The (James) Beard Supremacy: Five Portland Chefs Who Slay

Cory Schreiber, Philippe Boulot, Cathy Whims, Greg Higgins, and Vitaly Paley embody the mission of Oregon’s original locavore.

By Karen Brooks August 15, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Kitchen trailblazers Cory Schreiber, Philippe Boulot, Cathy Whims, Greg Higgins, and Vitaly Paley, photographed July 2016

If the national food scene has an equivalent to the Oscars, it’s the James Beard Awards—the regional and national prizes bestowed by the foundation named for the Portland-born “dean of American cuisine.” Beard, reared in a hotel kitchen and Oregonian to the core when it came to seafood and farm produce, introduced generations of Americans to culinary culture through his books and TV shows. These five Portland chefs embody his mission—inspiring (and training) the next generation to follow our original locavore. 

Cory Schreiber

Beard Award: 1998, Wildwood

Born to the Oregon clan that ran Old Town’s historic Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, Schreiber left Portland in 1982 to see the culinary world. Twelve years later, he returned to master Oregon’s edible treasure chest. At Wildwood, his odes to Beard and Douglas fir forests forged an honest taste of place, chic but true—wood-oven mussels to marionberry pie—with ingredients sourced almost exclusively within a three-hour drive. “I knew the quality was there. I bought a truck, and said to a friend who worked for me, ‘Sam, you gotta go out [to the farms] in the morning and hand-select the produce, hand-select the fish, hand-select the meat. And you let those purveyors know what works and what doesn’t. We’re just not gonna say, ‘Oh, it’s Portland, you know, we’ll just take it.’’ I wanted to be pretty boisterous about what our standard was going to be.” 

Philippe Boulot

Beard Award: 2001, The Heathman

He brought swanky New York chef cred, a high-flying Paris résumé, and a garrulous-French-uncle accent to a crab-cake city. In short order, Philippe Boulot transformed his passions—fishing, wild mushrooms, old-school Normandy cooking, pigs, and pinot noir—into destination-level hotel cuisine at the Heathman. Peak experience, early nose-to-tail ideology: 2003’s daring offal dinner, which drew this observation from guest of honor Anthony Bourdain, who documented the meal in the New York Times: “The shepherd’s pie was warming, strangely familiar, though the disturbing garnish of halved testicles made me cross my legs in discomfort.”

“It’s like being crowned Miss America,” Boulot says of a Beard win. “Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught of national media attention. Suddenly it’s ‘what do you have to show us?’ You have to be ready for that title.”

Cathy Whims

Six-time Beard finalist, Nostrana

She’s Portland’s most famous Beard awards bridesmaid. So let’s give Whims her due, right here, right now. Without the redhead’s passion for local farms and regional Italian cooking, without her two decades stocking legendary Genoa with budding talent, without another 10 years of iconic Nostrana dishes (outrageous radicchio salad to Dungeness crab–topped pizza)—without Whims, period—Portland quickly becomes a very different, and lesser, town. 

Greg Higgins

Beard Award: 2002, Higgins

Greg Higgins grew up on a New York farm. Instead of comic books, he embraced the out-there plant philosophy of Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus, then took up cheese making in high school, then fell hard for Alsatian cooking. In 1984, he biked to Portland and mounted a full-scale farm-to-table food revolution. First at the Heathman, then at his own Higgins, the gardener-chef gave voice and direction to everything we now hold as our Portland food birthright: sustainable dining, smoking, pickling, charcuterie (before anyone could pronounce the word), chef-farmer collaborations, and the realization that ambitious food needs to be more than a pretty plate.   

Vitaly Paley

Beard Award: 2005, Paley’s Place

The baskets of produce on the restaurant’s porch leaves no doubt: this spot has some serious farm connections. Paley’s Place took Oregon bounty to a new place, each dish tweaked with a haunting beauty, the same deft touch that helped Russian-born, French-trained Vitaly Paley win the Bach International piano competition at age 15. His secret? Playful turns on French classics, made with art and emotion, not trendy impulses. As Paley told me in 1990: “I want to bring back ideas hundreds of years old … in the hopes that we can say, at some point, we have a Northwest cuisine.”

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