Justin Woodward of Castagna

Summer soup at Castagna

Summer soup at Castagna

Justin Woodward has been running the kitchen at Castagna for the past year and is more than filling the shoes left by the sudden departure of the former chef. Justin is a Southern California native — San Diego — and his cuisine at Castagna is imaginative, extraordinarily creative and fun. Working with the best possible ingredients, Justin creates inspired dishes using interesting cooking techniques. We spoke with him about his process of running the kitchen at Castagna.

What are you making in the kitchen today?

Spring salmon has just started so we are going to take local salmon, cure it in a bit of wild licorice that we foraged, cook it briefly and then pair it with spring onions from a local farmer. We like to create dishes using various different methods with the same product. For example, right now, we are playing around with a lot of onions. We’ll dry onions for a crunchy element, make a ripe puree using acid from lime leaves, and then glaze sweet chipolinis with four or five different herbs from our herb garden and finally make caramelized onion jus enriched with vadouvan spice.

What is your process when you are creating these dishes? 

When we get a product in, we decide the best way to showcase the product. For example, cooking the salmon at a precise temperature for a certain amount of time develops a nice velvety texture.  Salmon and onions are both in season right now, so it makes sense to pair them and they work well together.  I wanted to pair the salmon and onions with something that has a really deep flavor, like a really strong umami. Onions naturally have a strong flavor and additionally we are making a Vadouvan, which is basically like a caramelized onion French curry that has a lot of umami in it. That should work well with the salmon. It will be very pretty with the green top and very rich and they work well together.  I wanted to pair the salmon and onions with something that has a really deep flavor, like a really strong umami. Onions naturally have a strong flavor and additionally we are making a Vadouvan, which is basically like a caramelized onion French curry that has a lot of umami in it. That should work well with the salmon. It will be very pretty with the green top and very rich.

How many tries does it take for you to get it right?

That really depends on what it is. It is very rare that things work out well on the first try. Usually there’s a lot of trial and error, which is fine because you learn from those errors and that’s what it’s all about for me. Knowledge is what it’s all about.

Where are you from and how did you get started cooking?

I’m from San Diego. My dad always had a garden. He always cooked. My grandma always cooked and I basically grew up cooking and working in really nice restaurants in San Diego. I worked for Ryan Johnston who is the chef for Whisknladle (in La Jolla). He was great to work with, and does an excellent job. I also worked for Paul McCabe, a James Beard award-winning chef (Delicias in Rancho Santa Fe). I then moved to New York and worked at wd-50, for about a year under Alex Stupak.  I became a stagiaire at numerous restaurants around New York and Europe. I staged at Noma in Copenhagen and Mugaritz Restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. Then I moved back to California, worked at El Bizcocho in Rancho Bernardo, for a very short amount of time. Finally I came up here to Castagna in Portland. I came to Portland for this job.

And we are certainly glad that he did! Check out Justin at Castagna from Wednesday through Saturday. You can enjoy the prix fixe menu to opt for à la carte if it’s a lighter night.

Nostrana: Trip the Bite Fantastic


Cathy Whims started dancing in college. The dance type was jazz infused with modern dance and ballet. The school was Portland State University. This former Latin major gone dance major was smitten with the grace and performance of dance movement. Cathy remembers her last dance class – the focus was African American literature and dance. The goal was to study the story the literature told through the rhythm and syncopation of the writing.

Even as she embarked on a career as a restaurateur and a James Beard award-winning chef, she always maintained a foot in the dance world. Eventually, Cathy found herself a restaurateur and James Beard award-winning chef. Yet she always maintained a foot in the dance world. Today, Cathy dances, specifically hip hop.

Cathy pointed out that there are actually many parallels between dance and the nightly orchestration of a restaurant. This was a fascinating connection – one I had never pondered. “There is a rhythm in the movement of a kitchen and restaurant floor,” Cathy posed.

