Coast Chronicles: Don’t postpone joy

Nanci Main is ready to see where the road will lead her. Main has led the Pacific Northwest's local-food movement since its earliest days.

Coast Chronicles: Don’t Postpone Joy

By Cate Gable

Observer columnist

As satisfied guests leave Nanci and Jimella’s Café and Cocktails, the last thing they see is a time-worn bumper sticker taped above the door, “Don’t Postpone Joy.” That message is so important to Nanci that she puts it on the top of each check. It was the life-affirming mantra given to her by North Carolina owner/chef and friend, the late Laurey Masterton ( Now the time has come for Nanci to take those words to heart.

But let’s take a moment to step back in time. Nanci Sofia Main was born in Flint, Michigan and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. At 21 she packed a duffle bag and headed out for adventure with her best friend. She ended up in Seattle and from then on, now matter how far she traveled, she always came home to the Pacific Northwest.

Eventually Nanci made her way to the Peninsula and, during the charter fishing heyday, she began working at Red’s Restaurant in Ilwaco. There she met Jimella Lucas and they began a culinary adventure that was destined to make history. Their business partnership lasted until Jimella’s death in 2013.

In 1981 they purchased the Shelburne Restaurant to be close to the source of products they would transform in their kitchen. They bought from farmer and fisherman. They created a new trend in regional fare, combining traditional and nuveau cuisine — from old-fashioned bread pudding to Sturgeon Szechuan.

James Beard, conducting his annual cooking class in Gearhart, Oregon, heard about two young women owner/chefs blazing new territory. He’d long bemoaned the fact that Willapa Bay oysters and Columbia River salmon were being shipped to Portland and beyond, but that no chefs on the coast were taking advantage of fresh local seafood.

Beard made the trek across the river to see for himself and immediately recognized Nanci and Jimella’s originality. His food column was syndicated in 138 media outlets, so when he put his name behind these two chefs, the Peninsula burst onto the scene as a foodie destination. Yvonne Rothert, food editor at The Oregonian, followed with a full-page spread. The word was out about these “pioneer chefs.” Years later, Linda Faus also of The Oregonian, put it this way, “Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main were doing locally-sourced, sustainable cuisine long before anyone knew there was such a thing.”

Soon, needing a larger venue, Nanci and Jimella purchased a local favorite, the Ark Restaurant, established in 1950, and their reputation continued to grow. Nanci converted the card room into a full-fledged exhibit bakery and customers were greeted at the door with the aroma of homemade breads, cookies, and cinnamon rolls — and her winning smile.

Although Nanci is grounded in her dedication to our local community, her career has taken her around the world, “I’ve been flown all over the United States. I’ve done live TV shows and cooking classes. As celebrated chefs, we appeared at Rockefeller Center for the James Beard Meals on Wheels Benefit. In 1992, we were invited to Houston to be part of ‘An Evening with the Masters,’ a benefit for the Challenger wives. I’ve baked hundreds of wedding cakes. Many times I’ve even flown with wedding cakes for friends and family.”

“I’ve experienced the power of breaking bread countless times over the years. In the late 1980s, I was the first woman to bake bread in a centuries-old bakery in Tbilisi, Georgia (Russia), where traditionally only men were bakers. We shared those loaves with the townspeople and broke bread for peace between our two countries. Tears flowed.”

Nanci has cooked for presidents and governors. Sid and Bette Snyder brought this dynamic duo to the state capital for personal dinners for Gov. Booth Gardner. A thank you note from President Bill Clinton is framed on the walls of the café. But Nanci also had time for community events; she launched the first garlic festival in 1984, and is one of the “Mama-lion” founders of Camp Victory, the summer camp for sexually abused girls. Her signature creations — featured in the New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, Los Angeles Times, The Oregonian, Bon Appetite, Cook’s Magazine and the Seattle Times — include her Chocolate Lover’s Truffle Torte, Swedish Cream, Szechuan Brioche, and Italian Wedding Cake, just to name a few customer favorites.

It hasn’t only been customers who’ve benefited from Nanci’s magic in the kitchen. Many chefs and servers got their first hands-on training from her and are now working at top restaurants in metro-hubs up and down the West Coast. In fact, as Nanci says about her current chef, “Katie [Witherbee] applied at the Ark when she was 14. She learned baking from me and then Jimella took her ‘on the line’ and encouraged her natural talent. Katie went off to the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, and returned first to the Ark and then became head chef at the café. And it will be one of my greatest delights to make Katie’s wedding cake later this month.”

In Beard’s introduction to the first of Nanci and Jimella’s four Ark cookbooks, he wrote, “Nanci has the gift of charming the ovens as a pastry chef. She has imagination.” (Nanci and Jimella’s nationally recognized cookbooks are now in the state archives.)

Nanci continued the legacy of their legendary partnership even after Jimella’s death, perfecting and building on the menu at the Café. “For me, it’s all about energy — laugher and the love of food are essential ingredients in my café,” she says. “I’m so blessed to have a professional staff that reflects this.”

But all good things, even extraordinary ones, must come to an end. After 46 years, Nanci will be moving on to new adventures. (The café remains for sale). “Although I’m sad about leaving, I’m so proud of my ‘little café that could.’ Sometimes leaving is the hardest thing to do, but you have to pay attention to the seasons in your life. I’m excited about what awaits me around the next corner.”

“I’m going to write a book about Jimella’s and my careers as Northwest pioneer chefs. I want to volunteer locally; spend precious time with my 92-year old mother, Margaret; and camp in my Westphalia. I’d like to go to Sweden and see where my grandparents were born, walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Get my hands in the dirt. And I want to smell bread baking in my own home.” The word “rest” doesn’t seem to be part of her vocabulary.

We can only say, “Nanci, Godspeed. Thanks for all the years of great fun and great food.” Nanci’s talents and menus could have found their place in any sophisticated metropolitan area — New York, Chicago, Tokyo — but she chose the Peninsula. She recognized our amazing local resources, blessed them, and gave them back to us with elegance, finesse and — yes — joy.

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