Chef’s Dish: Jillian Forte of At Sara’s Table
In the kitchen of Duluth’s At Sara’s Table and Chester Creek Café, Jillian Forte uses her travels as inspiration when creating menus.
Being able to do something you love for a living is a gift. Being able to do something you love in beautiful places is like two gifts.
Jillian Forte, executive chef of At Sara’s Table and the Chester Creek Café in Duluth (one restaurant; two names), is lucky enough to have experienced the two gifts. Forte started her cooking career working as a prep cook in the majestic Boundary Waters at Gunflint Lodge.
“It was a really good place to start,” Forte says, “doing high-end food for people who wanted to be in the woods.” It was that summer Forte was introduced to French cuisine, which she would pick up again after moving to cook in Eugene, Oregon.
“I dream about going back,” Forte confesses.
Many greens and vegetables used in the restaurant’s recipes come from its own garden.
From there she traveled to Costa Rica for six months, eating what she describes as the best seafood platter of her life, as well as being introduced to the creative world of everything you can do with rice and beans. Forte would then head to the culinary capital of Mexico, Oaxaca (pronounced wa-hah-kah). Here Forte made it one of her goals to cook in a restaurant and cook a lot. After four months of writing out a resume in Spanish she was hired on the spot after one interview. When talking about her employer, Forte laughs: “She just sat there and waited for me to find the words in Spanish—I had no idea she spoke English.”
In Mexico, Forte was tasked with creating a sample menu of her own where she deconstructed her favorite street foods.
“I took my favorite, tlayuda,” Forte says, describing it as “a flat crispy tortilla with a bean sauce, beef grilled on the flame in front of you, and the famous Oaxaca cheese, where the ‘T’ fibers are so strong you have to cut it with a knife.
“I deconstructed it with what I came up with in a dream. I know I’m going to have a good menu item when I have a dream about it.”
After many, many months exploring various cultures and their foods, Forte returned home to Duluth, but her years of travel had taught her how to approach food differently. At the café, Forte specializes in making all her food from scratch using local, organic ingredients, and even vegetables from the garden on site. Sara’s Table and the Chester Creek Café’s tagline is, “creative comfort with a conscious.” The café has become a social and cultural center of Duluth and it’s no wonder when the executive chef pulls experiences and influences straight from her passport covered in stamps.