The Apocalypse Now burger – topped with American cheese, crispy pork belly, smoked bacon, foie gras, housemade mayo and cherry jam, served on a grilled brioche bun – propelled Jason Loring’s first restaurant, Nosh Kitchen Bar, onto the Travel Channel and into the minds of hungry locals and tourists alike. But Portland’s king of flamboyantly fatty foods no longer eats the burger, or the accompanying bacon-dusted fries, himself.
Three years ago, when he weighed 500 pounds, he watched a documentary film about American obesity and saw himself – and his excuses – reflected in it. He began eating nothing but his custom kale smoothie. In one year, he dropped 100 pounds and gained the energy to open two more fun-focused food establishments, with at least three more in the works.
Loring, the 39-year-old co-owner of Nosh, Slab and the newly opened, subterranean Rhum tiki lounge, is slowly undergoing a professional and personal transformation, with the help of his business partners. Once a stressed-out cook (he still doesn’t consider himself a chef) who didn’t eat or sleep well, he has become a busy restaurateur juggling multiple projects.
Restaurants in development include a French place for former Petite Jacqueline chef Frederic Eliot and two fast casual eateries at Thompson’s Point, including a clam shack that probably won’t open for another year and Yeti, a fried chicken-and-waffle restaurant that gets its name from the International Cryptozoology Museum above the restaurant and is slated for a June opening.
“There’s another one,” Loring said, “but I don’t really want to talk about it yet.”
Some ideas haven’t quite panned out, such as the plan to take over the old Ginkgo Blue jazz and blues bar in the Old Port. (The fat, wildly comfortable blue armchairs from that venue, however, are now being used at Rhum.) Plans for a private club in the old Roma restaurant on Congress Street, above the Bramhall Pub, fell through, too. But Loring and his partners in Fifth Food Group – Bramhall Pub owner Mike Fraser, builder Nat Towl, and businessmen Chris Thompson and Jed Troubh – are always on the hunt for new projects.
Loring, lighter and with more energy, has found his drive.
“I never thought I’d be doing any of this,” he said about the success of his businesses. “I thought I’d be making hamburgers at Nosh for the rest of my life.”
NOSH WAS THE SUCCESS HE NEEDED
Shortly after opening Nosh Kitchen Bar six years ago, Loring served Adam Richman, host of the Travel Channel show “Man v. Food,” one of his $21 Apocalypse Now burgers. Whenever the episode is replayed, Nosh sells dozens of the over-the-top burgers in a day. “There’s 110-pound girls in the middle of the summer when it’s, like, 100 degrees out, smashing those things,” Loring said.
Nosh was the success Loring needed to begin his journey to restaurateur.
Loring’s parents modeled entrepreneurship for their son. His mother owned her own salon and his father ran the family printing business. Watching them build something of their own stuck with Loring, who longed to work for himself.
Growing up, Loring often helped his mother in the kitchen.
“I’m not the greatest cook,” Linda Loring said. “I’d say he takes after his grandmother. She was a great cook. But he was always in the kitchen with me, wanting to help me. Then he would serve us things and they were always presented in such a nice way.”
Loring attended Yarmouth High School and the vocational school now known as the Portland Arts and Technology High School – or PATHS. He took architectural drafting and did well – even won a design challenge – but Loring had learning disabilities and his grades weren’t great. Linda Loring says her son “struggled a lot” in school, and was sometimes labeled as lazy or told he had an “attitude problem.”
“I found that most of the time people weren’t accepting of who he was,” she said. That changed, she said, when he started working in restaurants.
When he was 16, Loring worked at Mr. Bagel and discovered he was good at helping customers. That same year, to fulfill a school requirement, he went to work at Back Bay Grill for a week. He did so well the chef invited him back to work for the summer.
“I kind of fell in love,” Loring said, recalling sitting out back on a 5-gallon bucket and eating a lamb sandwich the chef made for him. “You’re tasting veal stock, demi-glace, properly cooked vegetables. I had never eaten a properly cooked vegetable in my life. I love my mother to death, but it was either a can or she would just murder things.”
The chef and pastry chef at Back Bay Grill had attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, and they encouraged Loring to apply, even making phone calls for him.
Loring entered the school with an advantage – he already had good knife skills and could make stock and most of the mother sauces. He did an externship at Osteria Del Circo in New York City and discovered that in the kitchen, his learning disability didn’t matter so much. It gave him confidence.
After graduating from culinary school in 1998, Loring moved back to Maine and went through a string of restaurant jobs. He moved to Las Vegas for a while and worked at Olives, Todd English’s place at the Bellagio. Back in Portland, he fell out of love with restaurants – he sold mortgages for a time – then fell in again while working at Novare Res, where he had the time to toss around business ideas with his friend Matt Moran. With help from Moran’s father, the two friends launched Nosh. They wanted to focus on fast casual restaurants that serve fun-to-eat foods.
At the time, there were sandwich shops and fine dining spots in town, but not much in between – and not much was open late. “I wanted a place that I would want to eat at, and that cooks would want to eat at,” Loring said.
IN DIET AND LIFE, IT’S ALL ABOUT BALANCE
Loring is a naturally big guy, but working around all that food led to weight gain. Like a lot of cooks, he had fallen into the habit of eating just once a day, and it was usually a meal loaded with carbs. He had tried dieting, but nothing worked.
Loring felt “stuck in a hole,” with none of the drive needed to take on new things. Then one night three years ago, he watched the movie “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead” with his then-girlfriend. The movie is about a morbidly obese man who gets back on the road to health with the help of a juicer and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. Loring’s girlfriend started crying. Something clicked.
The next day, he began experimenting with a juicer and came up with a smoothie he could drink every day, using kale, parsley, cucumber, apple, banana, ginger, apple cider vinegar, ice and water.
