In honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, Eater is publishing a series of interviews with the women behind Portland food. Over the following weeks, the interviews will tell the stories of how these women got their starts, who their role models are, and the challenges they faced along the way in such a traditionally male-dominated profession.
Owner of Nostrana, Oven & Shaker, and Hamlet, Cathy Whims is one of the chefs who built Portland, with six James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef Northwest to prove it. “I never really worked in a classic, male-dominated kitchen, actually,” says Whims. “It was really just a lot of people who were really artistic. I started cooking because it was my passion, and things started to fall into my lap because of that.”
Being raised with a mother who came “from the Julia Child-era school” certainly helped, and Whims’s sister also works in a restaurant today. Two more important role models were Italian cookbook author Marcella Hazan, which is well-documented, but also French chef and restaurateur Madeleine Kamman. “If Julia Child wasn’t already our cooking star, Kamman would have been famous in the U.S.,” says Whims. “She really shaped French cuisine by taking a more scholarly approach to food.”
Whims famously worked at and eventually became a co-owner of Genoa, the restaurant often credited for bringing fine-dining to Portland. But there was a time when she didn’t even dare apply for a job there because she hadn’t gone to culinary school. “Genoa was one of the fanciest restaurants in Portland,” says Whims. “Surprisingly, one day they called me.”
Today, Whims leads a staff of around 100 and says she’s had to make some changes as a result of the current political climate. “I want to make sure all of my cooks and employees feel supported and recognized. Rewarded for their work. Safe in their employment. My challenge is to make sure they know we’re going to protect them.”
Whims also says its paramount to find a cooking environment that cultivates teamwork and creativity. “It’s important to look for kitchens that show respect for ideas, no matter which member of the staff they come from. Line cooking can be a real drudge, repeating things night after night and being really busy, but what’s fun about cooking is creating new dishes and tasting new things. There’s always something more to learn. It’s the only reason to work in this business.”
“I hope that a lot of my success comes from how I create a working atmosphere. That hasn’t really changed because of today’s politics, but I think the urgency is much stronger now. I want my restaurants to be a safe place in all kinds of ways: creativity, employment, security, and opinions.”