PORTLAND, Ore. — Standing over a hot skillet, Randy Willhite sautés together shrimp, veggies, rice and his own blend of Cajun seasonings.
"This is the secret to half my stuff right here," Willhite said, laughing while holding a plastic container with the hand written words, NOLA SPICE. "People think you can go to the store and buy New Orleans spices and herbs, and you can't," he said. "There’s too much salt and fillers."
Willhite takes that same "only the good stuff" approach to everything he dishes up at his restaurant, POBOYZ Cajun Creole Kitchen, on Southwest 3rd and Pine. He opened the downtown Portland location in August 2021, following two years of running his POBOYZ food cart just a few blocks away.
"Right in the middle of the pandemic," Willhite said. "But you know, I kind of like zigging when everyone else was zagging."
The maneuvering analogy makes sense when you consider Willhite, 56, played fullback at the University of Oregon. His brothers, Kevin and Gerald Willhite, also played football and went on to play in the NFL.
Willhite said it was through them, in a roundabout way, that he began pursuing his true passion: creole cooking. His brothers hooked him up with Super Bowl tickets whenever the big game landed in the Big Easy.
"So I went to New Orleans several times, and built a rapport with the chefs," he said. "By the time I got ready to do my own restaurant, I asked them to let me videotape them showing me the techniques they've been giving me all along."
That includes legendary chef Leah Chase, whose story inspired Disney's The Princess and the Frog.
Last month, Willhite wed his college sweetheart, Karen Hamilton, in a ceremony at his restaurant. And later this month, he’ll be serving his cuisine in Eugene at the World Athletics Championships.
"I got the phone call, I was just shocked and excited that we were actually chosen to be there," he said.
Bright spots like those and recent recognition by Forbes Magazine help the couple persevere through the current challenges of owning a restaurant downtown, Hamilton said.
"There's still not enough people downtown during the week," Willhite said. "On the weekends we can't keep up with business, but during the week it's too slow… I would love to do so much more, we just got to get downtown rolling again."