“I don’t know what it is about food your mother makes for you, especially when it’s something that anyone can make – pancakes, meat loaf, tuna salad – but it carries a certain taste of memory.” – Mitch Albom
Madre, mum, mere, mutter, mother. No matter what language, the word mother has always been a connection to love. This love is expressed in many different ways, but some of my own fondest memories with my mom are in the kitchen. Whether it was helping her make chocolate chip cookies or watching her prepare a holiday meal, it was so much more than nourishment or fuel. I always found comfort in her cooking.
If you live in Portland, Oregon or have visited, chances are you have felt this type of love while eating at Mother’s Bistro and Bar. You hear the sounds of friendly chatter in the background, see the light dance and sparkle off the crystal chandeliers, smile as you look at the artwork of mothers and children on the walls, and simply feel the warmth of mother’s home cooking that Chef Lisa Schroeder has artfully infused into every meal.
“I have to do this. This is what I have to do. I have a passion. I have a future. I have a vision.”
The World Needs Mother’s Cooking
Before she knew a profession in cooking was possible, Lisa Schroeder was working at a job she didn’t love back in 1992, thinking about what to make her family for dinner. An idea started to unfold in her mind. “Wait a minute, there’s no place to get mother food…the world needs a place that serves mother’s cooking from around the world,” she thought. With some encouragement from her best friend, Lisa checked out the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, about a two-hour drive away. It was love at first sight. “Oh my God, I could do this for a living? Cook all day long? Is this really a career?” Lisa enthusiastically shares. She applied to the CIA, unsure what would happen, and was accepted.
Then, a series of incidents occurred which most would see as setbacks, but Lisa realized was the push she needed to follow her passion. Her daughter decided to move in with her father, so she knew she would be cared for and it created more freedom in her schedule for her studies. She was laid off from her customer service job and was then able to collect unemployment while attending vocational school, or the culinary institute. Her best friend, the same one who encouraged her to check out the culinary institute, began an affair with Lisa’s significant other, which ended their relationship. “All these things were the atom bombs I really needed to push me toward cooking school to follow my dreams,” Lisa expressed.
For many, this string of events would be crushing and difficult to overcome, but Lisa found the silver lining. With only $100 in her pocket, she began her schooling and suddenly saw the world opening up for her. “I have to do this,” she says. “This is what I have to do. I have a passion. I have a future. I have a vision.”
All Roads Lead to Mother’s
With her savvy business skills, culinary talents, and innate ability to persevere, it’s no surprise Chef Lisa Schroeder has accomplished so much. Yet what’s most inspiring about Lisa goes far beyond the awards she’s received for her restaurant and cooking, how she’s written a cookbook or served on various boards and organizations in the community. It’s how she openly and vulnerably shares her story.
“Hell, I didn’t believe in myself my whole life, until the moment I had the epiphany, when I had the idea [for Mother’s],” she shares. “My whole life, I didn’t believe in myself. People think of me as this strong woman. I was demeaned and put down my whole life until that moment. So, believe in yourself and your right to dream, your right to have and realize your passion.”
“Believe in yourself and your right to dream, your right to have and realize your passion.”
Lisa didn’t always know her path or have the clarity to follow her dreams. At the impressionable age of 17, she left her hometown of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and moved to Jerusalem, Israel to attend Hebrew University. While there she began a relationship with a man who was abusive and involved in different schemes to make money, but never seemed to have a consistent income to take care of the family. “He’d drive around in a Mercedes, but yet I’d get phone calls from the electric company to get the bills paid,” Lisa remembers. She needed to make ends meet after they had moved back to the US and had their daughter, so she found a telemarketing position to help with the finances.
After this relationship ended, Lisa worked in other customer service positions over the next few years as she started to formulate the concept for Mother’s. When Lisa told her significant other at the time that she was going to pursue cooking, he said “I hope you don’t get fat.” Then when she learned he was having an affair with her best friend who had urged her to try culinary school, Lisa ended the marriage and found that despite the heartache, it helped her define love and what she deserved in a relationship. “My first two marriages, it was all about them,” Lisa shares. “I didn’t matter, and I put their dreams above mine…Love it not about me, or what do I get? It’s what do I give you.”
