Welcome to the December edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Jake and Raquel Stevens from Leeward. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on instagram, so stay tuned.
In their early teen years, Jake and Raquel Stevens began working in restaurants on opposite sides of the country. Jake washed dishes, bussed tables, and ran food at The Spaghetti Factory in Portland, Oregon. Meanwhile, Raquel poured soda at her godparent’s clam shack in New London, Connecticut. “I was very good at telling the subtle difference between Diet Coke, Coke, and root beer by sight alone,” she jokes.
Raquel fell hard for the adrenaline of the restaurant industry while bouncing from one buzzing clam shack to another, always working front-of-the-house. Jake took a liking to back-of-the-house when he filled in for a no-show line cook. He enjoyed cooking so much that he dropped out of college and transferred to the former Scottsdale Culinary Institute, now closed.
After a stint in the Caribbean and roaming California with a band, Raquel moved to Portland, Oregon, where she and Jake’s fates aligned. The two met while working at Chef Jenn Louis’ nationally recognized restaurant, Lincoln, now closed. “That was the first restaurant I worked at where I realized restaurants could be beautiful, serious, and create lovely food,” Raquel explains.
The duo then moved to Los Angeles and worked at The Tasting Kitchen, where Raquel learned about obscure wine varietals and Jake discovered a passion for handmade pasta. Eventually, they returned to Portland, Oregon, where Jake served as chef de cuisine at Beast, now Ripe Cooperative, and Raquel refined her knowledge of classic French wines at Laurelhurst Market.
In July 2017, Jake and Raquel left one Portland for another. Maine reminded them of their favorite parts of the Pacific Northwest. The Forest City offered a slower pace of life and a better opportunity to open a restaurant. Their transition to restaurant owners was slow and strategic. For three years, Raquel expanded her wine education at Drifters Wife, and Jake gained experience with East coast seafood as the sous chef at Eventide. “We felt it was important to engrain ourselves into the food culture here and get to know people in the industry. We didn’t want to just come in and railroad our own concept,” Jake explains.
Leeward debuted in September 2018 when the Stevens held their first pop-up dinner at The Honey Paw. After three more successful pop-ups, they leased space on a stretch of Free Street that is notoriously windy. (Ironically, leeward means “sheltered from the wind” in its nautical context). On March 12, 2020, Jake and Raquel opened the doors to 85 Free Street but announced the closure of their dining room in response to COVID-19 later that week.
Leeward weathered the pandemic like so many others by offering creative takeout options and outdoor dining on a freshly built patio during the warmer months. Finally, in summer 2021, Jake and Raquel welcomed guests once again to dine indoors. Leeward’s outstanding handmade pasta and intriguing wine list have received well-deserved praise from locals and tourists alike and others in the industry, such as Cara Stadler, Brain Catapang, and Kelly Nelson.
Continue reading to find out which pasta dish Jake “can’t take off the menu,” which wine region Raquel is loving most right now, their favorite takeout spots in Portland, and who they believe makes the “best pizza in Maine.”
AA: Why do you think Portland, Maine is such a fantastic restaurant city?
JS: Its proximity to bigger cities easily allows for the exchange of ideas and talented industry professionals from larger markets. That coupled with access to amazing local produce and proteins creates a food city that punches above its weight class.
AA: Who has played a vital role in your journey to restaurant ownership?
JS: Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley from Eventide helped us out a lot. I got hired there even though they knew we had the intention of opening our own restaurant. They allowed us to do our pop-ups at The Honey Paw on Tuesdays when they were closed. They were also an invaluable resource and would answer any of our questions regarding business ownership, permitting, paperwork, and taxes. Andrew is still on speed dial for when I need unpaid restaurant consultation.
Our sous chef, Colin Kennedy, and pastry chef, Kate Hamm, have been with us since the beginning. We also had an opening sous chef, Jake Robins, who was here for a few months before returning home. He was hugely helpful in getting this place open — everything from recipe testing to driving to New Hampshire with me to pick up used kitchen equipment. And, of course, everyone that came to our pop-ups and contributed to our Kickstarter.
AA: Raquel, who has had the biggest impact on your wine career?
RS: Kristen Koors, the wine director at Laurelhurst Market, was really instrumental in teaching me about lower intervention wines and a lot of the classics from France. She took me under her wing and helped set me on the path I am on now. Also, Peter and Orenda Hale from Maine & Loire were huge in helping me learn about the natural wine world.
AA: What are your favorite dishes at Leeward?
