By Patrick Alexander
Oregon Coast TODAY
Pacific Northwest ingredients served up with Asian flair might sound like fusion cuisine to some — but don’t tell that to chef Jeremy Ho of Newport’s newest gourmet restaurant, JJ Ho Café International.
“I hate the term ‘fusion,’” he said, adding: “Most of the fusion I’ve seen, they force things together that don’t mix.”
“Harmonious” might be a better word to describe the dishes that flow from Ho’s kitchen — all created by a man whose food philosophy is liberally sprinkled with musical metaphors.
Tucked away in an unassuming downtown storefront, Ho’s boutique eatery seats 30 people at full capacity, but a look at the walls offers a glimpse at a past life on an entirely different scale.
Framed magazine articles and awards tell the story of Ho’s glittering, 30-year career as an executive chef at hotels and restaurants throughout China, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Ho said the industry was an intense environment, with chefs under constant pressure to maintain the high star ratings upon which the hotels based their prices.
“If you make it, you make it,” he said. “If not, you are out.”
But all that pressure had its advantages, Ho said, forcing him to stay “half a step ahead” of the competition.
“Thirty-percent of the menu is classics — stuff that has been around forever,” he said. “You can’t change Beethoven, you can’t change Mozart. But 70 percent of it you had to be creative, innovative.”
Take the humble burger for example.
Thinking of topping it with bacon? How about foie gras instead?
Thousand Island dressing? Try black truffle.
Cooking has always been second nature to Ho, who was raised in the kitchen of his father’s Hong Kong restaurant, which the family still runs to this day. Ho said his father taught him the two most important things about being a chef — consistency and a refusal to compromise.
“He was quite stubborn,” Ho said, adding: “All chefs or cooks are supposed to have that trait.”
That education took Ho to the top of the culinary field, presiding over kitchens that served 8,000 meals a day to guests who demanded five-star service.
“I believe a good chef, a good cook, should have their own style,” he said. “If you don’t have that then no matter how good you are, you’re only an impersonator.”
Now, Ho is applying those same principles to his Newport operation, comparing the shift in scale to the difference between a Top-40 artist and a little-known singer-songwriter.
“There are some kind of musicians, you follow them because they play their own music,” he said. “Small restaurants only seat so many people. They want that kind of following.”
The move to Oregon has Ho thinking about how he can use the region’s local ingredients to create unique dishes. Dungeness crab, Oregon shrimp, Oregon wine, hazelnuts and Tillamook cheese all feature on the menu. And the highly seasonal nature of the region’s agriculture provides fertile ground for a specials board that changes daily to accommodate new ingredients.
And when it comes to marrying these Pacific Northwest staples with Asian ingredients, Ho said they key is to choose flavors that marry together, rather than forcing an unhappy union in the name of fusion.
He said Chinese ingredients have helped add a unique twist to several traditional Western dishes that have appeared as nightly specials — Lobster Grand Marnier and Cornish game hen served with garlic rosemary Chinese mushrooms port wine glaze.
“I’m Chinese,” he said. “Even though I speak some English, I speak with an accent.”
But simply combining ingredients from different cultures is not enough, Ho said. In order to achieve true harmony on the plate, a chef needs to cook each ingredient in a culturally appropriate style.
“You have to stir fry rather than sauté if you are using Asian ingredients,” he said. “It seals in the juice and taste. You can’t cook a steak like you cook a burrito.”
Ho said the more relaxed pace offered by a smaller restaurant gives him the chance to experiment on his own terms and is looking forward to developing a following of food fans who move to the same beat.
“Just like a piano player playing his songs,” he said, “you try to make a request but don’t tell him to play the Beatles.”
JJ Ho Café International is located at 715 SW Hurbert Street, Newport, and is open from 11:30 am to 2:30 pm for lunch and 4:30 to 10 pm for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday. For reservations, call 541-272-9463.