a big plastic bin of eggs ready for the stovetop.
Forte takes a pan from a shelf above. She pours oil from what looks like a metal teapot onto it. She scrambles eggs, her focus unwavering.
Forte has been executive chef for around three years, and at the cafe for more than 10. Neither Forte nor restaurant co-owner Carla Blumberg remember exactly. What Blumberg does remember is the first time she met and cooked alongside Forte.
"She was totally cool under fire," Blumberg said in a phone interview from Texas.
"That is so unusual in our industry," she added, likening the kitchen to the Wild West, where yelling and outbursts are common.
"Guys would be yelling, and she'd be standing there by the stove, cracking an egg, completely unruffled," Blumberg said. That impressed her, and she has continued to be impressed ever since.
'About the team'
Forte describes coming to At Sara's Table as "an instant fit."
Since entering the business, Forte, a former vegetarian, has had to overcome intimidation with butchering meat. And there's a story about foie gras. But, she said, "one of the bigger challenges is being a female chef."
"In other places, I had to fight so hard to be better than everyone else just to be recognized as an equal," she said. But the culture was different at the cafe, and her work ethic and experience helped her influence change early in her tenure.
Today, Forte runs a collaborative kitchen, where she involves colleagues in recipes and ideas — something Blumberg appreciates.
"It really is about the team," Forte said. "Yeah, I have a vision, but it's my team that carries it out for me.
"There's no way you can run a kitchen without everyone there."
Heather Erickson is sous chef At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe, and describes Forte as very easy to work for and with. "It's very comfortable. ... We can rely on each other to know what's going on," Erickson said.
Restaurant work is very sensory in the setting and food, Blumberg said. There's a depth to flavor that requires work to understand and to create, and Forte understands it.
Asked about Forte's evolution since she started at the cafe, Blumberg said: "She's turned from a girl into a woman."
And while others have tried to lure Forte away, Blumberg is grateful she's stuck with them.
"I feel really lucky to have the space to do what I do with my food," Forte said.
Tips for new cooks
Jillian Forte, executive chef At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe, offers tips for new cooks.
• "Learn how to use a knife," she said. This paves the way to making fresh foods easily.
• Start with the basics and learn how to deal with them really well: starches, rices, quinoas, pastas.
• Try spices. Make chicken and just use cumin or turmeric. "Basically, you can teach your palate what those foods taste like," she said.