Story & photos by Angela Nebel
For the TODAY
For the 40 seconds that Chef Jeremy Ho cooks his favorite dish on the menu at JJ Ho Café International, he has laser-like focus. No talking, no multi-tasking — his concentration is perhaps the most important culinary skill in turning out one perfect calamari steak.
“My style is quite different than most restaurants,” he remarks one mid-afternoon in the gap between lunch and dinner service. “I have always loved calamari steak, but they cook easily and if you overcook it, it is like a rubber band. Every degree of temperature makes the dish different.”
Opened last September, this cozy Newport bistro seats 30 within walls adorned by photos, clippings and reviews of Ho’s distinguished career as a chef — first in Hong Kong and later in Seattle. The menu is diverse but don’t look for predictable restaurant standards at this hidden gem.
“I could be the only restaurant in town that doesn’t serve french fries,” he notes with a laugh. “There is no ketchup in this house.”
Instead, diners are greeted with daily lunch and dinner specials or invited to choose off a menu of seafood, steak and poultry. Dishes like Dover sole roulade with smoked salmon mousse moutarde, Pommery orange duckling, and Moroccan flavored chicken roulade stuffed with zucchini spinach are a beautiful feast for all five senses. The menu, which is both eclectic and exotic, is also reasonably priced. The highest ticket entrée is less than $20 and there are plenty of options in the $12-to-15 range.
Located in a small strip mall, it’s easy to drive by JJ Ho Café International. Restaurants are abundant on Highway 101, but Ho’s international flare and his love of good ingredients translate into a unique offering for the Oregon Coast.
“I cook the way I want and people come to try my food,” he said. “I have cooked over half the world, in different hotels and with different chefs, mostly in Europe, and we communicate differently with our own language, but we share the passion of food.”
He is also ardent about innovation in his cooking. He equates ingredients with exploration and never passes up an opportunity to visit a different grocer or ethnic store to find a new element for a dish.
“I hate to follow tradition,” he said, before conceding that some dishes qualify as “classics” and they, by definition, are not meant to be changed. Do something different with a Caesar salad, he notes, and it is no longer a Caesar salad.
At 64-years-old, Ho can still remember the first time he ate an oyster.
“I made a funny face,” he said, inserting a dramatic pause, “and then I asked for more. That’s how we open our minds to something new.”
Asked what ingredient he couldn’t live without, the chef reflects for a moment and then lists two ingredients on his must-have list: wine and garlic.
Ho’s love of food comes naturally. He spent his childhood in the restaurant his family owned and describes his father as one of the best chefs in Hong Kong.
“I was a helper in the restaurant when I was six or seven years old, but I wasn’t really a helper,” he said. “They just kept me busy because my father didn’t want to hire a babysitter.”
Even though he spent parts of his adult life in pursuits outside of the kitchen, he kept coming back to the culinary world.
“I am just a guy trying to make a living and the only way I know is cooking,” he said.” The only thing I know is food.”
That connection between family and food continues today. Ho is joined in his Deco District restaurant by only one employee — his son, Jonathan. The two men share a commitment to converting visiting diners to repeat customers by delivering a deliciously-unique dining experience.
In this day and age, customers often pick up a camera or cell phone before reaching for the fork. Ho puts it more poetically, remarking that “the camera eats first” and recognizes it as a compliment, knowing that people want to show their friends a good meal.
“You don’t get a second chance when you cook for people,” he said, imparting a wisdom gained through a lifetime of feeding people around the world. “You had better do it right the first time. And you had better do it right every time or you just shouldn’t do it at all.”
JJ Ho Café International is located at 715 SW Hurbert Street, Newport, and is open from noon to 2:30 pm for lunch and 4:30 to 9 pm for dinner, Tuesday through Saturday. For reservations, call 541-272-9463.