Q & A

Cathy Whims on a Decade at Nostrana

Portland’s doyenne of Italian cooking talks about working at Produce Row in the '70s, the long history of waiting in line for brunch, and what it means to be one of Hillary Clinton’s “culinary ambassadors.”

By Benjamin Tepler September 24, 2015

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In October, Nostrana will turn ten. To celebrate the lauded restaurant’s decade of cooking in Southeast Portland, we sat down with Nostrana’s owner, Cathy Whims—one of the city’s preeminent chefs, a six-time James Beard Award finalist, and the unofficial doyenne of Italian cooking for the region—to get some perspective on the changing food landscape.

Some of Portland’s biggest restaurant openings in recent years have been Italian spots (Ava Gene’s, Renata, and Luce to name a few). What are we still missing?

I think it’s important if you are going to cook a certain cuisine, to really immerse yourself in it. You can do it through cookbooks, but the best is to travel there as much as possible. Sometimes I feel like places send their chef somewhere before they open for two weeks to learn everything they can. I just don’t think it’s sufficient. I was at Genoa for 20 years. When I finally traveled to Italy I saw how different the food we were cooking at Genoa was from the food in Italy. It was much purer with much fewer ingredients. Even at Michelin-starred restaurants. The presentation can be really elaborate, but the technique still stays true to tradition. The more I wanted to cook that food at Genoa, the more it wasn’t the right fit for that special-occasion kind of place. So I opened Nostrana.

You’ve been cooking in this city for 36 years. Is there one big thing we’ve lost or gained in that time?

I started working at Produce Row Café pretty much the day I got off the plane in 1979. Produce Row excluded, which actually had open glass windows with ferns hanging inside, people just hung out in dark taverns with blacked out windows and played pool and drank shitty beer, and so that’s what Portland’s food scene was. There wasn’t really much else besides L’Auberge, Genoa, and the Horst Mager place. To see it change and be such a food city now…I’m happy. I think it’s great.

Are we oversaturated?

When we opened Nostrana there were two other restaurants that were opening at the same time: Vindalho, Dave Machado’s place, and Roux, the New Orlean’s–style restaurant. I remember being really worried, thinking “they’re going to steal our thunder” and “there’s too much competition…too many fish in the pond.” It was also really hard to find cooks too, because everyone was hiring at the same time. But I had been in the same place for 20 years, so what did I know. Now, I’ve come to the realization that more restaurants opening doesn’t hurt your business, it only helps it. 

What about brunch?

Portlanders have waited in line for brunch since 1979. There was this little place, Café Du Berry on Macadam … you would have read the entire Oregonian before you even got to sit down. It’s the Portland thing! Breakfast is cheap, and we’re kind of a stoner culture.

Some of Portland’s greatest chefs have gone through your kitchen (Navarre/Luce’s John Taboada, Bunk’s Tommy Habetz, and Smallwares’s Johanna Wares, to name a few). Which of your disciples has gone the furthest—who has the most potential to make it big?

I think what Kelly Myers has done at Xico…coming from Genoa with me, and being the opening chef at Nostrana…to completely switching cuisines is so impressive. She really researched and dove into Mexican food in the same way I research Italian food—Mexico has so many regions too, it’s just like Italy. I just ate at Xico with James Beard-winner Nancy Silverton and she loved it.

You’re now a diplomatic culinary ambassador. What does that mean?

When Hilary Clinton was Secretary of State, she created a group of culinary diplomats to represent the United States. I have a letter signed by Hilary! Her feeling was that food was the most important diplomatic tool that there is, and getting people to share and talk about food helps soften relationships. Naomi Pomeroy (Beast) and I are the only two Portlanders. In school, civics was one of my favorite classes…I totally loved the idea. I was just sent to Romania, where I cooked in a soup kitchen—a really beautiful one—and was invited on to their national cooking show.

What ingredient from your travels are you obsessing over right now?

Colatura—it’s basically Italian fish sauce, and it’s made in pretty much the same way. I discovered it a few years ago when I spent a week in Cetara, which is a tiny fishing village famous for their anchovies on the Amalfi coast. Spaghetti with the colatura is delicious, sautéed with some garlic and olive oil. A little goes a long way. Bottarga, too, is really delicious over spaghettini, or shaved over eggplant puree, which is in season right now.

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