PENSINULA — Starting out, they had to drive 30 miles to find green peppercorns. Pesto sauce was an unfamiliar term for most customers. Such was life in on the Peninsula in 1981, a particular time and place that presented unique challenges and opportunities to two young chefs named Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas. Neither set out to change the culinary world, but destiny has a way of happening anyway.
“We were just wildly enthusiastic about what we were doing,” Main said, reflecting on the roots of her culinary career last week.
“We loved it. We were passionate and we celebrated it.” Saturday, May 27, will mark the final day of regular operation for the Nanci & Jimella’s Café & Cocktails in Ocean Park, concluding a culinary career that spanned more than 45 years — one as deeply personal as it was widely publicized.
Becoming a renowned chef
Nanci and Jimella didn’t seek fame, but it found them.
“I’ll forever have a debt of gratitude to James Beard,” the famous food writer, Main said.
“We were young chefs just starting out when he walked in our door.” Beard recognized greatness when he saw it. “He knew right away what we were doing,” Main said, “and he wrote us up in his column.”
This support from the press — including articles in The New York Times and Newsweek — helped draw new visitors to a remote little port town.
Memories flood over Nanci when asked about The Ark, the iconic restaurant she and Jimella ran for more than 20 years in Nahcotta overlooking Willapa Bay.
“Nahcotta wasn’t on the map — people couldn’t find it,” Main said. “Because of all the support, we started to bring a whole new kind of tourism into the area.”
“The kitchen was built by a chef and it was huge,” said Main extolling the virtues of the architecture, but it was the experience and the people along the way that still resonate strongest.
“There’s one guy that would bring oranges, another brought asparagus. There were so many traditions that would happen with food every year,” she said.
When Nanci and Jimella weren’t busy at the restaurant, they were often leading cooking classes, making guest chef appearances or meeting with TV, radio or print media to promote the area and their approach to regional cuisine.
“People were excited about what was happening here,” Main said.
Remote community challenges
Success didn’t come overnight, nor did it come easy. Isolation from ingredients and unfamiliarity with food presented early challenges.
“When we first opened (The Shelburne Restaurant in 1981), there were no coastal deliveries here. Back then, we did a New York steak with peppercorn sauce and we traveled 30 miles to get green peppercorns. A lot of things you can get now, we were on the forefront. The Peninsula didn’t have this kind of gourmet food. People had never heard of pesto when we started.”
When Nanci and Jimella opened The Sheburne in 1981, there was also some resistance to what was regarded as “gourmet food.” Even though familiar fare such as fish and chips, captain’s plates and chowder were on the menu, there were whispers about the wisdom of offering more novel dishes in a working-class community.
“When we took over The Ark, there was a rumor that there was dress code and we were turning people away,” Main said.
“It was a challenge to overcome the stigma for the kind of food we did — people were afraid to try it at first,” she said.
The experience further forged their resolve to make top-quality cuisine available to everyone, regardless of what they were wearing or what they chose to order.
“My philosophy (of dining) is people can come in in Levis, they can come in from clamming, or they can come in all dressed up for their anniversary, and feel comfortable,” Main said. “They can come in and have fish and chips or a NY steak and they’re treated just the same.”
They formed Northwest Women’s Chefs as a way to remain engaged with top chefs in Portland and Seattle. The interactions “kept us stimulated and creative,” Main said.
Sustained by local suppliers
Through the years, Main and Lucas — who died in November 2013 — celebrated the seasons and embraced local products and producers.
“All of our products came right to us,” she said. “We had relationships with the fishermen and local producers because we had lived here separately years before.”
“When we got The Ark, I would be in the dining room at night looking out on the bay and I would see the lights of the gillnet boats, and I would tell our customers that what they’re catching will be on plates tomorrow,” Main said. “Then next day, fishermen would be backing up to the loading dock with sturgeon and salmon. Then we would run across the street to Jolly Roger and come back with gallons of shucked oysters.”
Many of the relationships with local farmers, fishermen and producers have spanned decades.
“Ernie Soule, who I still buy littleneck clams from, would deliver clams from Willapa Bay,” she said. “That was back then and still today — I just got 30 pounds from him yesterday.”
