Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas The women of The Ark: Two by Two, part 1

<I>TREECE GREENE photo</I><BR>Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas have made The Ark restaurant into a success on the Willapa Bay.

Glitter queen and kitchen philosopher

NAHCOTTA - I first saw the Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean in 1962. That drive over the coast range took my breath away, as it does even now over forty years later. I didn't know trees could grow that tall, and I didn't know a quahog from a geoduck.

I was going, with the man I would later marry, to visit someone who lived in a house nestled under the trees behind the dunes in Long Beach - or Seaview - one or the other.

I had no idea then where I was or how I had gotten there, a theme that would become familiar to me. In 1963, I dug clams for the first time in the Long Beach sands with my mother and three of her friends from my hometown in Kentucky. In 1982, having married and divorced that man who first brought me here, I began to investigate the Oregon and Washington coasts with the serious intent of one day having a place somewhere along one coast or the other. I know I got as far as the Peninsula that year, and I know I purchased something from Sid's in Seaview, because in 1995 I found in a little old leather coin purse the receipt for that 1982 purchase, a seemingly inconsequential memento, but tucked away somewhere safe, like a talisman, as I came closer to Light.

Water and light.

Good people, good food, and water and light. We don't always know or understand why our paths cross with others, but my first meeting with Chef Lucas is etched unforgettably in my sensory memory and somewhere deep in another kind of knowing.

One day in August 1995, just before I made an offer on the house I would buy just down the road, as I was leaving after lunch at The Ark, I saw Chef Lucas standing at the counter outside the bakery, where I had never seen her before and have never seen her since.

Her venue is the kitchen. That day she saw my friend and me, recognized us as strangers to The Ark, and talked passionately about the day's sauce for the pasta and the community of women on the Peninsula.

One night a few years and many dinners later, Nanci Main came floating to our table lofting a loaf of hot bread straight out of the oven, plopped the warm gift on the bare table between us, and invited us to enjoy.

"Dig in. Just pull it apart with your hands."

This is the kind of gift a devotee comes to count on from The Ark - and everyone connected with the restaurant. Not so much the appearance of an actual loaf of bread or a favorite dish (oh, the roasted eggplant! the bouillabaisse! the Szechwan brioche!), but the metaphor that is always served with it all. "Dig in. Just pull it apart with your hands. Enjoy what's before you."

November 2003Nanci Main, Jimella Lucas, and I are seated in Jimella's living room. It is another in a long line of unseasonably sunny days. The rain is holding off, the sky is blue, the sun is shining and reflecting off the leaves of the tree just outside the window, but fall is here.

We make small talk as we comment on the rare weather and take a look at Jimella's newly reorganized cupboards in the kitchen. Nanci has contacted a clutter consultant and is in the process of purging clutter from her house.

Jimella is demonstrating how to get ahead of clutter without a consultant. As one might expect of two people who have worked together in the restaurant business for twenty-three years, the banter between them is easy and friendly and comfortable - and, not surprisingly, sometimes competitive.

Jimella brings in big cups of tea, and Nanci curls up in a big easy chair. It is, after all, a Monday. They've just finished a typical Thursday-Sunday autumn schedule and are in need of rest and rejuvenation before the up-coming Thanksgiving weekend, for which they already have around 220 reservations for Thanksgiving Day alone. We settle in to talk about what we're going to talk about.

Chef Lucas is trying to find the right word to express what this partnership is all about. She pauses, squinting her eyes, searching for the name of that bee buzzing around in her bonnet. It lights. "Commitment," she finally says. She sits up straighter and stares off out the window as the words come.

"The commitment to be of service - to show up - to pay attention and show up - to be responsible to a business partner and to the business."

In other words, they don't make personal choices that leave each other in the lurch, and they believe strongly in the value of the Peninsula community.

They often make the restaurant available for gatherings, such as memorials, where people in the community, who have lost a family member or good friend, can gather in a space created just for them, to eat and to share and to grieve, a space where someone else will take care of the details.

The women of The Ark understand that people don't get a lot of practice having memorial services. Most of us don't know what to do to create a memorial gathering that's meaningful and healing.

As Chef Main points out, "When you lose someone close to you, you're in trauma anyway. Knowing what to do and what to ask and what to provide to make an experience that's meaningful and healing is something that we've done a lot. This memorial last week? The family was grateful, and the occasion was meaningful because we have the experience and because we provide this place by the water."

Light. Water and light.

Good food, good people, water and light.

Camp Victory can testify to the generosity and commitment of the women of The Ark.

Every year, The Ark provides pastries, bread, coffee, sometimes whole dinners during the fall training. The Ark also faithfully hosts a sumptuous breakfast the last day of training on a Sunday, the only day of any week The Ark opens before five in the afternoon.

Nonetheless, year after year, The Ark serves a sit down brunch to 30 to 40 men and women at nine o'clock on a Sunday morning - two hours before their usual opening time - and their only compensation is a song or two served up with heaping mounds of gratitude and tips for the staff, who themselves frequently turn around and donate something to Camp Victory.

Chef Main's signature bakery items appear during camp, too, - kid- friendly and adult-adored. Chef Lucas has been known to show up and prepare an entire meal for the entire camp. The annual Camp Victory Holiday Party has always been held at The Ark.

For four or five hours on a Saturday before Christmas, Camp Victory Mama Lions take over The Ark, rearrange every table in the dining room, set up a cookie decorating station, a craft station, a buffet table, and seating for forty to fifty Little Buddies and Mama Lion volunteers. The Ark provides soft drinks for the girls, coffee for the adults, icing for the cookies, and ovens for baking pizza and warming potluck items.

