The Taste Makers
Posted on May 29, 2006
A native of Bergamo, Italy, Angelo Auriana, 44, has created an enormous buzz with his innovative approach to regional Italian cuisine. Auriana’s childhood exposure to Italian regional cooking and French cuisine was supplemented by old-fashioned, formal training at hotel school in San Pellegrino, Italy. At 18, he came to the United States, where, he says, “I evolved my own style of cooking.' A mere seven months after opening Masque in El Dorado Hills, he garnered national recognition in Esquire magazine, which called Masque “one of the best Italian restaurants to open in the U.S. in years.'
His cuisine: “Modern, open-minded Italian food using local ingredients, and 10, 20, 30 percent of my own take on the dish. I’m an Italian-born chef, but I have been cooking in the States for 20 years, so I cook Italian food, but it’s Italian-style with my own personal touch. Basically, I twist a couple of the ingredients and I change the presentation, but the true soul of the food is there. It’s not going to be fusion, it’s not going to be Asian, it’s going to be the same flavor that I was born with, but in my own way, my own style.'
Why he’s earned the right to do his own thing: “It’s been 30 years that I’ve been in the kitchen, so I think that I’ve paid my dues on the tradition, on the typical, on the faithful re-creation of cuisine and preparation of food. So I decided if I was going to open a restaurant, I would have my own interpretation and this is what it is.'
Where he’s worked: Valentino in Santa Monica.
The concept of Masque: “The vision for us is that we have a restaurant where you can sit at the bar and have a dish of pasta, $12, or you can have a white-truffle dinner for $200 a person. We wanted to create not the fine dining, not that exclusive place where you go once a year for your birthday or a special event, but it could be every day but at any level. You just have to be yourself, but you’re elbow to elbow with anybody. And that, I think, is a key to success.'
Why he’s in El Dorado Hills, not New York City: “I believe in underdog places and situations. For many years, I lived in Los Angeles, and my dream was, if I were ever to open a restaurant, it would be in Northern California, probably San Francisco. But when I met my partner, Roger Hume, he said, ‘Angelo, we’re going to build a beautiful center [in El Dorado Hills] . . . and I thought, ‘Maybe this place, just for a gamble, just for a “let’s see how it goes,' might be ready to have a restaurant that could fit in any city in the United States.’'
Why he seems to have made the right choice: “Right now, I’m confident in saying that this is exactly what I want to do. I didn’t know back then if it would materialize, because we could have been here waiting and waiting for people to show up, but I feel I’m having a big night (in reference to the movie Big Night) every night here. It’s been fantastic. We’re very proud of the people who live here because they’ve been very supportive.'
On Sacramento’s dining scene: “I think that Sacramento is just like any other town. The restaurants are not here yet, but they will come.'
Where he likes to eat: “I’ve been to The Waterboy a couple of times and really enjoyed it, and I’ve been to The Kitchen once and really enjoyed that, too. I haven’t really been going out much—we’re open seven days a week. But I [made] a New Year’s resolution to eat out more often.'
Rebecca Reichardt, Chef/Owner
A Yolo County native, 26-year-old Rebecca Reichardt has enlivened downtown Woodland’s drowsy dining scene with Tazzina Bistro’s friendly ambiance and straightforward, accomplished food. Reichardt began her culinary career at Davis’ Murder Burger while studying accounting at American River College. On a lark, she took a few cooking classes there and discovered her life’s passion. After graduation, she honed her skills at local restaurants, always nursing the dream of having her own. In September 2004, she realized that dream with the opening of Tazzina Bistro.
Her cuisine: “It’s ‘mutt cuisine’: American with a little Creole, a little California and French influence. It’s old-fashioned.'
On her restaurant’s name: “Tazzina means ‘cup’ in Italian. [We chose it because] our coffee style is Italian, but my food is somewhat French-influenced.'
Why she’s in Woodland, not New York City: “I wasn’t trying to do something large. I love our community—it’s who I am. I’m not very ‘city.’'
Where she likes to eat: “I am a regular at Bistro Jeanty in Yountville. All the staff members know me there!'
On the region’s dining scene: “Sacramento is getting a real city feel with the diversity of food choices. The downtown has just taken off! Yolo County is very Napa-influenced—we’re using the same farms they use.'
Don’t miss: “Everyone loves the Kobe [beef] burger. We weren’t allowed to take it—or the onion soup—off the menu. And we always have quiche on our menu—it’s very good.'