Main also has fond memories of when the first spring salmon would arrive at The Ark.
“Gary Wilson brought the first salmon through the back door and it was as shiny as a dime,” Main said. “It so firm, so sweet and so beautiful. We walked through the dining room and brought the fish to each table and showed them the first spring salmon. Where else would that happen?”
Impression left by The Great Depression
In terms of sustainability and utilizing eco-friendly practices, Nanci and Jimella were ahead of their time. A lot of the herbs and vegetables once served at The Ark were grown in a garden nourished by soil amended with compost from restaurant waste, a novel concept of sustainability before the movement had truly taken root.
“What we did just came natural,” Main said. “A part of our cook’s job description was turning the compost.”
In 2003, they were the recipients of the sustainability award from the state of Washington for being pioneers in recycling and sustainability. They were also recycling at every opportunity, largely a result of both being born to parents that endured The Great Depression.
“You don’t waste anything,” Main said. “We used everything.”
Curiosity leads to culinary art
Nanci and Jimella’s culinary creativity was cultivated by years of research as curious customers.
“This is what chefs do when they go out to eat,” Main said. “Once the food comes, first, you look at it, then you smell it. Then you try to figure out what’s in it. It’s just fun to do. We did that for years before we had our own place and we educated our palate.”
The practice led to creativity in the kitchen and an exploration of complimentary flavors.
“When we would create something new on the menu, we would access our memory of the flavors that went together,” Main said. “We would talk about what colors were on the plate and shapes of flavors.”
In time, Nanci and Jimella cultivated their own culinary language.
“That’s three sharp flavors and we need something round. For instance, if you have too many sharp, acidic flavors, you need something round and soft to cushion and compliment it,” Main said. “I miss that so much, the way we used to talk about food and create. That was the art and creative talent that we both had.”
Unforgettable experiences had a way of happening around the holidays. Main once served sandwiches under candlelight to a packed restaurant after a storm knocked out the power on New Year’s Eve. “Sometimes it’s just about the experience,” she said.
Another time they nearly had to cancel a Thanksgiving dinner after accidentally setting off the fire-suppression system.
“The fans were running, then all the sudden they stopped and I heard this ‘click,”’ Main said. “We both knew immediately that we had 30 seconds before everything would be covered in white foam.” The “click” was the fire-suppression system getting ready to engage, and starting gun for what would be a race to empty the kitchen before the food was covered in flamer retardant.
“I’ll never forget the silence after the click, and knowing we only had seconds to save those damn turkeys!,” Main said. The food — and Thanksgiving — were saved in the nick of time.
Closing the cafe
The café building remains for sale, and the final official day for business and staff at the café is Saturday, May 27, but it won’t be the last public appearance for Main.
“On occasion I will still do pop-ups, which I will announce on the café Facebook page.”
One event is already planned for June in honor of her father, a World War II veteran.
“The last two weeks of June, I’m doing a complimentary lunch for veterans.” The buffet lunch is open to all war veterans. Main held the lunch once before and 35 veterans ranging from WWII to the Iraq War attended, she said. Details will be printed in a future edition of the Chinook Observer.
A little advice
For would-be restaurant owners looking to start a business on the Peninsula, Main emphasized community connectedness while being mindful of customer desires.
“The backbone of your business is your locals — value and nurture them,” she said. “Don’t try to go too far with your food. Test it out, see what people want. If you’re going to try something new, make sure people understand and want it.”
Main also said to research and form alliances with other area restaurants and owners.
Main has prepared meals for presidents, been featured in numerous TV, radio and personal appearances, won awards and written cookbooks, but her proudest moments are the people she mentored and inspired, and the legacy she and Lucas leave behind.
“I’m proud of the things we emphasize — value in food and community,” she said.
“I’m proud that until the end, my crew still maintains the same attention to detail and pride in their work.” The café, affectionately known as Nanci and Jimella’s, will close at the end of the month, but their culinary impact and community values they’ve instilled will undoubtedly continue with the new generation of chefs they’ve inspired.