She continued explaining that the fluidity of one body moving around another, both in the kitchen and on the floor, is crucial. A well run restaurant, at the height of an evening, runs at top speed, like the pinnacle of a dance. It’s exciting and compelling, a time when required syncopation requests bodies to work around each other in a perfectly choreographed dance to greet and seat customers or deliver piping hot plates. It’s this feeling in the body where speed and control balance during self expression which addicts dancers and waiters alike.

As a dancer, one gets addicted to the feeling of speed and control of self-expression. Wait staff are addicted to being slammed, the busy-ness of a dinner rush, and keeping up on orders. When an evening is not syncopated, both dancers and waiters know the night is bound to go badly quickly. And like a dance performance, an evening at a restaurant is not fixed in posterity; each night requires a re-execution of an interactive dance where chefs and waiters perform while customers react.

Who knew dancers and waiters were kindred souls? And then, there’s the passion.

Cathy does everything passionately. As a dancer, she read through hundreds of books on dance at Powell’s, often until close. Nostrana has not been spared this dedication. As much as Cathy wants to read a novel, it is hard for her not to devote time to reading cooking literature – because there is always room to perfect, right? When you’re at the top of an artistic profession the pressure rises and you have to maintain form – a reminder to self of the passion that once lead to the chosen path, project or profession. As Cathy put it, when the alarm goes off, we all have to reinvigorate ourselves with something inspiring to keep us in the game.

I asked Cathy to choose a musical genre best depicting an evening at Nostrana. Her quick answer was “jazz,” improvisation within a structure which always changes and never repeats.

Cathy closed the interview with the statement, “All good dance art is pure,” which she likened to the food served at Nostrana.  Like good dance doesn’t require ornate costuming, nor does good food. Cathy takes pride in removing all the unnecessary fuss so the fresh ingredients speak. What one sees on the plate is integral, a showcase of only what is there, and what needs be there.

For Cathy, cooking is about keeping a dish true to its origins and ingredients. This approach is an unveiling and a stripping away. Paul Bertolli described the process “Cleaning the Fresco,” also the title of a chapter title in his book “Cooking By Hand” [2003]. In his words it means, “food grounded in a tradition yet enlivened by the act of greeting the process and the ingredients anew.” Boiled down, it means honoring yet advancing food traditions at once.

“It’s quite similar to modern dance and modern ballet,” states Cathy. With this comment she was, literally, off to a show.

Welcome, guests, to Teatro Nostrana. Please follow me to your seats. Tonight’s show? Insalata Mista, Squash Ravioli paired with a glass of Rosso di Montepulciano performed by Cathy Whims. Enjoy the performance.

Higgins Restaurant

Greg Higgins

Greg Higgins is a “salt of the earth” kind of guy.  He’s a guy’s guy who is comfortable in the quiet progress of preparing meals alongside his fellow kitchen mates.  He’s a burly dude and has been sporting a scruffy goatee perhaps influenced by his upstate NY roots and his love of ice hockey. Outside of the kitchen, Greg can be found in his garden or relaxing with his wife and dog.

Greg has had huge commercial and critical success but he’s done it in an authentic, sustainable way.  He was one of the first chefs to link the process of feeding his guests with community outreach to the local farmers and fishermen.  He could have easily licensed his name, opened up a chain of restaurants, expanded into other markets, released a bunch of books or become a Food Network star but that’s not Greg.  Greg is happiest in his garden or his kitchen.  Plus, he legit, he’s anti-waste, rides his bike to work, and would never be a part of any type of mass marketing.  He prefers to be a low impact human being.

Greg started working with food as a kid in the family garden and as a teenager at the local creamery in Eden, New York.  He studied art at Hartwick College but, like many students, worked at a restaurant in the evenings.  This was his first taste of cooking for public consumption and fueled his post college European excursion where he learned about food in Europe. Like fellow American chefs at that time, returning to the states after working in Europe meant the challenge of procuring the European level of food quality and selection. The United States, and especially Portland, was still at a time when a frozen piece of beef and a frozen lobster tail constituted fine dining. Greg picked Portland, as most chefs do, for the agriculture – specifically the grapes.  The Oregon wine industry was just starting but it was putting out wine that was on par with our friends in France.  Greg had to go out and find local farmers and suppliers for his new gig in Portland, which was to open up and start the Heathman.  After over a decade at the Heathman, Greg was ready to start Higgins with partner, Paul Mallory.  They opened in 1994 and are still going strong.  Greg won the James Beard award for our region in 2002 and is Portland’s version of Alice Waters.