Loring also got an exercise bike and spent 45 minutes a day riding it, followed by 45 minutes in his infrared sauna.
For an entire year, Loring ate almost no solid food. He drank a gallon of his fruit-and-vegetable concoction a day. And he lost 100 pounds.
Then he went to a half-gallon a day plus a salad for dinner. In the past six months or so, he’s gone back to eating “regular meals” at night. If he gets hungry during the day, he’ll eat a little kimchi, sauerkraut, or a couple of eggs. He’s cut way back on beer, allowing himself drinks once a week.
Loring weighs under 400 pounds now and wants to lose 100 more, although he thinks he’ll need the help of a personal trainer.
It’s all about balance, he said. The more he learns to balance the time he spends at work with the time he spends taking care of himself, the easier it is to reach his next goal. He credits his new diet-and-exercise routine with giving him the motivation and energy needed to create Slab, the restaurant he opened in 2014 to showcase the Sicilian pizza and other Italian street food of baker Stephen Lanzalotta after he was fired from Micucci’s.
Loring lives in an apartment above Nosh that he shares with his well-loved bulldog, Mugsy. The smell of food cooking downstairs doesn’t tempt him, he said. If he feels anything at all about it, it’s a twinge – just a twinge – of guilt when he thinks about what’s on the menu: In addition to the Apocalypse Now burger, there’s a “Mac ‘N Stack” – a hamburger with a “bun” made out of two fried mac-and-cheese patties – and a burger served between two slices of pizza. His “bacon dusted” fries are made with corn-based maltodextrin, a food additive.
Loring says it’s more important that he sources ingredients responsibly, staying away from highly processed foods. The chicken at Yeti, for example, will never come from a factory farm. The beef at Nosh is grass-fed. He only uses local potatoes for his fries and does not fry them in hydrogenated oils. And he switched to non-GMO maltodextrin.
For the most part, he is unapologetic about his next project being a chicken-and-waffles place instead of a health food restaurant.
“A restaurant isn’t a place where you go to eat every single day, so I’m not going to ever feel bad about that,” he said.
PROVIDING SUPPORT TO OTHERS
Loring stopped cooking at Nosh when he started working on Slab, and the experience made him realize that he loves building restaurants more than he loves listening to a printer churn out tickets in a busy kitchen all night long. He still works 100-hour weeks when he’s in the middle of opening a restaurant, but now it’s with a cellphone glued to his ear, or in front of a laptop, or running around town for meetings or to do errands for builders and cooks. He likes to “coddle” a new project, he said, then let it go so he can move on to the next one.
His latest idea? He wants to get Lanzalotta’s frozen pizza and ice cream sandwiches out of Slab and into grocery stores.
He enjoys finding “supercreative” people who have great ideas but lack resources or business experience, and giving them the support they need to do what they do best. That’s what he and his partners did with Lanzalotta.
Now he is providing the same kind of support for Frederic Eliot, the former chef at Petite Jacqueline. Once life-after-Rhum settles down, Fifth Food Group plans to develop a new restaurant for Eliot.
Eliot said he had been searching for financial backing for his own restaurant for two or three years. Sometimes potential investors expressed interest, but “when you want to sit down with them, they evaporate.”
Friends suggested he speak with people like Loring who are “hungry right now.” Loring told him he and his partners were interested in pursuing a deal, though they couldn’t make any promises. First, he had to get Rhum open, and he invited Eliot to be sous chef. Eliot said watching Loring open the tiki bar was “eye-opening.”
Loring passed on a $20,000-plus tiki “fire wall” suggested by a designer, but cut no corners in the kitchen. There are easy-to-clean walls and drains in the floor, and plenty of storage, all amenities designed to make his employees’ lives easier. Eliot notes that Loring was not “born with money,” and knows how hard it is to work in a kitchen. That makes all the difference.
“He treats people with respect, and he cares about the people he works with and he cares about his restaurants,” Eliot said. “He’s working all the time. That guy is everywhere. And if you need something – equipment or whatever – he’ll go and get it for you.”
Frank Anderson and Rebecca Ambrosi, chefs who have worked at Animal in Los Angeles and in the kitchens of Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, are managing the kitchen at Rhum. Anderson, who grew up in Caribou and Yarmouth, went to middle school with Loring. They reconnected at a pop-up event at Slab. The couple loved hanging out at L.A. tiki bars on their days off and couldn’t wait to develop the menu for Rhum. Ambrosi said she likes the fact that Loring listens to their ideas and doesn’t just “talk at us.” He did insist on including crab rangoons on the Rhum menu, she said, “but we’re doing our version of them.”
Their working relationship has gone so well that, while nothing is yet written in stone, Loring wants to bring the couple into Fifth Food Group as consulting chefs. They’ll help develop concepts, guide menu development, design kitchens, work with managers and chefs and, if Loring has his way, perhaps open their own place under the restaurant group’s umbrella.
At Slab, Loring worked mostly on building out the kitchen. He took on a bigger design role at Rhum, fussing over each detail, down to the peacoat buttons on the bar stools. “I didn’t want bright-colored, goofy parrots and all the glassware you can buy from China,” he said.
Apart from the stress of opening a new place, Loring says life as a restaurateur – looking at things from a bird’s-eye view – is much more relaxing than life as a cook. He’s started to allow himself to enjoy some of his success. After Slab opened, he bought a new car because he needed one. He’d like a house, too, eventually.
“A yard, a couple more dogs would be nice,” he said. “Someplace for Mugs to run around.”
For now, he knows there’s no going back, either personally or professionally. If he eats something that’s unhealthy, he doesn’t feel as good. And while he misses cooking sometimes, he’s perfectly happy concentrating on his new career path outside of the kitchen.