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Meet Seattle's Southerly Competition for Best Chef: Northwest

We're counting down to tonight's 2011 James Beard Awards, wondering who will bring home the title for Best Chef: Northwest. In an effort to find out more about the three Portland chefs up against our own Ethan Stowell and Matt Dillon, we asked Erin DeJesus, editor down at Eater PDX to give it to us straight, and of course we returned the favor. Portland is also waiting to see if Gabriel Rucker finally wins Rising Star of the Year, since he's been nominated, what, four times now? Take it away, Erin...

Chris Israel (Gruner)

Background: Chris Israel has always been ahead of the curve. In a storied partnership with local restaurateur Bruce Carey, Israel cooked up modern Mediterranean (at Zefiro) and Asian-inspired eats (at Saucebox) long before those two cuisines became haute (he also, most recently, spent time in Carey's kitchen at 23Hoyt). Israel's newest project with ChefStable— the West End's sleek Gruner — is once again charting unfamiliar territory with its upscale take on alpine cuisine.
Why He's So PDX: Portlanders are known for their creative versatility (try throwing a stone in town without landing on a multi-hyphenate artist/chef/musician/designer/hipster), and Israel's resume also features some surprising nuggets, most notably, a stint as Vanity Fair's art director (seriously) — clearly, Israel's creativity isn't limited to the kitchen.
Why He Deserves to Win: A nod to Israel would rightfully toast a career that's defined dining trends as opposed to just following them.
The Ideal Meal at Gruner: Shaved radish salad; choucroute garnie (a platter featuring bratwurst, saucisson, cider braised pork belly, house-cured pork tenderloin, and sauerkraut — phew); and if you're at the bar, the Gruner burger, which is one of the best in town.

Cathy Whims (Nostrana)

Background: For two decades, Whims was chef and co-owner at Southeast Portland's storied Italian haute spot Genoa, before opening her regional Italian restaurant Nostrana in 2005. Since then, Nostrana's simple, soulful Italian-meets-Northwest menu has accumulated numerous accolades, including a Leccio d’Oro Osteria Prize from Italy and two other James Beard Award nominations for Whims — this year marks her third consecutive nom.
Why She's So PDX: An early proponent of the Slow Food movement, Whims has been on the scene championing the virtues of locally inspired dining long before the term "farm-to-table" became de rigueur. And her collaborative spirit shows in the big-name chefs that often stop by Nostrana: recent guests have included Gabrielle Hamilton (of NYC's Prune) and Cesare Casella (of NYC's Salumeria Rosi).
Why She Deserves to Win: Third time's the charm, right? Nostrana's "road house-style" neighborhood vibe matches the accessibility of the menu, where entrees rarely top $20. In a city that's known for the approachability of the food scene, Nostrana is the champion.
The Ideal Meal at Nostrana: The $15 prix fixe two-course lunch (with wine!) is one of the better deals in town, but for dinner, go for the insalada Nostrana, Whims' Laughing Stock Porchetta, or any pizza from Nostrana's signature wood-fired oven.

Andy Ricker (Pok Pok)

Background: After working his way up through restaurant kitchens (he trained under fellow JBA nominee Chris Israel in the early '90s), Andy Ricker was more inspired by the street food he savored in Southeast Asia, opening a small take-out spot in Southeast Portland, dubbed Pok Pok, in 2005. Six years later, he helms an empire that counts among its ranks a bar (Whiskey Soda Lounge), a downtown pub (Ping), a line of drinking vinegars (Som) and yes, a new take-out only spot (Pok Pok Noi) — not to mention two consecutive James Beard Award nominations.
Why He's So PDX: Ricker derives his inspiration from his world travels, doing stints in Thailand each year to bring highly regional dishes stateside, in small spots with a dedicated clientele. It's not his fault they keep blowing up to the hip joint du jour.
Why He Deserves to Win: Few Portland restaurants have received as much attention on the national scene than Ricker's Pok Pok flagship. That, and those famous Vietnamese fish sauce wings will seriously change your life.
The Ideal Meal at Pok Pok: Ike's Vietnamese fish sauce wings and the Laap Plaa Khua Meaung (a catfish salad) to share; the Khao Soi Kai, a curry noodle soup, as a savor-all-to-yourself entree. Wash it down with any of Ricker's drinking vinegars (we're partial to the honey-flavored one).
· All Previous Chris Israel Coverage on Eater PDX [-EPDX-]
· All Previous Andy Ricker Coverage on Eater PDX [-EPDX-]
· All Previous Cathy Whims Coverage on Eater PDX [-EPDX-]
· All Previous James Beards Coverage on Eater Seattle [-ESEA-]