Where she’s worked: Zinfandel Grille in Sacramento and Folsom, Catahoula Restaurant in Calistoga, Seasons Restaurant in Davis and Morrison’s Upstairs in Woodland.
Why she needs a vacation: “It was a year of agony preparing to open Tazzina. We’ve been so busy since we opened that I’m still a little numb. But I’m a workaholic—I love the pressure.'
Why Tazzina Bistro is worth the drive: “We’re going for warmth, for comfort food. I want people to know we’re going the extra mile, making everything from scratch, getting farm deliveries and trying to use organic ingredients whenever we can.'
Koichi Mizushima, Restaurateur/Sushi Chef
Dragonfly, Kamon Sushi
Koichi Mizushima, 32, brought a hip, edgy sensibility to Sacramento’s Asian food scene with the opening late last year of Dragonfly on Capitol Avenue. A Sacramento native, Mizushima also owns popular Kamon Sushi on 16th Street, to which he’s recently added a sleek, upscale cocktail lounge. He admits to “always having a fascination with sushi,' which he learned to make while still attending high school. Mizushima worked his way through UC Davis as a sushi chef and went on to purchase and sell two sushi restaurants before opening Kamon and Dragonfly.
His cuisine: “California Pan-Pacific Asian fusion. This label really opens things up for us to do lots of things. [Traditional] Asian cuisine doesn’t use rib-eye steaks or chicken breast, but we can.'
The concept of Dragonfly: “A great, hip urban place. It’s cool, it’s midtown, it’s good for young people. It will start with the food, but we’re also trying to make a real commitment to service. The art of service has been lost.'
On his career: “I keep saying that I’m not going to do this [the restaurant business] for the rest of my life, but it’s been 15 years. I think this is my career.'
On Sacramento’s dining scene: “Dude, it’s blowing up! This is a great restaurant town. Sacramento is coming up big time—it’s no longer a little cow town. The people have spoken and we [the restaurateurs] are listening and providing lots of cool places. Dining out has become a pastime, an experience—it’s no longer about sustenance. We’re not the Bay Area yet, but dude, we’re getting there.'
Other restaurants he’s co-owned in the past: Osaka Sushi in Davis, Taiko Sushi in Rancho Cordova.
Don’t miss: The Fusion Roll: a shrimp tempura and crab roll topped with avocado slices and “specialty sauces.'
Andrew Tescher, Chef
Born and raised in Sacramento, 33-year-old Andrew Tescher is the quiet, energetic force behind Esquire Grill in downtown Sacramento. At the tender age of 15, he landed his first cooking gig, working evenings at the now-defunct The Commons House on University Avenue while he was still in high school, and soon realized he had “found what I was good at and what I enjoyed doing.' Today, he is admired by industry colleagues for his smooth and tireless management of Esquire’s high-profile, high-production kitchen. This spring, he will move to Randy Paragary and Kurt Spataro’s most recent and much-anticipated venture: Spataro’s at 14th and L streets in Sacramento, where he’ll work as opening chef.
His cuisine: “American grill. By that I don’t mean ‘down-home’ food—it’s more the traditional haute cuisine of American restaurants.'
Why you are sure to find something you like on Tescher’s menu: “We have to be able to cater to a really broad spectrum of customers. We’re across the street from the Community Center, between the two major hotels and right next to a theater and the Capitol. So we have everything from budget-minded convention goers who just need a quick lunch or maybe an early dinner, and the usual mix of legislators, lobbyists and politicians to the pre-theater crowd. Cuisinewise, that means we have to appeal to everybody: We have to have hamburgers and club sandwiches, and filet mignon and seared ahi. But it’s a fun challenge.'
Where he’s worked: Piatti at the Pavilions, Max’s Opera Cafe in Sacramento.
On Sacramento’s dining scene:“I really see it growing. If we’re ever going to have an independent dining scene, it’s going to have to be downtown. You’re just not going to get a $40-a-plate guest-check average in the suburbs.'
On chain restaurants: “There are a lot of independent restaurants that struggle downtown. But when you go to P.F. Chang’s, there’s a line out the door. It’s a scary thing when some restaurants are really busy and some are really slow, because that means it’s not a solid scene. If everybody’s busy, that’s great, and if everybody’s slow, then at least you know it’s not just you.'
