When Passion Meets Craft: Mona Johnson & Jaret Foster

“Open-fire cooking has opened my eyes to what has always drawn me to cooking, which, in a word, is focus. Cooking has always been a grounding element in my life and cooking over fire intensifies that feeling of singularity and purpose for me...When I am cooking, especially by a live fire, I have glimpses of perfect clarity. It’s a zen practice of sorts wherein I am fully engaged and executing both training and intuition. I love it. There is muscle memory at play, all senses heightened, using my hands, head, and heart. Pure joy tempered with self-sacrifice.”

“The beauty of cooking outdoors is that it makes the four walls of a kitchen unnecessary. It means we can create a meal almost anywhere, from a meadow to a mountaintop, from a beach to a forest. Such freedom! As escapees of hot, cramped, windowless professional kitchens, cooking outside is literally a fresh breath of life-changing air. To be in nature, cooking under the sun, sky, moon, and stars, time seems to slows down and everything else falls away. Nothing else exists but that moment.”

This is how Jaret Foster and Mona Johnson, respectively, describe the draw of open-fire cooking. Together Jaret and Mona own and operate Tournant, a unique catering service in Portland, Oregon, in which they frequently prepare their dishes outdoors over a roaring fire—often in unexpected locations like mountain valleys and alongside coastal cliffs.




A Slowly-Unfolding Evolution

The pair met when working at the Portland Farmers Market. They’d meet for lunch and discuss their shared passion for food, its sources, and its role in building community. They started taking turns bringing each other lunch and making meals for coworkers, solidifying a friendship along the way. Soon their work lunches gave way to hosting dinner parties for friends and then pop-ups around Portland. As Mona recalls, “The first public event we created together was what we dubbed our Oyster Social mobile raw bar. We popped up in breweries, wineries, and other events to shuck fresh farm-direct Northwest oysters to order, serving them on the half-shell for people to enjoy out of hand. A simple and sensual experience that connected guests immediately to the food, the moment, and the source. We were hooked.”

And just as naturally as their lunches turned to a business, over time, their friendship turned to a courtship. You can see the deep regard Jaret has for Mona when he speaks of her. His eyes soften, his voice takes on a gentleness. “Mona inspires me with her generous spirit and kind heart. Her positivity and optimism have buoyed me for coming into 5 years of relationship. I could not even imagine running Tournant without her by my side.”  When asked about his inspirations, he rounds out his list of nature, seasons, and vegetables with “and Ms. Mona Johnson.”

Mona, too, is clearly moved by the partnership between them. “Jaret is always true to himself and is one of the freest thinkers I’ve ever met. He lives to create—especially with his hands—and puts full his concentration and whole heart into the process...His skill set complements mine in the most wonderful way. He’s big picture, I’m details. He’s meat, I’m veg. I plan, he executes. I’m Air, he’s Earth, but we’re both ruled by Venus.” Venus, it is said, reigns over art, beauty, and most of all, love. She continues, “We are partners in business and in life, so we spend almost every moment of our lives either working together or talking about work together. This may not work for most people, but for us it just does because we love what we do so much.”



Fire, Food, Magic

For many, cooking is an exercise in exactness and control. For Mona and Jaret, however, it has become an exercise in letting go. They explain, “Since live fire is unpredictable, cooking with it means that you must be entirely present, engaging all of your senses so that you know when to adjust, turn, flip, spin, stir, apply more or less heat...We’ve both had let go of this goal of precision and perfection that is so prevalent in fine dining kitchens. What we do now is a bit wild and rustic, with bold, smoke-kissed dishes that celebrate passion over perfection. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

During their events, however, the fire plays a much larger role than simply the means for cooking the ingredients. It is a catalyst for fostering connection. “It’s a beautiful thing to witness guests slow down and connect with their surroundings, the fire, and the cooking process. By the time they come to the table, they already feel invested in the meal and a part of the experience,” says Mona. “It’s a transformational process that builds community and allows even strangers to become friends. ”

Speaking of the meal, a Tournant menu is created with intense intention. “We want our food to tell a story, so I always draw inspiration from both time and place when designing a menu. I’ll start by running through a series of questions internally.” They consider the setting, which ingredients are native to it, the season, even the likely weather, asking themselves, “What are the exact right dishes I would want to eat at this moment, in this place, with these people? All of these things work together to help inform the menu as well as the ingredients, flavors, and techniques we use to create it.”


Endlessly Fascinated, Ever Evolving

“Although it may be elemental, nothing about cooking outdoors over a fire is easy. The truth is, it takes time, care, effort and a whole lotta schlepping to do it right,” Mona tells us. So why do it? “It’s worth it. The easy part has been doing it together...Plus, we are endlessly fascinated with how food and fire both have the potential to draw people together—for warmth, community, entertainment, and nourishment.”

“Tournant keeps me engaged as it is always changing and evolving,” Jaret explains—a fitting manifestation of an endeavor christened with the French word for turning and revolving. “Often we find ourselves in such incredible surroundings with amazing people, alongside each other—and we get to bring our friends with us.” 

Mona adds, “I am constantly in awe that I get to do what I love with the person I love for a living. Together we get to dream, create, cook, travel, and do really cool stuff with really great people. We get to build community, care for our guests, and enjoy the honor of celebrating important moments in their lives. What could be better?”

Photos courtesy of Eva Kosmas Flores and Caroline Hargraves

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