Interview with Justin Woodward, Executive Chef of Castagna
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 TableTalkNorthwest.com.
Justin Woodward, Executive Chef of Castagna
Opened in 1999, Castagna is Portland's most underrated, and arguably, most innovative, restaurant. Chef Justin Woodward has the technical skills of M.C. Esher in the kitchen, and his modernist, tweezer food is boundary-pushing without relying on gimmicks: His creative, technically savvy cooking techniques are all in the service of the inherent flavors of the ingredients. Whether ordering a la carte or enjoying the Chef's Tasting Menu, which can reach up to 15 dishes (don't worry, several of these are scintillating, one-bite "snacks"), prepare for an artistic display of foraged and lovingly sourced ingredients. Additionally, prepare for prices that seem ludicrously low when compared with those of similar restaurants in larger cities: the 3-course prix fixe menu costs $55, and the Chef's Tasting Menu costs $155.
Chef Woodward has worked at WD-50 (one Michelin star) in New York; Noma (two Michelin stars) in Denmark; and Mugaritz Restaurant (two Michelin stars) in Spain. He also trained beneath Castagna's previous chef, Matt Lightner, who left Castagna to open Atera (two Michelin stars) in New York in 2011.
1. How do you describe Northwest cuisine?
To me, it is cooking seasonally and being aware of what is going on around you. What has the weather been like—has it been wet, dry? Even current events can spark small changes in the menu. If it is very cold outside, we might offer a few more warm dishes. In summer, I want most of the menu to be very refreshing.
Cooking in restaurants in this day and age, it is easy to order whatever produce you want. For me, I am constantly searching the Northwest for fresh produce. These are the most inspiring moments for me. These shifts in the market kick-start my creative process like nothing else could. It is easy to come up with a dish and order bulk produce from a giant company, but where is the love in that? I cannot speak for other chefs but for me the products are what make the cuisine. Creativity plays a small role after taste and seasonality. Some products just scream the Northwest. Salmon, hazelnuts, wild mushrooms. Others are a little less known but just as important to me. We get great local goat's milk, amazing huckleberries and black cod. Also, we have so many small vegetable farmers. All of the farmer's markets make it a great place to be a chef!
2. Who are six of your favorite purveyors that you regularly work with?
Your Kitchen Garden. This is our main vegetable provider. What he grows writes the menu at Castagna.
Ayers Creek Farm provides dried cornmeal, freekeh, and amazing chicories.
Groundworks Organics delivers amazing produce all year.
Baird provides apples, stone fruits, and cider.
Prairie Creek, for its beets, carrots, potatoes.
3. When you go out for a nice meal, what are two or three of your favorite spots?
Apizza Scholls has the best pizza in Portland. Ox and Laurelhurst Market are great for a steak.
4. Who are two other Northwest chefs that you admire?
Blaine Wetzel is really putting himself out there. He's cooking on a small island and sourcing strictly locally. I admire the amount of work he is putting into creating a special place.
5. In your opinion, is there an area of Northwest cooking that doesn't receive enough attention?
The media focuses so much on what is trendy. What is the new kale, what is the new blah blah. What about chefs and farmers that have been doing great things for years? Digging below surface value seems to elude the mass food media.
6. Looking toward the future, what are you most excited to do in the kitchen?
I am always excited for the new coming season. Right now, I am so excited for spring. Portland in the springtime is a magical place. The whole city seems to sprout and grow. There is this feeling in the air during spring. I love that.
1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, Oregon 97214
Portland, Oregon 97214