By: Alex Pioggia
I recently had the opportunity to sit down with executive chef, and Best Chef, Cathy Whims of Nostrana restaurant in Portland, OR. Since 2009, Cathy has been a James Beard finalist for Best Chef Northwest for six consecutive years. Cathy’s mother was a self-taught cook and good food was an important part of Cathy’s upbringing. Cathy cooked her way through cookbooks and received a scholarship from Madeleine Kamman for the School for American Chefs in 1989. Cathy and her cooking have been influenced by Faith Willinger, whom she often travels with to Italy, and Marcella Hazan whose tomato sauce lives on the Nostrana menu.
For ten years before opening Nostrana, Cathy co-owned Genoa restaurant in Portland and served as their executive chef. Because she never attended culinary school, it took all of her courage to apply to Genoa. She recalls building up the courage to apply was the most difficult challenge in getting to where she is now professionally. “The mental block was the most difficult challenge to overcome and I always tell my staff whether you attended or did not attend culinary school is not an indicator of how good a cook you are.”
She trusts her entire staff, especially her sous chef Brian Murphy who has a similar food aesthetic. I told Cathy about my dining experience at Nostrana and how much I loved the tomato and apricot salad. I most appreciated the simplicity of the dish and hearing this was important to Cathy. She explained, “Nostrana means ‘ours’ in Italian and also can be used for the word ‘local.’ Using local foods and not hiding ingredients in our dishes – keeping things simple – is our main focus at Nostrana.”
Her favorite ingredients? Anchovies, EVOO, great bread, wine, garlic and tomatoes.
In 1971, Genoa was essentially ignored by the press, although the staff knew they had a great restaurant with great food. Because “we weren’t new, we weren’t news.” From a marketing standpoint, Cathy believes the best way to promote a restaurant, as a chef, is to simply be present in the community and she does this by volunteering locally. When Cathy is not at Nostrana, her favorite places to dine are chef Johanna Ware’s (previously a chef at Nostrana) Smallwares, Kelly Meyer’s Xico and Bar Avignon. I asked Cathy what her last meal would be and we both agreed: it wouldn’t really matter because how could one possibly enjoy their last meal?
Prep Time: 15 Minutes
Cook Time: 1 Hour
1. Pour 1/2 cup oil in a large sauce pot over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the mustard seed, fenugreek seed, curry leaves and red chiles.
2. Saute for 1 to 2 minutes, and then add the ginger and onions. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow the onions to brown until they are dark and soft enough to smash with a spatula, about 25 to 30 minutes.
3. Add the chili powder, coriander, turmeric and cilantro. Mix together.
4. Increase the heat to medium and add the tomatoes, salt and lime juice. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes have disintegrated and the oil separates out, about 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Add 1/2 cup water and 1 cup coconut milk. Bring to a boil, reduce heat.
6. In a separate skillet, heat the remaining oil over high heat. Add the chicken to the skillet and brown on all sides, leaving the centers pink, about 2 to 4 minutes.
7. Add the chicken to the curry and simmer 5 to 7 minutes until the chicken has cooked through. Serve over basmati rice.
Frustrated with the way Indian food was being represented in the US – “such a narrow, Anglicized version of a very regional cuisine” – Best Chef Meherwan Irani decided to bring the “vibrancy, color, energy and excitement of the street food scene in India” and share how he really ate at home: “simple, light, fresh, fragrant and comforting.” Meherwan and his wife Molly chose Asheville as their home after being “blown away by the art, culture and food scene” and opened Chai Pani.
The first menu item was one of the most iconic street snacks in India: Bhel Puri. It’s hard to describe – puffed rice (murmura), crispy fried lentils (channa daal), fine crunchy chickpea noodles (sev), fried wheat crisps (puris), onions, cilantro, tamarind & date chutney, green chilly and cilantro chutney. It encapsulates every hallmark of Indian street food – sweet, tangy, spicy, funky, contrasting textures and temperatures. It is literally an explosion of flavor and texture.
I asked my mom to come and teach at Chai Pani because I wanted to remind myself, and teach all my cooks, how an Indian housewife thinks and acts when she’s cooking. Women are the unsung heroes of Indian cuisine. The culinary backbone of a billion people. Their dedication to the art & craft of cooking puts me and many of my peers to shame—especially when you remember it’s not a career, there are no adoring legions of fans, no recognition in magazines. Yet, they do it for the sheer joy of cooking and for pride in doing their best. I see it over and over again in every household I’m in. That’s why putting the heart and soul of my mom into our food was so important to Chai Pani.
I’m most influenced by classic technique and the French & American masters of that technique. I see in them the same dedication to the confluence of art, craft and science that excites me about food and cooking. Maybe because I never went to culinary school, I find myself drawn to the old school fundamentals.