JS: Our menu changes all the time. In the summertime, I was really excited about the fresh corn polenta. We use Pineland Farms corn and box grate it. We saute all the juices and chunks in butter and add corn cob stock. The starches start to gel, and it sets up like polenta. Then we put a slab of Taleggio cheese on top and melt it in the oven.
The mafaldine is a customer favorite. It’s the one pasta that doesn’t come off the menu. We extrude the mafaldine in-house. For the bolognese, we use grass-fed beef that is ground in house, cured pork, celery, carrot, onion, garlic, Chile de Árbol, bay leaf, housemade tomato paste, pork stock, white wine, and milk that is steeped with Parmigiano Reggiano rinds. Then we toss it all together with some sort of bitter green, like dandelion or escarole, and finish it with a little butter and Parmigiano Reggiano.
AA: What are your favorite wines at Leeward?
RS: Lately, I’ve been captivated by Italy in general, but Piemonte especially. It was a region I wrote off for a long time, but the more I delve into it, the more I learn about producers that are making beautiful, honest, and sometimes unexpected expressions of native grapes in the region.
G.D. Vajra Claré J.C. Langhe Nebbiolo 2020 – This wine is made in a way that harkens back to a time before Barolo was a known region. It’s a lighter expression, partially carbonic, and very chillable, but it still has the floral quality and pencil shavings of Nebbiolo. It’s not what you think of when you think of Nebbiolo, but not so esoteric that you can’t enjoy it.
Scarpa Pelaverga Verduno 2020 – This is also from the Barolo region. It’s the producer’s first vintage of Pelaverga. Peleverga is a native grape, and very little is planted. It’s often planted in between rows and, I believe, used to pacify winemakers as they’re waiting for the Barolo to mature. It’s a light-bodied red with a ton of aromatics similar to amaro. It sort of smells like the forest on a hot day.
Giulia Negri La Tartufaia Barolo 2016 – This wine is made by a brazen young woman who took over her father’s estate. She’s known as “Barolo Girl.” It has the most finesse I’ve ever tasted in a Barolo. She does a long and slow maceration and fermentation, so she’s getting the power from the grape, but in a controlled manner. She’s tempered the boldness.
AA: What are some of your favorite dishes in Portland?
JS: Crispy Gai fried chicken is awesome. I like his crispy waterfall salad too.
RS: They’ve toed this line where it’s really fun and approachable, but it doesn’t feel kitschy.
JS: We also like the drinks at Cocktail Mary and the lamb tartare at Judy Gibson.
AA: What are some of your favorites outside of Portland?
JS: We really love the pizza at Oxbow Beer Garden in Oxford. I think it’s the best pizza in Maine. The ‘Nduja pizza is awesome.
RS: We eat that a lot in winter. We cross country ski then hang out in the beer garden. We waited an hour for that pizza one day, and it was worth it. The fried artichokes are really good too.
JS: Also, the cheese balls at Lorne Wine in Biddeford. They’re like the cheese balls you buy at Staples in the big round tub.
RS: Cheese balls pair remarkably well with nearly any kind of wine. Lorne also serves North Haven Oysters by Adam Campbell. We got to visit his oyster beds a couple of years ago. It looks like they’re just growing in their natural habitat. He doesn’t use cages. The oysters are bottom-cultured.
AA: What do you think is one of the most underrated restaurants in Portland?
JS: I like Bahn Appetit a lot. I wouldn’t say they are underrated but maybe overlooked.
RS: Everyone should go there and try a Bahn mi sandwich. It’s the perfect baguette, and the bread to filling ratio is just right.
AA: What do you recommend for takeout?
JS: The shrimp lettuce wraps at Mr. Tuna.
RS: And Ben Rueben’s Knishery is tasty. His knishes are creative, and the rugelach is excellent. We usually sit on the sidewalk, cover ourselves in crumbs, and then go back inside for more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
A few notes on the restaurants mentioned in this article: Drifters Wife went out of business in July 2020, Eventide, Crispy Gai, Mr. Tuna, Cocktail Mary, Maine & Loire, Judy Gibson, Lorne Wine and The Honey Paw are open for indoor drinking and/or dining, Oxbow Beer Garden has outdoor seating, Bahn Appetite and Ben Reuben’s Knishery are open for takeout.
Previous editions of My Kitchen Their Table have featured Courtney Loreg, Chad Conley Atsuko Fujimoto, Matt Ginn, Jordan Rubin, Cara Stadler, Thomas Takashi Cooke, Ilma Lopez, Bowman Brown, Brian Catapang, Kelly Nelson, and Lee Farrington & Bryna Gootkind.
Photo Credit: Nicole Wolf Photography