Portland is sleepy on Saturday morning. It’s 7:45 a.m. and I’ve just arrived at Jason Francis French’s home in a quiet southeast neighborhood not far from my own. French is waiting for me on the sidewalk when I arrive, drinking from a white Heart Roasters coffee mug. In horn-rimmed glasses, a plaid Rapha button-down shirt and well-loved Levi’s, he’s quintessentially Portland chic. He’s also smiling.
I like him immediately.
Behind the gate that leads to his backyard is a jumble of children’s toys, gardening tools and small bicycles. French’s wife, CJ, appears from the backdoor in a flowing silk robe, holding a mug of her own. Like French, she’s welcoming and unassuming. She feeds the chickens and sits near the apple tree in the yellow morning light, petting a black cat while we talk about the day, the weather, and how much we love shooting film.
I acquire a steaming coffee mug which sports the name of French’s renowned restaurant—Ned Ludd—and the restaurant’s iconic graphic: a hand-drawn rustic axe. The axe is both a nod to the way food is cooked at Ned Ludd and the philosophy behind the preparation: exquisite ingredients prepared lovingly by hand and cooked in a single wood-fired oven, the only piece of cooking equipment in the restaurant.
The restaurant is named after the fabled proletariat hero who encouraged artisans to rebel against the technology of the Industrial Revolution and destroy machinery in defense of craft—hence the name Luddites. French describes it as “an American craft kitchen” and emphasizes the importance of cultivating personal relationships with the mainly local producers with whom he works.
Today, he is on a mission to the Portland Farmer’s Market to gather ingredients for a catering event later in the evening. I’m here to tag along.
French hands me a slice of apple from the tree. Behind me, figs are exploding into life. To the north, squash the size of my head are lounging in a small slice of garden. These are garden people. These are food people. These are coffee people. Simple things done well. Life cultivated one detail at a time.
He puts his coffee down and says, “Check this out, Heidi.” He’s smirking. Then he goes into the chicken coop where I take photos of him collecting eggs in his cycling helmet. Take that Portlandia. I’m telling you, you can’t write this shit.
We get ready to head out, he pulls his bike out of the nearby shed. The bike is the reason I’m here in the first place. It’s a custom, hand-built Ira Ryan masterpiece, with a trailer designed and built by Ben Leonard of Trucker Racks and a custom-designed bag and rack cover from Tanner Goods.
The bike is a looker—precise and classic with rich red paint, cream accents and wooden details. French conceived of the idea after opening his restaurant. What if we had a bike that was built specifically for the daily errands that inevitably come up? What if we could gather our fresh ingredients from the local markets without having to get in a car? The restaurant is committed to simplicity and craft: what could be simpler than a handcrafted delivery bike? (Besides, who isn’t looking for a business excuse to commission a gorgeous hand-built rig?)
The rest of the story goes like this: Iran Ryan and Ben Leonard came in to dine at Ned Ludd. They had an amazing meal. They got up and went outside to begin unlocking their bikes for the ride home. French followed them out into the pouring rain and began to describe the market delivery bike he imagined. The rest, as they say, is (award-winning) history. The Ned Ludd Market Bike collaboration went on to win the “Best City Bike” award at the 2012 NAHBS show.
The accolades weren’t exactly surprising. Ryan’s craftsmanship is famously impeccable and he has a knack for making truly utilitarian bikes that are equally handsome. But the real victories for the market bike are in the outright admiration that people spontaneously express during its on-the-job excursions.
As French and I roll through Portland, across the Hawthorne Bridge, through downtown and into the Saturday Market, people stop to watch us pass—and I’m pretty sure they aren’t checking out my lavender-and-gray FUSO FrankenBike commuter. The Ned Ludd Market Bike has a personality and a life of its own; it’s a little playful with an undeniable work ethic. Chris King components and details from Portland Design Works complete the local story, while the Brooks saddle rounds out a distinctly classic aesthetic.
It’s fun. It’s beautiful. It’s stunning. People ask to take pictures of it. People ask what it is. And not just bike nerds. Everyone.
It’s everything a bicycle should be: a best friend, a transportation machine, a hauler, an art object, a beloved. For Jason French, it’s also a saving grace.
For the Love of Ludd
French is a graduate of L’Academie de Cuisine, where he was awarded a James Beard Scholarship. He’s cooked in about 20 kitchens (including several award-winners) and has been featured in The New York Times. No slouch when it comes to food, he also knows a thing or two about marketing. He’s done some TV, some radio, has had countless articles written about him and has most recently gotten more involved with local culinary events, including the Oregon Truffle Festival, Feast Portland (a four-day celebration of food and drink from the region) and, most importantly for our purposes here, the legendary Chris King’s Gourmet Century.
“Marketing is part of the business,” says French. “You’ve got to do it.
You can’t ignore it.”
We’re making a strategic lap around the Portland Farmer’s Market while we talk. He’s already greeted many friends (fellow chefs and vendors alike), finalized plans to squeeze in a round of golf on Monday morning and enjoyed a seriously sinful fried-egg-and-bacon breakfast sandwich from a bespectacled, distinctly East Coast-type character running a stand called Bingo. But the lap hasn’t been solely social; along the way he’s also acquired a beautiful bunch of elderberries, two boxes of ground cherries, two large flower bouquets and a large box of O’Henry’s peaches.
French admits the bike is part of the marketing story he tells. “I rode it to an event I was doing with a few other chefs in town. When I rolled in they were like, ‘Seriously? You had to come on the bike?’ It can get a little out of hand.” French laughs at himself easily, understands the extreme Portlandia-ism that the bike represents, and still loves it for all it’s worth. But he also really just loves to ride.
“This is the time that I have for myself each day. It’s my time alone. It’s a great way to start and end the day, and when I ride from my house to the market to the restaurant and back home again, I get a 17-mile round trip. Considering that half of that involves hauling close to 100 pounds of cargo, it’s a pretty decent ride.” French laughs, “Then if I do ever get a chance to jump on my road bike, it’s like I’m flying.”
The past two years have been big for French. Ned Ludd exceeded expectations and French’s career is taking off in ways he might have never imagined (most recently he was featured on the Cooking Channel’s Man Fire Food). But success comes with a price and, like most chef-owners, French routinely spends 65-85 hours a week at work. A typical day can start at 9:00 a.m. and end at midnight. When he’s not working, he’s busy raising a family that includes two daughters—Papillon, age 11 and Viola, age 4. “I often feel like I’m always working … but not in the bad way!” he tells me.
Which is why the Ned Ludd Market Bike is important not just as a hauler, a bicycle and an impressive work of art: the bike itself offers French an escape and a respite. It provides those magical things that bicycles have been giving us for decades: freedom, calm, exhilaration and clarity.
At a time when collaborations are rampant and sometimes a little random, here is one that actually makes a hell of a lot of sense: a group of craftsmen coming together to create and construct a beautiful, efficient tool for a fellow craftsman. A group of people who understand the quirky, irreplaceable spirit that building something by hand infuses into an object, who appreciate the startling brilliant orange of an egg delivered by chickens that live in your backyard, who can cook meals for an entire restaurant full of people with nothing but open flame.
French and I pedal together out of downtown—losing only one renegade eggplant from the otherwise secure load—across the Broadway Bridge and up the false flat of the Williams Street commuter corridor. French gets a little frisky as he sees a light about to turn up ahead of us. With the extra force applied to the pedals, the market bike is hauling ass—fast enough to induce a respectable speed wobble from the trailer. Who needs a power meter to understand effort?