(article, Jackleen de La Harpe)
[%pageBreakSettings nobreak=true] p(blue). A chef and co-owner of Nostrana, an Italian restaurant in Portland, Oregon, Cathy Whims has won numerous awards for her work, including two Restaurant of the Year awards while she was head chef at Nostrana. p(blue). Her cooking career began at Genoa, another Italian restaurant in Portland, where she flourished for 20 years and eventually became a co-owner. After leaving Genoa, she and three partners began Nostrana, creating a menu dedicated to the simplicity and purity of regional Italian cooking. p(blue). In Italian, the word nostrana means “ours,” and it’s an accurate shorthand for what Whims sees as the most important way to prepare food: uncomplicated, nutritious, local, and sustainable. p(blue). “The real challenge,” says Whims, “is that I’m not even Italian.” What's your philosophy of food and eating? When I traveled to Italy, I fell in love with the simplicity of Italian cooking. Excepting star-level restaurants, the Italians experience food as their mother would cook it; it’s much purer. The food that I wanted to cook in this country is food that is rustic, informal, \[and\] ingredient-driven, not restaurant-driven. It’s very uncheffy, unintellectual; you have to take yourself out of the dish. [[block(sidebar). h1. Slow Food recipes Recipes from Slow Food Chefs can be found in our [/recipes/collections/slowfood "recipe collection."] ]] I studied with Marcella Hazan and came to realize that Italian cooking can be simple and pure. I wanted to make food that people wanted to eat again and again. How did you make the transition from formal cooking at Genoa to seasonal and ingredient-driven menus at Nostrana? Abruptly. My partner bought me out of my portion of Genoa and, in the following year, I went through something of a withdrawal; after 20 years, Genoa had become in large part, my identity. I had talked with friends, Marc and Deb Accuardi, about the possibility of opening a pizzeria. But as it turned out, this great space became available, which required a full menu to justify the rent. My husband and our partners opened the restaurant in 2006. We love this building, an old grocery store with arched exposed wood beams. [%image artichokes float=right width=400 caption="Carciofi alla Romana (Roman-Style Stuffed Artichokes)"] Nostrana means “ours,” as in, it belongs to us. But in Italy, in the Italian markets, it has a local meaning. Food is required to be marked by where it is grown, such as Morocco or Tuscany. "Nostrana" is the word that describes food that is grown locally and considered superior to all other food. Talk about your experience as a chef. It was my greatest dream to be able to work at, and later own, Genoa. The menu was formal, a seven-course prix-fixe meal, using the highest-quality ingredients for a perfect meal. Clients all had the same thing, which made it easy to focus on quality and the formal dining experience. But after a time, that structure was a kind of baggage that precluded experimentation or simpler cooking. At Genoa, for instance, chicken was left off of the menu for many years because it wasn’t special enough and because, at the time, the chicken itself was bland. It wasn’t until you were able to buy free-range chickens that had wandered around and eaten grass and bugs that it tasted like it did in France and Italy. I created an entrée of braised chicken with fresh figs — a very special dish. I was crushed to learn that someone had written a review on Citysearch about going to Genoa for the $100 chicken. I had really believed in this chicken. In traveling to Italy, I wanted to know more about Italian food, and I fell in love with the simplicity of Italian cooking. The focus of Nostrana is simple regional Italian cooking with the highest-quality local ingredients. We decided to cook with wood because it imparts so much flavor; we have a wood-burning pizza oven, grill, and rotisserie. [%image whims float=left width=300 credit="Photo: Frank DiMarco" caption="Whims at work in the Nostrana kitchen."] What are some of the trends you see in food buying and preparation? I see more farmers’ markets and more ingredients that are easier to obtain. How frequently do you travel to Italy? I used to travel there twice a year, now about once a year. I know a lot of winemakers, and it’s great to talk with food artisans and go to restaurants. Sometimes restaurant owners let me work in their kitchens, which gives me new food ideas and recipes. I was a delegate to Terra Madre, which was amazing and overwhelming. I wish I could go again, so that once I had the hang of it, I could make better use of the opportunity. I’m not an especially political person, but I felt it was a political act to be there. I returned to the United States very inspired, excited about the fact that at Nostrana we choose to cook in a sustainable manner, sourcing from local artisans. I was inspired to take that even further in the cooking at the restaurant. While you have a vision of how Italian food should be prepared, do your American clients understand the care and thought that goes into your work? A lot of people don’t understand. Others have thanked us for opening this restaurant, calling it their “home away from home.” We have a number of clientele who are Italian; they seem to think that we’re doing something authentic. Italians seem to have nearly an innate understanding of food; they know exactly how something should taste, almost like an ear for language. They have so much respect for food in that country. [[block(widebar). h1. Featured menu [%image sorbetto width=180 float=right] Cathy Whims' summertime menu evokes the flavors of Italy and the colors of the season.