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December 3, 2013 at 10:22 PM

Pioneering peninsula chef Jimella Lucas left a culinary legacy

File photo of Jimella Lucas with the mountain of oyster shells in front of the Ark by Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times

File photo of Jimella Lucas with the mountain of oyster shells in front of the Ark by Benjamin Benschneider / The Seattle Times

Long before the era of celebrity chefs and Northwest cuisine and “local-seasonal” cooking, there was Jimella Lucas.

With partner Nanci Sofia Main, Lucas pioneered culinary magic on the Long Beach peninsula, with dishes like fresh-caught salmon sauced with peaches at their peak, or classic oyster stews and chowders cooked with seafood harvested within view of the dining room.

Long before chefs felt a James Beard Award was their profession’s highest honor, Beard himself dined at the restaurant at The Shelburne Inn, which Lucas and Main once ran, and at the Ark restaurant, which they owned for 25 years, bringing national attention to the pair’s cooking and connections to their food. Never in his 80 years of life, Beard wrote in the introduction to the first Ark cookbook, had he seen a restaurant “that glorified the great gifts from the sea, nor the fine vegetables, or the wild mushrooms, or the small fruits or the game” in the way that Lucas and Main did.

Lucas, 69, died of cancer Nov. 30 at her home in Oysterville.

She was born Dec. 2, 1943, in Grants Pass, Ore., to Eileen McCorkle Todaro and Frank Todaro, and graduated from Marycrest High School in Portland. Food and cooking were in her blood from a young age.

At 18, she was arriving at work before 3 a.m. at an Italian produce market, packing fruits and vegetables for 75 cents an hour. Delivering that produce led her to the Arrow Club, a workingman’s club in Portland, where she got intrigued by kitchen work and began working her way up. She started out washing pots, so short that she had to stand on a box to reach the sink. (She was 5’2”, but “with a six-foot attitude,” Main said.) At the upscale Waverly Country Club, Lucas caught the attention of classically trained chef Al Kuester, who “recognized her as a chef before she knew she was a chef,” Main said. Lucas apprenticed with him for three years, further broadening her training and palate with later moves ranging from commercial fishing in Alaska — key to her particular appreciation for fish — to working in a Jewish deli, to turning out hundreds of late-night meals at Red’s Restaurant, which used to be packed at 3 a.m. with fishing crowds heading out in the heyday of the charter boats.

Friends said Lucas was complex — no-nonsense, disciplined and feisty and blunt, yet with a deep tenderness for children and animals, and an intense commitment to community.

She was a taskmaster, but “respected people that worked hard and kept their word,” said Main, her friend and cooking partner of 45 years. Main used to escort occasional child diners at the Ark into the kitchen, where they could cook their dinners at the stove with Lucas. Years before the Edible Schoolyard projects, they did a Kids Feeding Kids project with the local school, taking children out to harvest oysters and potatoes and other local ingredients, then bringing them to the Ark kitchen where they would cook them, then serve the meal they had prepared to classmates — the full circle of hospitality. The pair founded the region’s garlic festival, now in its 33rd year. They composted and recycled in an era when few recognized the words, eventually wining a state award for their efforts. They were chef-owned and women-owned when both those features were rare.

At a celebration of Lucas’s life in September — some 250 people gathered for a potluck in her honor, including the musicians who used to play at the Shelburne — person after person who had worked with her talked about how “I mark my standard of what I do according to what Jimella taught me,” Main said.

The pair met while working at the original Jake’s Famous Crawfish in Portland. “I would always tell people we were eating partners. There are some people you go out to eat with because they enjoy food on a whole different level, with gusto and with curiosity, with appreciation,” Main said. An early adventure was picking wild blackberries — Lucas told Main she knew the perfect spot to find them, Main recalled, but neglected to mention that there was a wild bull in the berry field. They exited quickly.

With Lucas in the kitchen and Main baking and working the front of the house, they leased the restaurant at the Shelburne Inn from owners David Campiche and Laurie Anderson. The inn owners wanted people in the restaurant who were as excited about food and wine as they were, Anderson said, and Lucas and Main delivered. “They were an amazing pair… they were bringing a whole level of cuisine to the peninsula that just didn’t exist here yet.

“We in the Northwest are really proud of where we come from,” Anderson said. Lucas, with her championing of local ingredients, helped define just what that meant when it came to food.

