Chef Cathy Whims puts her faith in fresh, local ingredients and exquisitely simple cuisine.
Lunchtime is winding down at Nostrana; only a few tables are still seated. The kitchen staff gathers at the long table closest to the restaurant’s open kitchen and gleaming white wood-burning oven. A waiter serves plates for the staff meal with the same deftness he uses for his customers a few feet away. Cathy Whims, chef and owner of the 3-year-old restaurant on SE 14th and Morrison, joins the group for a quick bite. She is smiling, her movements relaxed and confident as she moves around the restaurant.
Cathy grew up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, earning her Bachelor’s degree in Latin from the university there before moving to the West Coast in 1979. Unsure of what to do with her education, she bought a few cookbooks by esteemed chefs Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, and M.F.K. Fisher. In the year before moving to Portland from San Francisco, Whims decided to give herself a thorough education in French cooking beyond what she’d picked up in her mother’s kitchen. She chose Fisher’s volume on provincial French cuisine and cooked through the whole thing. Once in Portland, Cathy fixed her ambitions on Genoa. “I’d always had an affection for anything Italian — like Latin — and Genoa was my dream job,” she says of her desire to cook for what was then considered the city’s preeminent Italian restaurant, “but I never thought I’d get to work there because I hadn’t gone to culinary school.” Whims knew someone who knew someone, however, and her career at Genoa, which culminated in co-ownership, lasted more than two decades.
At Nostrana, The Oregonian’s 2006 Restaurant of the Year, Whims cooks the “ingredient-driven” dishes that your Italian mama would make, should you be lucky enough to have an Italian mama. Her attitude toward cooking is as straightforward as Nostrana’s menu. “Less is more,” she explains. “The quality of the ingredients is super important. Because of the [cuisine’s] simplicity, nothing can be hidden.”
The food at Nostrana, just like the restaurant itself, may be simple; but it’s by no means plain. Cathy makes vanilla gelato with just three ingredients –– whole milk yogurt, powdered sugar, and half of a vanilla bean –– and it’s as delicious and creamy as any I’ve had. The pistachio gelato, served alongside a crunchy almond meringue cookie, tastes more like toasted pistachio nuts than an actual toasted pistachio nut. On the night of my meal there, the din of a full house is softened by Nostrana’s cork floor as half a dozen servers make loops around the dining room to pour wine, take orders, and carry beautiful plates of food. In the open kitchen, as many cooks seem relaxed in their steady work, smiling and chatting while Cathy visits with her guests in the dining room.
For Whims, creating a great meal begins with the farmers who grow, say, the arugula that’s going into your Insalata Invernale. If you were doing your shopping at a market in Italy, a tag next to the arugula would read “nostrana,” meaning ours; from right here. In Italian markets, these locally grown items are especially prized. They’re valued for their freshness, having traveled a short distance from field to market; and their purchase supports the local food web.
To find the best meat and produce for her restaurant, Cathy has built strong, reciprocal relationships with local producers, many of whom grow crops –– like hard-to-find bitter Italian greens –– specifically for Nostrana. The chef is committed to supporting her farmers, even when what they have to sell isn’t exactly what she is looking for. Sometimes a grower has abundance of, for example, green cabbage. Instead of getting her produce elsewhere until a different crop is harvested, Cathy says she’ll make use of the cabbage. “I can’t possibly let it go to waste,” she explains, “because I know the farmer. I know how hard he works; I know the soil that he grew it in –– I believe in this cabbage.”
Getting Portlanders revved up about eating seasonally and locally isn’t very difficult. Cathy credits the city’s fantastic local markets. There’s an understanding among her customers, she says, that the food on her menu reflects the very best, freshest, and most flavorful ingredients available from local growers on any given week.
A few times a year, Cathy leaves Nostrana’s kitchen to teach cooking classes at In Good Taste in Portland and Cook’s Pots and Tabletops in Eugene. As an instructor, she not only provides entertainment and a really great meal for her students, but also imparts skills and recipes that they can really make use of in their home kitchens. “I get excited if I know that people are actually going to go home and make that recipe,” she says. She talks about students coming back to relay stories of successful meals after taking one of her classes. “There’s so much that you learn from cooking for yourself and your family and friends,” Cathy says of why she believes it’s important to teach; “people’s lives are enriched.”
Whims’ interest in education extends beyond teaching the occasional cooking class. In late October, Cathy and five other Portland chefs attended the third meeting of the Terra Madre Network, held in Torino, Italy, and hosted by Slow Food International. The event brought together cooks, academics, growers, and youth delegates for a four-day conference on small-scale, traditional, and sustainable food production. With over 1,600 energetic delegates under the age of thirty at Terra Madre ’08, Cathy says the atmosphere was particularly vibrant.
With her recent trip in mind, Cathy is already planning her next teaching project — inviting school children to the restaurant once a month for a meal and a conversation about the restaurant’s practices and values. “If we don’t teach the next generation about the best environmental practices and fair treatment of the people who grow our food,” Whims says, looking out into the large dining room, no doubt imagining it full of kids “how can we expect the movement to go forward?”