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How To Create Lasting Social Rituals Around Food, With Portland’s Top Chef

With an increasing number of restaurants banning small children, the ritual of a family meal away from the kitchen island is under fire — but it might be mor important than ever. Recent research by Rutgers University suggests socializing meals lead to smarter, better students. Children who listen to adults talk increase their vocabularies and learn important language skills (you know, like “we’ll explain when you’re older”, and other evasions).

We spoke with Jason French — chef/owner of Portland’s Ned Ludd — about an alternative to restaurants that’s beneficial for tots and parents alike: the dinner party. Here, Jason goes off on the virtues of pot luck, and how to evolve your get-togethers to include the wee ones in a meaningful way. Oh, and if you have no idea what to bring to these things, he also provides the perfect one-pot wonder, his cassoulet recipe.

So how did this renewed interest come about?
After my divorce, I have a new woman in my life who has two kids as well. It’s funny how both of us had this life of dinner parties and hanging out around food and then we had kids. For her, it continued. But when I had my youngest daughter all that came to a screeching halt because I opened the restaurant.

One of the things my girlfriend and I are intent on getting back to is throwing the parties we’ve each thrown our whole lives before we knew each other. Bringing in the cast of characters, with kids, where everyone is responsible for bringing a dish, on theme. But everyone also brings things for the kids to eat as well. That’s our 2015 goal. Once a month, so now we need to figure out the range of how we do what we want to do.

How do you pick your dinner guests?
Portland has a range of wonderful creative folks who are parents, who make things and do things and invent things. You can curate a table with a guy who does leather manufacturing and a guy who runs a paint company and the chef and the farmer and a guy who raises pigs. Everyone has kids. And that’s the most interesting conversation.

“If you can be thoughtful about your food and the company you’re keeping, that’s an engaging space for children.”

How do you make sure it’s a dinner party for parents and kids and not a dinner party for parents who can bring their kids. And what should kid-friendly foodie dinners look like?
Culinarily inclined parents want their kids to be adventurous eaters, and there are foodie, super taster kids, but for the most part, kids are kids. I couldn’t stand bitter things for a while, or eggs. It would be visceral, and my parents would get mad at me. And I get mad at my kids, too. It was so funny when I saw kids eat only white cheese. But now my youngest is only into yellow cheese: “Ew! It’s white. I don’t eat that.” But kids shouldn’t be held to a high culinary level, so parents should bring a dumbed down version.

Jason French’s Cassoulet: A Perfect Dish To Bond Over With Family And Friends
A Winter dish for the table, to share with family and friend that serves 8. According to French, “No one does it better than southwest France. Cassoulet is this amazing wintertime dish. It tastes even better if you combine it and let it sit overnight and then reheat it.”


The Beans

  • 2 lbs dried beans tarbais or flageolet bean (for dried beans- soak over night or cover with water, bring to boil and let sit one hour.)
  • 2 onions, peeled and halved
  • 2 carrots, peeled and halved
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
  • Pancetta, thick slice of, salt pork, bacon ends
  • 1 ham hock
  • Large bouquet garni- bay, thyme and parsley stems

The Meat

  • 4 large pork sausages (or lamb, duck etc)
  • 2 larger carrots, peeled and dices
  • 2 onions, peeled and diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 1 bottle red wine
  • 1 bunch fresh thyme tied with butcher’s twine
  • Salt to taste

Make the Beans

  1. Place all of the above ingredients in a large pot, cover with water
  2. Bring to a boil then turn down to low, cover and let cook gently for one hour or until beans are just tender
  3. Remove the aromatics and bouquet garni and allow to cool

Make the Meat

  1. Season and brown the duck lamb and sausages in a heavy bottomed pan sauteed in olive oil or duck fat if on hand
  2. Remove to a bowl and add the aromatics, cook on medium heat for 10-15 minutes, adding oil if necessary
  3. Add the lamb and wine and cover
  4. Simmer for 1 1/2 to 2 hours over low heat or in a low oven until tender and falling off the bone
  5. The dish can be made ahead at this point and all components assembled for the oven

Assemble & Cook

  1. Preheat the oven to 300 F
  2. Take one large or several small glazed terra cotta pots and divide the meat and aromatics and any cooking liquid amongst them
  3. Using a slotted spoon begin the divide the beans evenly reserving the liquid
  4. Add the sausages and duck confit and add bean broth to cover – adjust seasoning
  5. Place the cassoulet in the oven and bake until browning and bubbly
  6. Top with a good amount of the bread crumbs and continue to bake until golden brown
  7. If the cassoulet looks dry merely add some bean broth
  8. Serve with a nice frisee salad with a perky dijon vinaigrette and lots of red wine