It’s been a long time coming, but one of the truest pioneers and most respected figures in Portland’s food world is up for the biggest honor of them all. Cathy Whims, owner and chef of Nostrana is the only PDX chef in this year’s roster of finalists in the Best Chef Northwest category at the 2009 James Beard Awards on Monday May 4th. She deserves to win. Here’s why.

Cathy is Portland’s quiet food warrior. In a the male-dominated ranks of chefs, Cathy has been among the best for 30 years. “Her food is honest, serious, solid and authentic,” says longtime colleague Chef Instructor Robert Reynolds. “She helped put it all in place.” Indeed. From her simple Caesar-style salad of radicchio, rosemary croutons and Regianno, to plump handmade gnocchi (only on Thursdays) bathed in simple tomato-butter sauce, her food is true to ingredients, true to origin, and true to place. She’ll make you cry with four ingredients or less.

Her influence on Portland dining is matched by very few. While owner of Genoa, Cathy worked and collaborated with chefs who went on to debut Portland’s most respected establishments. Tommy Habetz (Bunk Sandwiches, Gotham Tavern), John Taboada (Navarre), Adam Berger (Ten 01,, Tabla), Jerry Huisinga (Bar Mingo), Alton Garcia (Navarre, Broder), Kevin Gibson (Castagna, EVOE), and many more have worked with Whims.

No stranger to press, Gabe Rucker of Le Pigeon will be there too. Rucker, 27, is nominated for the rising star award. Rucker is a talented chef and a good guy. He also deserves a victory. At an age when most folks haven’t yet decided a career path, Rucker is already noted as one of Portland’s top chefs.

“I think it’s an incredible honor to be nominated,” says Whims. “It’s great there are two people from Portland who are nominated this year.”

I’ll post results on Tuesday the 5th. In the meantime, best of luck to Gabe and Cathy.