by Ramona White, First Term Culinary Instructor

Chef White teaching fresh pasta making

One of the things I try to get across to my students is my belief that people can taste the intention with which you prepare their food. I know it’s a tall order, but I tell them to cook each dish as if they are cooking for the person they most love and admire in the world. I tell them to try to let their time at OCI be a vacation from work and home and all their daily struggles that try to interfere. Because I believe that the two most important qualities to be successful in this business are patience and dedication, I know that if my students can focus and enjoy what they are doing in the time they are in my kitchen, then they are taking steps towards success. This is the root of my teaching philosophy. I’m not interested in having my first terms students split the culinary atom — but they do need to develop their chops. They should not spend their time and energy trying to impress their peers and their teacher, when what I really want is for them to show me that they can perform a basic skill three times perfectly before we move on to creativity.

Personally, it’s taken me a long time to figure out that I didn’t have to be Thomas Keller to be good at what I do and to properly perform a service to the community. And that’s what cooks are, public servants. And we are crafts people more than artists. Crafts are important, and can be just as uplifting as art, but what separates them is that the crafts rely upon consistency, whereas art has the freedom to be more whimsical. When I realized that to be good at what I do, I needed to be a craftsperson and not an artist, it allowed me to add structure and discipline to my approach. When I started a booth at a farmer’s market years ago, I had so many ideas about what to put on the menu. So I created boundaries. Now, I have six criteria that have to be met:

1. It has to be something I want to make
2. It has to be something customers want to purchase and eat
3. It has to be something I’m able to produce consistently and in a consistent manner
4. It has to be of high quality
5. It has to turn a profit
6. The ingredients should be procured locally (whenever possible)

The last item is especially near and dear to my heart. Working with local farmers is my raison d’etre. It fuels and motivates me. I LOVE Oregon. I’ve lived in multiple places — New Orleans, Maine, New York, Washington DC, Maryland, and Colorado — and I can say from experience that there’s no place like Oregon. The quality of the food grown here is mind-boggling. The love and the dedication that the farmers I’ve worked with have for the growing environment and the food is remarkable. When I started here in 1997, hardly anyone was growing things like arugula. The Chef’s Collaborative, and specifically Greg Higgins, brought farmers and chefs together in Portland and created this lovely, workable environment for chefs and farmers to be able to communicate their needs to each other. With his encouragement, chefs started to make commitments to farmers to purchase the whole lot of what the farmers would grow, so it’s not all on the farmer to take on the risk. Cathy Whims was instrumental in this as well. Those two are my heroes, foodwise, in this town. I was so moved by what I was learning from the farmers that I became more interested in the food itself than what I was going to do with it. I really wanted to support them as much as possible, but I didn’t have a restaurant. So I made a commitment to produce value-added product for farmers. For example, I make hot sauce from peppers from Gales Meadow Farm and give the sauce back to the farmer and she sells it at her booth. Customers sample the sauce on burritos at my booth and we send them to her booth, where they purchase the sauce, thereby supporting her efforts and her farm. This completes the circle. It’s my way of making a commitment to the farmers to support local farms.

In my first term kitchen, when we talk about vegetable cookery, I’ll often bring in a local example of a vegetable that was picked when it was ripe within the last day or two versus something that was shipped – it’s something I want them to understand. The carbon footprint is a lot smaller when you buy things locally, and the flavor value is way higher when it was picked while ripe. Plus, the nutritional value is greater. Being able to support the local economy ensures that we get local product. In the end, so much of what makes good food is about the quality of the ingredients, and knowing how to prepare them in a way that honors the food you are preparing. Add proper technique and skills and the intention to nourish the one you love, and you are guaranteed to make your friends, guests, or customers pleased and nourished.