Shannon Feltus is an enthusiastically self-proclaimed food nerd. If she’s not in the kitchen, you’ll find her in the garden toiling away and planning things, big things, for the season’s bounty. And as a culinary horticulturist in the verdant Portland area, she tends to keep herself rather busy.
From having worked in the industry for more than 20 years to competing on Food Network to now working as a private chef, Shannon specializes in grow-your-own-adventure cuisine and constantly pushing flavor combinations to the brink of the never-before-tasted realm.
We talked with Shannon for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that takes a deep dive into a culinarian’s creative side, sources of inspiration, their favorite things, and more. Read the full interview and get to know Shannon below:
What do you consider your role to be in your community?
“A culinary horticulturist. I’m teaching people how to grow and cook food and how to rely on your own skills. Because it’s empowering as hell. Typically women are supposed to be the ones who know how, but the power of feeding yourself however you want is amazing. I’m just over here teaching some basic home ec. skills (laughs). It’s amazing the amount of people who want to learn but don’t know where to go.”
What’s your ethos on sustainability and food sourcing?
“I love this question. It can sound boujee when you’re sourcing from specific places. I’m lucky to live where I do and have the grandfathered-in relationships with the farmers from the farmer’s markets. So many cities have farmer’s markets, and they’re great for everyone, they’re helping the community to eat better local food.
I would say there are some people that are very hard lined about only eating organic, and I would challenge them to instead try and source local and ask questions. Many smaller, local farms are not able to take on the organic certification cost. Ask your grower if they’re using organic practices. Farmers markets are just the place to go; farmers might seem shy, but they’re a valuable resource and you should talk to them.”
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“I feel like I should have known sooner that I’d be doing this as a career; before I was doing a ton of jobs that sucked, just like trying to fit a square peg in a circle. I had like three jobs at once, including waitressing. The restaurant owner was not passionate about this industry, and the staff was miserable. And I was so jealous that he got to have a restaurant. That’s when I should have known this was for me.
Years later, after having my son, working a 9-5 didn’t work because he’s special needs. I started doing farmers’ market pickles using my grandmother’s recipe – it’s the recipe that my friends always asked for. I thought, “I should sell these,” and it took off. Now I have an easy, happy career, and I can work around being a mom. I was trying to make something fit, and I did.”
Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block?
“Yeah, I have my own garden and just spending time outside releases mental blocks. When I’m creating a recipe and working with a specific ingredient, I might have to take something that’s boring and make it beautiful. And then I have to write it up creatively so it sounds inciting.
Listening to music makes you relax, music makes things flow easier (laughs). There’s a connectivity there between relaxing and being inspired. It could be beautiful guitar music, piano, rock, put on good nostalgic late 90s and 2000s jams and I get stuff done.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“I get inspired by shows, I watch a TON of Food Network. In fact, being on Chopped is on my bucket list. I get inspired by other chefs.
Let’s take cream of mushroom soup. It’s inherently gross, so how can I make it from amazing mushrooms? Like delicious, restaurant-level cream of mushroom soup, and how do I make this in my own way? There are an endless amount of ingredient combinations, then trial and error. Once the dish is perfected it’s in my mental recipe book forever. I’m building that Rolodex experiment after experiment. But was seriously on a mission with mushroom soup. The recipe is the perfect creaminess and freezes like a dream, and now I’ll make it forever. Don’t get me wrong, there were a lot of failures along the way (laughs).”
How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?
“I do. I love plating. It’s one of my favorite fancy pants things to do. My husband says I always plate like we’re in a restaurant. I mess around with plating sauces, and I love a good powder or dehydration. I’ve been screwing around with powdered vinegars – those all really fun. Those elements can take a basic plate and make it cooler.”
What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“As a cook or someone who has culinary skills but didn’t go to culinary school, I ran into this a lot – the title of being a chef. My grandma had her own catering and bagel business – she was the culinary matriarch of the family and a really successful home chef. Seeing her made it feel ok to take this into a business.
But there is an amount of pushback you can get, people who have gone through culinary school sometimes won’t give you the same respect. If you’ve had to grind through dinner service as a line cook – you’ve earned your stripes in some sense. You’re not an imposter if you didn’t go to culinary school.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“I like to try all kinds of stuff. I’m a tender one with spicy stuff and sometimes adding heat feels super brave, but I love mixing heat and sweet. I love a good cantaloupe with toasted sesame and then add a little heat and basil or something pickled. I do a lot of taste testing; my family is my own personal panel of taste testers (laughs).
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Ooooh I’m gonna go look at my spices. I can tell you an overvalued one is rosemary. But as far as undervalued, I’d say ground ginger. People don’t put that in enough stuff, and it can go into sweet and savory dishes, with meat and veggies. I also lean on smoked paprika a lot – it gives a different unpredictable flavor note with more depth – it’s more rustic and wholesome.”
What are some horticulture trends you predict for 2022?
“Last year, we got a lot of brand new quarantine gardeners who have taken on their own backyard gardening. I teach classes at our local garden center, and there’s been a huge uptick in interest from homeowners. There are a lot of new faces, not just as s hobby, but as something to feel useful and connected to food.
New skills are the best thing that came from the pandemic. Also, there are more people focusing and patronizing local farmer’s markets. People have changed where they are buying from and are changing the focus on what they’re eating. From shopping from Instacart to a farmers market, your intent is different. I think it’s changing for the better.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“It’s crazy cause they could change often. But I could truly put bacon in anything. I’ve made bacon pickles, cupcakes, I tend to wrap everything in bacon, and you I consider pork belly bacon. There’s just a ton of different things you can do with it.
Other than that, I’d say seasonal veggies – I’m an indiscriminate omnivore.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?
“Two tricks. This one’s for people who want to impress their family – make handmade pasta. It’s easy and there are few ingredients. The second is cooking things in parchment; if you don’t know how to cook fish you almost can’t ruin it in parchment. Both are cheap and easy.”
What would you consider a defining trait of the PDX food scene?
“I think we’re just really known for signature weird food. You can find a pizza and a weird pizza. You can find Walla Walla onions in everything; we tend to hyper-focus on a lot of our foraged stuff. Other states might think that is weird as hell.”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“We have a freezer full of local beef and veggies, and I cook for myself all the time. I’d say I like a good steak and broiled broccoli. And I’ll name drop Mason Hill Cattle, their wagyu beef is on the affordable side, and I get to create recipes for them. But a perfect NY strip with a coffee crust, broiled broccoli and a basic baked potato. Also, tip – cut into the baked potato when it’s done, smoosh it, add butter and put it back in the oven. The bottom is like a ridiculous butter chip.”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“One of my go-tos and one of the first things my husband ever cooked for me was angel hair pasta with brown butter and mizithra cheese, it’s a very hard salty cheese. In fact, it’s so salty you don’t need much more.”
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in PDX?
“For breakfast, Batter Up Waffles. It is family-owned and run by someone I used to work with at the farmer’s market. Lunch, go to Garden Monsters. It’s another food cart, and they accommodate all different dietary restrictions and preferences. There’s a Cowboy Cobb that’s insanely good. For dinner, just do Lardo, everyone will tell you to go, but it really is the best. And dessert! Go to The Hungry Hero – it’s my favorite. Its a very proud gay bakery, the owner calls it his gaykery (laughs).”
See what’s in season and follow Shannon over at @urbanfarmfoods.