After the girls have gone home, the Mama Lions put the restaurant back together again in time for the five o'clock seating. As long as they are in business, Nanci and Jimella say, The Ark will host the Camp Victory holiday party.

For Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas, their commitment to community and their love of preparing, serving, and enjoying good food is an ongoing celebration. No other word for it, according to Jimella.

"We honor celebration," she says emphatically. Then she smiles an impish grin as she brushes a mote of dust from the table, and says, shaking her head back and forth, "It's hard not to celebrate when you're affiliated with the Glitter Queen. That helps a lot. It's very encouraging."

Indeed, over the years, Nanci has become well known - and rightly so - by that sobriquet, "The Glitter Queen."

The Ark quite literally glitters with decorations to mark and celebrate the slightest turn of every season. The L-shaped dining room crooks at one corner to extend along Willapa Bay with strands and strands and strands of twinkle lights, every table and every bare space carrying the theme of the season, if not the day, all decor delicately balanced to perfection. On the polished dark wood windowsills, candles flicker against windowpanes that offer long summer evening or short winter twilight views of the water.

Candles flicker above white table cloths or the white place mats floating on the polished, lake-like dark wood of the booths elevated just slightly against the back wall to provide another view of the water - tide in or tide out - herons landing or taking off or poised on one leg to snag their own dinner - a new, harvest, or waning moon hanging out over the bay as if Nanci had just asked one of the staff to take a ladder and tip that bright orb or sliver to just the proper angle.

At The Ark, whimsical wooden fish wear Easter bonnets, Santa hats, or witches cones. You have to come back several times at different seasons of the year before you can really say with confidence that you have seen everything The Ark has to offer - inside and out.

The entryway to The Ark is as festive as the dining room. The displayed bakery offerings make one consider what has crossed the mind of any lover of good food.

"Maybe tonight we should begin with dessert." No problem. With a little notice ahead of time, The Ark will accommodate just about any reasonable hunger for any specialty dinner item in season (the offerings here come fresh from the sea and the land) and any bakery item regardless of the season.

Nonetheless, the magnetism of The Ark that brings people back year after year is not just decor.

"Whether it's commitment ceremonies or a memorial or a birthday party," Chef Lucas insists, "we do it all with the same gusto of celebration no matter what - because it is that person's special occasion. When you deal with the senses, you just can't go wrong. [The senses] take you down the right path - most always."

If Nanci Main is the Glitter Queen - and she is - then Jimella Lucas is the Kitchen Philosopher.

"Your senses," Chef Lucas insists, "tell you more than your intellect tells you, more than what your intellect knows. Your senses tell you the food smells good. Your senses tell you the temperature of the room, how people are feeling. You pay attention to that and respond on an intuitive level and not at an intellectual level with all the things you know here."

She taps a finger to her forehead. "I might know intellectually how to do all these things I can do with my trade, but I respond more from my senses and the experience I've packed in."

Chef Lucas is very clear about her two primary resources, the learned, intellectual know-how of her trade, and her own intuition. She insists that she relies most heavily on the latter.

"When I create a recipe, I do it that way. All of a sudden it's, 'Hmm... that doesn't smell just right, doesn't look right,' and then, 'Hmmm... tastes a little off. Wonder what it is.' So then I start really responding to my own internal, intuitive cupboard, which allows me to fix it, and then it comes out right."

She looks off as if eyeing the contents of a pot, sniffing a bouillabaisse, expectantly preparing to taste. She looks toward Nanci. "It's like what Nanci is talking about - that place where we know how to sense exactly what to do."

As the person out front always working with the public and weaving her staff in and out among people to be welcomed and pleased and served and fed and invited back again, with the occasional exception, Chef Main describes her own intuitive sense.

"You do run a restaurant on different levels - whether a special event or a regular night - by having a foundation of practical knowledge, and then making decisions intuitively. For example, last night was real slow, maybe ten or twelve tables.

"But knowing intuitively how and where to seat them makes a difference. I have to make decisions about the lights, the music, and just what to do to create that sense of energy. All those people last night felt that energy.

"There was a smooth energy that flowed, and they all had a good time. The fact that the dining room wasn't packed was not an issue.

"However, if you don't have that sense, you can go into a dining room that's packed, with bright lights or blaring music or the wrong music or people seated on opposite sides and you hear the silverware clattering or people talking real loud in the kitchen, and you have a completely different experience than if you have low lights, like candles, and people seated (comfortably close). Great crowd last night, and part of it was probably because intuitively I was offered up where to put them and how to do that."

I have no trouble believing that these two women, who are very well educated in the creative skills of their business, are also working their magic on the high side of the intuitive.

As a teenager, I watched my mother go into the hotel and restaurant business with no previous experience, but with a heightened intuitive sense about how to seat, serve, feed, and fuss over people so that they enjoyed themselves, ate delicious food, and wanted to come back for more - and did. She was also intuitive enough to bring into the business with her a woman with no previous skills of any kind in the kitchen or anywhere else, who barely knew how to boil water, and yet learned quickly how to be savvy with a sauce pan, pick up things quickly, and become a chef extraordinaire.

There's something about food and our experience with food. It's either really good or it's not. It's either really memorable or it's not. And we always know the difference. There is no in-between.

Once we've tasted Chef Lucas' Willapa Burger or Chef Main's Szechwan Brioche, we may eat other burgers, other breads, but never again without The Ark's burger and brioche as yardsticks - and a fervent resolve to get back to The Ark and order both as soon as possible.

NEXT: The women of The Ark: Two by two - Part 2: The journey here

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