KLIPSAN — It’s no surprise that Katie Witherbee-Allsup became a chef. From a young age her family taught her the importance of good food.
She’s worked in the restaurant industry for around 20 years now, her first job coming as a busser for The Ark restaurant in Nahcotta when she was 14. Witherbee-Allsup spent six years living on the Peninsula in her early teens, before moving and eventually attending Le Courdon Bleu Culinary Institute in Portland. She then worked as a chef in the city, but eventually moved back to the Peninsula in search of opportunities to grow her career. Four years ago she took on the role of chef at Nanci and Jimella’s Cafe in Klipsan Beach. The restaurant, which featured many of the same dishes served at The Ark years before, announced it will be closing for good on May 27. Witherbee-Allsup said she is undecided as of yet what her next move will be.
“I’d probably do this forever, whether I made any money or not, but you have to be practical,” she said recently.
The closing date of the restaurant is only a week after her wedding to local firefighter paramedic David Allsup on May 20.
“It’s just the way things have come together,” she said. “So right now is a pretty intense time in my life. There’s a lot going on.”
When did cooking become something you were interested in?
“I think from the beginning. My family owned cafés in Seattle when I was growing up, so it’s always been a part of my life. My mom’s parents were sort of gourmets. They did a lot of higher level cooking at home, and they both really had a lot of passion for cooking. And from the time I was a young child I remember family events were going out to really nice restaurants with the whole family.”
Why do you think cooking became your thing?
“I think it was just a happy accident. I had a friend whose older sister worked at The Ark, and I lived right down the street. And she said they were hiring and they’ll hire you if you wanna work and try hard. And I thought why not?”
What kind of a job was it?
“Bussing was the job that I interviewed for, but I was so fascinated by what they were doing and I expressed interest in working in the bakery. And Nanci said let’s give it a shot. It took a few years of baking, and knowing that I had a talent and ability and enjoyed doing it before I realized I wanted to branch out into cooking.”
What is a recipe you “invented” that you are proud of?
“Oh my goodness, that’s a hard one. When I started the job at Nanci and Jimella’s it was really my goal to develop salmon recipes. Jimella was really passionate about salmon above all other local seafood. So I have a group of recipes. What I’d really like to do over the next couple years is compile those together and write a book. I don’t think I could tell you there was one that goes above all others. But I’d say salmon has definitely been my focus over the last several years.”
Do you have a favorite or go-to ingredient that you like to work with?
“Salmon is definitely up there. I like to do a lot of ethnic-inspried food. It’s fun for me to come up with recipes that use our local ingredients and use my knowledge in ethnic-based cooking to help people relate to it.”
Does that come from cooking pan-Asian in Portland for a few years?
“That was the beginning of it, for sure.”
Do you have a dish that you created that was particularly ambitious?
“I think we try and make it as ambitious as possible when you’re in a production environment — there’s only so many steps you can take to put one dish together. All of the greatest chefs I’ve ever known really pushed that. Try to fit in as many things as you possibly can to go above and beyond. You always try to top the last thing you did.”
Are there any unusual or humorous stories that have come out of the kitchen?
“There’s a lot of them. There’s so many, I don’t know. Most of them are pretty inappropriate. It’s an adventure everyday. There’s a real balance of the sacred and the profane everyday. Even last night, with the news of the restaurant closing, business is gonna come in a lot stronger. And we got hit so hard all in like a one-hour period. You go through so many tides of emotion just in that small period of time. Because it goes from feeling super confident and great, to holy sh*t we’re sinking fast. And it just goes that fast. Our relationships and our humor reflects that I think. We have endless miles of material.”
You have a few food-related tattoos. When did your love of food and cooking expand to body art? And do you feel the artistic connective tissue between the two made them come together?
“The subject matter is obviously really important to me. I’ve been being tattooed for so many years. That’s the name of the game when you’re an artist. And when you have tattoos you wear your heart on your sleeve, literally.”
Are they all food-related?
“No, just the two on my arms (a butter knife on her left arm with the script “For the love of bread and butter,” and a small oyster on her right forearm). Before my career cooking I was an artist. I draw, pencil and ink. But my main medium is charcoal. I love to do huge pieces. When I was a kid I had a few opportunities to do giant pieces — usually on someone’s living room wall.”
Is that a creative escape for you?
“It is. It’s really something I’m looking forward to having more time for, moving out of the job at Nanci and Jimella’s. My time has really been devoted to that and being a mother.”
Do you draw your own tattoos?
“I have and I’ve drawn them for other people.”
Have you figured out what you’d like to do next?
“I’ve put a lot of thought into it. I have just millions of ideas. I don’t have anything set in stone right now. I’d like to be able to take some time to do some collaborating. What I’d really love to do is start my own business making products for wholesale for other businesses. I’ve been working a lot on charcuterie (the preparation of meat products like sausage) the last couple of years. Jimella and I had a lot of ideas, and one of them was doing packaged food, using local ingredients, to create products that are shelf-stable for retail sale.”
If you were only allowed to cook one recipe the rest of your life, what would it be?
“I’ve had the question, “what if you could only eat one food the rest of your life,” and that can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be. I kinda cheat and say sandwich, because how many types and preparations are there? You could live happily on that. I cook at home for my family. One of things I make on a very regular basis that makes everyone happy is a simple whole roasted chicken. And there are so many various ways you can do that. To me, that is just a perfect meal and everyone is always happy with it.”