I was drawn to Elliott Moss’s vision for Buxton Hall because of the parallels between his journey and mine and between his vision and mine. Elliott, too, is a self-taught cook. And like me with Indian food, he wanted to return to the roots of whole-hog barbecue. We’re planning a road trip in an RV with a cast of characters (chefs, writer, foodies, etc.) before Buxton to explore BBQ in the south and trace the cultural pathways and stories of BBQ in the south.
Everyone. We don’t have a hierarchy of authority; we have a hierarchy of responsibility that allows for shifting roles and dynamics. Needless to say, it’s critical to hire intelligent, articulate, skilled people with empathy. And then it’s equally critical to trust them. Will they make mistakes? Of course. But what we gain in trusting people to figure out how to correct mistakes and move forward is worth far more than whatever the mistake cost us.
My mom would be at the top of the list. She’s still a bad ass cook and I only see her once a year since she lives in India, but if I had to pick one today – I’d pick Charles Phan, Slanted Door, San Francisco, CA.
My favorite ingredient right now is Kodumpuli, also known as smoked black tamarind. It’s not really tamarind, but has a similar tartness. But what makes it an incredible ingredient is the tannic smokiness from the extract—hints of tobacco and cedar. It’s a staple in Malabar and Kerala cuisine and adds incredible complexity to any south Indian curry.
Like an artist or a craftsman, when we cook we’re driven to create something that brings meaning, happiness, excitement, wonder, emotion, joy and nourishment to people. We obsess over it, refine it, push the boundaries and bring every ounce of effort, talent and integrity to create something different, new, exciting, approachable and life changing. We can often see ourselves in every chef and every cook. And that’s what attracts us to the culinary world.
It’s really important to understand and articulate the story of what we choose to cook, so for now I’ll keep telling the story of India.
One assumption of Indian food that drives me crazy is that “all Indian food is spicy.” That’s as frustrating to me as saying that all Italian food is garlicky. The chilly pepper isn’t even native to India. It was brought to India in the 15th century by the Spanish & the Portuguese so for thousands of years prior to that Indian food was not “spicy.” Although India embraced the chilly pepper like a long lost child, much of our cuisine is not meant to be spicy. It all depends on the region, the dish, the ingredients and sometimes even the family.
Being a chef was not Trent Pierce’s first career path and as a competitive runner at the University of Oregon, an athletic future was in sight. But an injury stopped those dreams and his path quickly changed to becoming a third generation restaurateur.
The rigor of Pierce’s competitive running days sound similar to those as a chef, “The discipline of being an athlete, waking up for practice at 7 AM… Working a 14 hour day,” and the challenges do not sound quite different either. He found dealing with the multiple failures was the biggest challenge in getting to where he is now professionally. Despite those failures, 2014 has been a good year for Pierce. He was nominated for James Beard Award: Best Chef Northwest, and his restaurant Roe in Portland, Oregon was ranked #3 Best New Restaurants in America in GQ.
Pierce’s grandfather owned and operated the River Queen Restaurant in Portland. Pierce created a rendition of River Queen Restaurant’s Fish and Chips at his other restaurant Block + Tackle, a casual snacks oyster bar. Roe sits behind Block + Tackle and is more upscale, offering an experience with high-end ingredients. When it comes to ingredients, Pierce does not have favorites. He likes to work with fish and seasonal offerings, “tomatoes and corn in the summer, mushrooms in the fall and truffles in the winter.”
At Roe, you will find Pierce and his sous chef Patrick behind the counter preparing the dishes themselves, “I trust him with any of my dishes and he sees the things I do not see. Patrick is from the Dublin Bay Area and has been with me from the start of Roe.” Roe is one of Portland’s first high-end restaurants. The introduction of Roe’s caviar service last fall is what really made the restaurant stand out, “If Roe ever moves to a different location, I hope to have a caviar & oyster bar.”
I suggested to Pierce that personality is just as important as food, if not more, when it comes to a chef’s profile. Pierce explained, “I think chefs have become glorified in an interesting way, there are chefs you can follow like sports, and customers do that. Customers will sometimes ask me if I heard about a recent opening or closing and I am usually unaware. In the 1990s no one went into cooking with the public figure mindset.”
Pierce sees the Portland culinary scene evolving quickly, “as people are more willing to spend I think more high-end restaurants will start popping up in Portland. I would like to see more low-end restaurants with a focus in ethnic food.” I asked Pierce if he could see himself cooking another style in the future, “I hope to cook Japanese again in the future. It is easy to combine styles and cuisine flavors once you learn the techniques of cooking. Say a dumpling, there are hundreds of dumplings.”