She continued to set her sights on the best, working in restaurants like La Cirque and Lespinasse in New York, putting in 90 hours a week so she could earn her culinary stripes but also pay the bills. She sublet her apartment, and spent time in Europe learning from various chefs at some of the most premiere kitchens in France. Taking her knowledge and life lessons with her every step of the way, Lisa was always thinking about how she would apply it to her own restaurant and her future. From the moment she had the idea in 1992, everything came back to Mother’s.
“Once I started following my dreams, it’s all been as it should. Now when I say ‘as it should,’ it hasn’t all been perfect and unicorns and rainbows.”
Finding Your Passion
Reflecting back on her journey from culinary school to running a beloved Portland staple, Lisa never imagined finding work that would be so fulfilling. In fact, she had always planned on a different type of profession. “I’m a Jewish girl from Philadelphia, I never thought cooking could be a career,” she says. “It was a doctor or a lawyer. There was no other career option for me. It wasn’t even in the realm of comprehension.” She always thought law was her passion, mostly because others encouraged her to follow that route. But with both the law and culinary school applications in front of her, she began writing the essay for the Culinary Institute and “it rolled off the pen.”
Lisa has always embraced whatever comes across her path, even if it meant working for free or leveraging a lay-off to attend culinary school. “Sometimes you have to give yourself a kick in the ass to get yourself to follow your goals,” she says. “We only have one life. No matter how old you are, your life may end tomorrow. You cannot mortgage your life away in anticipation of retirement or something else. Every minute matters. Every day matters. I don’t think anyone should be miserable in their job for any extended period of time.”
“We only have one life. No matter how old you are, your life may end tomorrow. You cannot mortgage your life away in anticipation of retirement or something else.”
Mother’s is Born
After returning to New York from her time spent in Europe, Lisa met a man named Rob visiting from Portland, and they hit it off. They dated for about six months and as the relationship progressed, she decided to move to the northwest. Chef Schroeder always knew she would open Mother’s outside New York, and it seemed like the right opportunity to make a change both personally and professionally.
Once she arrived in the City of Roses, Lisa began working at Besaw’s as a chef. She found she was gaining more confidence in herself and her culinary abilities, and after about two years, the time had come for her to open her own restaurant. On the day she gave her notice in July of 1999, a salesman came in and told her about a location on 2nd and SW Stark downtown that she should check out. “Something about the space spoke to me,” Lisa recalls about the first time she saw the future home of Mother’s. Everyone warned her since previous restaurants and bars had failed there, but she knew she could create the right atmosphere that felt like home.
Lisa had put together a business plan for Mother’s while in culinary school, so she already had the framework for her restaurant. As she prepared her financials, a non-profit found her, wanting to help women in business. They assisted her with refining her plan and reviewed the numbers, with the intent for a bank to grant a loan. Her wonderful husband Rob gave her a gift of $50,000, the Small Business Administration (SBA) put in $150,000, and a friend lent her $25,000 to carry her a bit farther. Chef Schroeder opened Mother’s Bistro & Bar with $225,000 in January of 2000. There was a line of ninety people walking in the door when they turned the sign from closed to open, and she was profitable within the first six months. “It’s a dream come true,” Lisa says. “Everything I’ve done is on blind faith.”
It’s Not All Perfect and Unicorns and Rainbows
Life in the restaurant industry comes with its challenges, just like any field or craft. With her contagious energy and creative knack to make things happen no matter what arises, Lisa is the perfect fit. “Everyday I am at work, everyday tacks are put in front of my steps. I think, ‘I don’t know how I can get through another day,’” Lisa shares. Not only does she get through it, she finds ways to always improve herself and her restaurant. “I’ve been through so many battles and had so many challenges that I’m used to being challenged. I know I will rise above it.”
She also believes life always provides guidance. “Once I started following my dreams, it’s all been as it should. Now when I say ‘as it should,’ it hasn’t all been perfect and unicorns and rainbows,” Lisa expresses. “But there’s a path, it’s clear, and the universe opens up…the universe wants you to follow your passion.”
“In the childhood memories of every good cook, there’s a large kitchen, a warm stove, a simmering pot and a mom.” – Barbara Costikyan