We had the pleasure of standing in his kitchen on an early December day.  It was the middle of a shift change and there were about twenty kitchen staff milling about the open faced, galley kitchen.  The kitchen staff at Higgins is about as mellow and down to earth as Greg.  They wear hipster t-shirts promoting Steve’s Cheese and are not pretentious.  The menu was in holiday mode, just having finished Thanksgiving, they were focused on heavier, richer dishes that everyone will be shunning come January’s weigh in.

Watch, as Greg prepares a goose stock reduction for a smoked goose breast and confit salad.  He explains what he’s doing to prepare the reduction, tells us a bit about the geese and shares his Christmas plans.


Rich Meyer

Rich Meyer’s dedication to culinary art is exemplified not only through the exquisite flavor of his dishes but also through his personal history.  For the last 13 years Meyer has dedicated himself to Higgins Restaurant & Bar, where he now serves as Chef de Cuisine. He completed culinary training at the Western Culinary Institute and started his informal education as a boy catching and cooking seafood on the shores of New York. Meyer enjoys the “freedom of expression” encompassed in his career, working with cured meats and seafood, and shaping his creations to the ever-changing climate of the Northwest.


Photo by Nick Hall

Greg is one of the founding board members of the Portland chapter of Chefs Collaborative.  Chef’s Collaborative is a network of chefs who are focused on the sustainable food system – educating and advocating sustainable practices.  Right now Chef’s Collaborative is focused on saving Bristol Bay in Alaska.  There’s talk of putting in one of the world’s largest open-pit mines in the very place where the salmon spawn.  If the mine opens then it will ruin up to 45 square acres of the most beautiful, tranquil and abundant places on earth.  In Portland, what we can do to help is barrage the government with emails and phone calls to let them know that we, the people, do not want this to happen. You can also support with donations that are used for education, outreach and lobbying efforts.




Black Mediterranean Mussels             $11.50
steamed in white wine and plum sauce with sesame crisps
Gratin of Hood Canal Oysters             $14.50
with hazelnut-smoked salmon in a red wine matelote
Bruschetta                                               $14.50
of forest mushroom and bean & herb purée with a walnut & red wine vinaigrette
Higgins Charcuterie Plate                    $13.75
with house-made pickles
Warm Marin Wash-rind Schloss Cheese           $12.50
with roasted fingerling potatoes and house-made pickles
Select Pacific Oysters                              $16.50
on the half shell with carrot-thai chili granite
Salad of Gathered Greens                       $7.25
toasted hazelnuts and herb vinaigrette

Rigatoni Pasta                                            $19.50
with spicy fennel sausage, broccoli, garlic cream, and pecorino romano cheese
Oregon Dungeness Crab & Bay Shrimp Cakes                    $29.50
with basmati rice pilaf and saffron-ginger beurre blanc
“Whole Pig Plate”                                     $27.50
sausage, braised belly, ribs, rillons, and crepinette, with molasses baked beans, braised greens, and piccalilli
Cotriade of Coho Salmon            $27.50
manilla clams, and mussels, with leeks and poached fingerling potatoes
Magret & Confit of LIberty Duck          $36.50
with dried cherry and Kirschwasser glace, braised greens and spatzle
Risotto                                                        $23.50
of habanero-smoked oysters with leeks, celery root, chevre cheese, and a Meyer lemon vinaigrette

• Northwest Cuisine
• Full Bar / Bistro Menu
• Exceptional Wine List
• Exceptional Beer List
• Organic Dining
• Reservations Accepted
• Menu Changes Weekly