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Jimella Lucas: Celebrating a Culinary Legend (1943-2013)

Jimella Lucas and FriendLong-time celebrated chef Jimella Lucas taught me to love oysters.

She baked up the bivalves that were only a few hours out of Willapa Bay with butter, lemon, house made breadcrumbs, and a sprinkling of Parmesan, letting them cook in their own liquor. At first bite, I was captivated by the soft, creamy, briny essence. It’s a dish I dream about and one I will never again enjoy from the hand of this legendary chef.

Jimella Lucas, one of the best, if not THE best chef the Northwest has ever seen, died recently at age 69 of esophageal cancer at her home in Oysterville on the Long Beach Peninsula in Washington.

Jimella Lucas' Baked Oysters with Italian Bread Crumbs

Jimella Lucas’ Baked Oysters with Italian Bread Crumbs make oyster lovers weep.

Lucas was a culinary pioneer. Before sustainability and taking care of the Earth’s resources were popular, Lucas was composting, recycling, and making sure the fish and other foods she used were fresh, sustainable, and Earth-friendly. Before fresh, local, seasonal, and farm-to-table were the rage, Lucas was growing vegetables and herbs for her kitchen and using local vendors to supply her restaurant. She and her longtime partner, Nanci Main, received Washington State’s first award given to a restaurant for environmental practices.

Before chefs were celebrities, she and Main (whose specialty is pastry) were celebrated in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Food & Wine magazine. For a time, they traveled around the country with chefs like Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower cooking for national audiences. Legendary foodie James Beard became an early Lucas/Main fan and wrote in the forward of one of their four cookbooks that he had never seen anyone that “glorified the great gifts from the sea, nor fine vegetables, or the wild mushrooms, or the small fruits or the game” like Lucas. She even cooked for famous people like Bill Clinton.

Before women were accepted and respected in the kitchen, Lucas carved her own way, refusing to let her 5’2” frame be overshadowed by her male counterparts. Her culinary stops along the way included working in a Jewish deli, fishing in Alaska, and cooking at Red’s Restaurant, the Haviland Hotel, The Quay, The Washington Hotel, Waverly Country Club, Jake’s Famous Crawfish, the Shellburn Inn, and her own The Ark Restaurant and Bakery in Nahcotta, Washington, where for 25 years, she and Main were famous for innovative and creative use of Northwest ingredients.

Hard Work, High Standards

Seafood market, Jimella's Cafe

After selling the Ark, Jimella opened a seafood market, but customers demanded she cook for them.

After selling The Ark, she opened Jimella and Nanci’s Seafood Market & Café (now Nanci & Jimella’s (of The Ark) Cafe & Cocktails). She’d hoped to just sell fresh seafood and local food products, but her customers kept begging for her chowder, her salmon, her oysters, and more. Little by little, she relented and, today, the café serves a simple, but full menu with many of her famous dishes from the Ark.

Born in Grants Pass, Oregon, and raised in Roseburg and Portland, early on Lucas began her lifelong practice of working hard. While still in high school, she started working for 75 cents/hour at Louie Menduni’s Produce in Portland. Hard work was something she valued and taught fiercely to the dozens of young chefs who worked under her. She believed great chefs shouldn’t be “afraid of mops” and she was known for doing any and every job needed in the kitchen. Friends, colleagues, and those who worked in her kitchens knew her as a no-nonsense, disciplined taskmistress who demanded the best from herself and from others.

Jimella Lucas looking down and smiling

Chef Jimella was renowned for her love of children, animals, and old people.

Jimella Lucas’ legacy isn’t just a number of cookbooks with great recipes. She began the fresh, farm-to-table movement in the Pacific Northwest that’s made this part of the world special for those of us who love great food. Lucas and Main started the Northwest Garlic Festival (now in its 33rd year).

She was also a huge community supporter and had a soft spot for children, elders, and animals. She and Main worked at countless benefits over the years from Camp Victory for healing sexually abused children to Meals on Wheels at the Rockefeller Center in New York City. Behind her Market Café, she grew a small garden where school children could learn about growing things.

Her legacy is also in the dozens of chefs she taught. Recently, I was in The Dalles dining at The Baldwin Saloon. The food, which was absolutely delicious, tasted somehow familiar. When the dessert tray arrived with Carmelo, a soft caramel and chocolate spooned over sponge cake, and I recognized it from Lucas’/Main’s menu.  Yes, the server told me, the chef here  had trained under Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main.

Jimella Lucas, Nancy Main

Jimella with long-time partner, Nanci Main, show off some of their dishes. Photo Jimella’s Market Cafe

Jimella Lucas’ last protégé is Katie Witherbee, who now heads the kitchen at Nanci & Jimella’s )of The Ark Restaurant)  Cafe & cocktails . I recently visited the café just before Lucas died. Witherbee was cooking and I ordered those legendary baked oysters. Were they the same? Not quite. But Lucas will be pleased to know they were pretty darn close.

A culinary light has gone out in the Northwest and world of food is a little darker. We will miss you, Chef Lucas, more than you will ever know. – Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

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Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.