Interview with Cathy Whims, Owner and Executive Chef of Nostrana

The following interview was made possible by the NW Tastemaker, a culinary travel publication forthcoming from Northwest Travel Magazine. To read more interviews with the best chefs in the Pacific Northwest, visit Northwest Travel Magazine and

Photo by John Valls

Cathy Whims, Owner and Executive Chef of Nostrana                       

In Portland, Chef Cathy Whims defines Italian cooking. A six-time James Beard-nominee for the Best Chef Northwest award, Chef Whims began her career as a dishwasher at Genoa, one of Portland's most legendary restaurants. Genoa marked the beginning of a new style of dining in Portland: It offered formal, multi-course meals made in what was then an exotic cooking style: traditional Italian, featuring seasonal, local ingredients. Chef Whims stayed at the restaurant for 18 years, going on to cook and co-own the restaurant.

At the behest of legendary Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, Chef Whims went to Venice, Italy, to learn from Hazan first-hand at Hazan's home. She also cooked at Biancinto Albarello's Antica Torre Trattoria and Marco Forneris's Osteria La Libera in the Langhe region of Italy. Chef Whims opened Nostrana in 2005, and her dishes combine maximum-quality ingredients and humble and authentic Italian-cooking techniques. Constant trips back to Italy ensure that there's always something new on the menu. Nostrana is dedicated to wood-fire and wood-oven cooking and dishes that you won't often find outside of Italy.

1. How do you describe Northwest cuisine?

It is about knowing where your food comes from and understanding the relationship between food and the geography of the landscape where it grows, the farmers, the animals, the seasons and the environment. Northwest cuisine cuts right to the core of the experience, and it is not edible d├ęcor.

We don’t really have a lot of culinary traditions, so we are free to make our own, which usually involves celebrating the products available in our region. Here's an example: Oregon isn’t particularly famous for its veal, and at Nostrana we like to feature “saltimbocca”—a traditional Italian dish made with veal. Accordingly, we decided to use pork instead, because we can get whole pigs and butcher them in-house. On the other side, Oregon is famous for its albacore tuna. We feature it to make traditional Sicilian dishes such as tuna conserva and corona bean salad, an item that never leaves the menu at Nostrana.  

2. Who are six of your favorite purveyors that you regularly work with? Why do they stand out?

It is really hard to pick just six! We have an amazing list of purveyors, and of course, I can’t share them all here, but we do list them all on our menus at Nostrana. I have been working with many of these businesses for 20 years. Each of these purveyors stands out to me because of their focus, expertise and willingness to provide beautiful ingredients.

For example, Ayers Creek Farm is working on trying to get melons to ripen before August because that is when they taste best. Jim Dixon brings in the best olive oils as well as a really special fennel pollen that is to die for. Other standout purveyors include:

Real Good food
Viridian Farms
Ayers Creek (20 years)
Your Kitchen Garden (20 years)
Cattail Creek Farm (10 years)
Laney Family Farm

3. When you go out for a nice meal, what are two or three of your favorite spots?

In no particular order:

- Xico
- Higgins
- Davenport

In the Northwest Region
- Cafe Juanita
- Nick’s Italian Cafe
- I LOVE lunch at Il Corvo in Seattle

4. Who are two other Northwest chefs that you admire?

Christopher Israel has brought a very refined and delicate sensibility towards northwest ingredients. His food is beautiful.

Greg Higgins and his Sous Chefs have been so instrumental in helping people recognize that the Northwest is a place that HAS a cuisine. Greg really showcased the unique quality of ingredients and was one of the first chefs to do that here.

5. In your opinion, is there an area of Northwest cooking that doesn't receive enough attention?

Our local grains movement could certainly use more exposure. It’s very important and relevant. Just like with any other ingredient, the nuances of locally grown grains are reflective of the growing conditions of each particular season.

6. Looking toward the future, what are you most excited to do in the kitchen?

I am especially excited by the local grain movement. I have been sourcing flour for pasta from local grains and learning how to working with them. I love taking the time to hand roll out pasta and hand form it. The texture is so amazing, and it is so rewarding to make and share handmade pastas. The skill and tradition is something that is dying away even in Italy. I am truly excited to share these methods and this approach to ingredients with my cooks and peers.

1401 SE Morrison St
Portland, OR 97214


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