Anderson remembered a prominent food writer from The Oregonian coming to report on the restaurant. The writer asked “Jimella, what do you think makes a good chef? And Jimella’s response was, ‘Somebody who isn’t afraid of a mop,’” Anderson said. “At the time, I’m not sure I understood what the heck she was talking about. But over time I have come to understand exactly what she meant by that. To be a chef, you can’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty, you can’t be afraid of getting in there… It’s hard work, and you can’t be afraid of hard work.”

When Lucas and Main purchased the Ark from a local cranberry farmer — Lucas had actually worked there once, too — their fame grew further, helped by the raves from The New York Times and The Washington Post and Food & Wine magazine. There was something of a celebrity cooking circuit in those days, Main recalled, with chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower, and for a time she and Lucas joined it, traveling and cooking for national audiences.

An announcer would present Jeremiah Tower from San Francisco, and Alice Waters from Berkeley, and then, to the public’s bewilderment, it would be Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main from Nahcotta. “People would be — Nahcotta?! It was heady and it was wonderful,” Main said. Ultimately, they decided it also took too much away from their own restaurant.

“Thank goodness we agreed. We just made a decision that what we were doing was so important, in our own back yard, and who could ever replicate Willapa Bay?”

After selling the Ark, they took on Jimella and Nanci’s Market Cafe in Klipsan, which remains open. Lucas, whose love for fresh fish was so legendary she could literally be seen stroking a salmon or hugging a sturgeon, originally wanted to sell fresh fish from a seafood case, but customers kept asking about the chowder, the rolls, the chocolate cranberry tart. Whether serving the fish or selling it, her knowledge wasn’t wasted.

“She knew, of course, not only who caught that fish, but where it was caught and when it was caught,” longtime friend Cate Gable said. “In many cases, something that might be served on the dinner menu as a special would be maybe just 3 or 4 hours out of the Columbia or out of Willapa Bay, and she knew exactly which fishermen she wanted to work with.”

All in all, Gable said, “food was the vehicle for Jimella to nurture people on the physical, emotional, and spiritual level.”

Friends in the close-knit area nurtured her in return over her illness this past year, with Gable helping coordinate daily shifts of “friendly faces” to visit, to share stories, to relieve caregivers, to help keep her comfortable and at home. “They’d make soup for her in beautiful jars with messages on them. It showed the high side of living in a small community,” Main said. (Gable’s lovely remembrance is online here.)

Nobody could replicate what Lucas could do with some of the most unlikely ingredients, Main said. “Her sauces would just dance in your mouth.” But she was able to train well her final sous chef, Katie Witherbee, who will now head the kitchen at the cafe. At a wake for Lucas, one of her former cooks, Charlie Zorich, heard that Lucas had planned to teach Witherbee one final dish, the technique for her famous Scotch salmon, made with a sauce that included Scotch and orange juice and cream. In the end, she was too ill.

Zorich said, “Nanci, remember the night I did Scotch salmon at the Ark, and you tasted it, and said ‘That’s as close to Jimella’s as anybody’s going to get?’… “I know all the moves, and I’ll show Katie.” She will make the Scotch salmon at the cafe, and Zorich himself is about to open his own restaurant in the area, and countless other employees and diners will carry on with their memories from her kitchen and dining room. “Her legacy will continue right here on the peninsula,” Main said.

It’s also, of course, gone beyond.

In Lucas’s handwriting, Main recently found a mission statement from when the pair started the Ark. It reads as valid now as it did then, for big cities as well as coastal villages: Their restaurant should be about “creating a community connection that galvanizes the practices of sustainable ways. It creates good food as its goal in life, that connects the good table to the good earth.”

They were partners in food until the end, with Main feeding Lucas the last meal she was able to eat, the night before Thanksgiving.

Other survivors include two brothers, Dean Todaro (and wife Pam) of Chicago, and Dale Williams, of Billings, Montana; a niece, Anna Todaro of Chicago, two nephews, Howard Todaro of Chicago and Lawrence Todaro (and wife Jennifer Trout-Todaro) of Chicago, and a great-nephew, Dean Everet Todaro of Chicago.

Services will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 15 at a community potluck at the old Chinook schoolhouse in Chinook. Donations may be sent to the Chef Jimella Lucas Culinary Scholarship offered through the Rotary Foundation, P.O. Box 752, Ocean Park WA 98640.

Note: Edited Dec. 4 to correct names of survivors and Dec. 8 to add link to Gable’s column.

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