On why you need to look beyond the glitz to the heart of a restaurant: “For a lot of customers, [a restaurant’s attraction] comes down to its vibe, or to the décor, and they can’t see the forest for the trees. Yeah, you go to The Waterboy and the parking’s tough and the décor is kind of understated, but the food’s good, and it’s honest. There are a lot of eclectic restaurants out there that don’t get press.'
Why he’s in Sacramento, not New York City: “I grew up here. I realized when I was building my career that there can only be one Charlie Trotter [owner of Chicago’s Charlie Trotter’s] and one Thomas Keller [owner of Yountville’s The French Laundry], and that wasn’t going to be the path I was going to be on, no matter what I did. I’d rather be a bigger fish in a small pond and be happy doing the food I want to do.'
Why simple can be better: “You look at what Alice Waters is doing at Chez Panisse [in Berkeley]: It’s very simple, unsophisticated, and a lot of times customers can’t see through the simplicity to [recognize that] that’s where the value is. At Esquire, we have to guard against our natural tendency to dress things down: For a lot of our customers, particularly on the weekends, this is their one night to go to the theater or it’s their husband’s birthday or their anniversary or some special occasion, and their expectations are just through the roof. And sometimes what they think is great is like the extra squiggle from a squirt bottle. There are chefs who have that as their natural style, and they’re really good at it and enjoy it, but we call it “Emerilizing'—sometimes you have to Emerilize something because that’s what people expect.'
Don’t miss: “The pork chops: We brine them in Coca-Cola. And I always tell people the best thing on the menu is the barbecued potato chips! They are so awesome—we make them every morning, and they’re just killer.'
Luc Dendievel, Chef/Co-Owner
Baccaras Restaurant and Wine Bar
Thirty-eight-year-old Belgian chef Luc Dendievel left a high-profile chef position at New York City’s Brasserie 360 to launch Baccaras in Folsom. His bold, elegant, seasonally inspired cuisine attracts diners from as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area. By the time he was 8, Dendievel knew “this was what I wanted to do' and, encouraged by his parents, he entered culinary school at 14. “But,' he says, “this is not a job you learn at school. If it doesn’t come from your heart, it’s not going to happen.'
His cuisine: “If I had to put a label on it, it would be New Innovative American Cuisine. I try to use local products as much as I can, and I go exclusively with fresh products. Although I use French techniques, I don’t want to qualify us as a French restaurant.'
Why he has earned his props: “I started culinary school when I was 14 and ended at 18. I was 28 when I got my first chef job—10 years later! For 10 years, I got kicked like nobody can imagine, but that’s the way it is in Europe. You have to pay your dues before you will be recognized. It’s been a long, long training for me, in top restaurants all over the world: two-star, three-star Michelin in France, and big-name restaurants in the States.'
Why his kitchen staff have thick skins: “I am extremely demanding in the back with my crew. I don’t accept it when vegetables are not cooked or seasoned correctly, or a sauce is too thick or too liquid. I don’t think there’s any other way to produce good cuisine. It’s just a matter of discipline and hard work. I want to see more restaurants doing that, to be honest with you.'
Why he’s in Folsom, not New York City: “For 15 years, I worked in big cities. When you’re in a big city, sometimes you lose your identity because you have to please a certain ‘taste’ [of your patrons], and I’m not like that—the first person who has to be pleased with my cuisine is myself. If we can put this restaurant on the map, it doesn’t matter if it’s in a big city or the suburbs—as long as we have a good reputation, people will come. Sacramento is not a big city compared to where I’m from, but it definitely needs upscale restaurants, and I want to bring a little bit of what I’ve done in New York City to Sacramento. The demand is there.'
On the region’s dining scene: “This area is growing fast, and it’s nice to have destination restaurants. And I’m not talking about one or two; I think the more there are, the better it will be. It’s good to have a challenge, and I think there are some great chefs moving into the area. This is a sign that Sacramento will be on the map soon. I think Sacramento needs to reach the next level.'
Where he likes to eat: “I love Tapa the World. There’s no pretension and it’s always good. It’s a bit like New York City—everyone is squeezed in, and it’s a nice ambiance. I also recently had an excellent dinner at Masque. This is what we need: food cooked with heart.'
Chris Nestor, Restaurateur
Chris Nestor has carved out a savvy space in Sacramento by tapping into the hearts and minds of the region’s youthful clubbers as well as its devoted foodies. The 36-year-old Nestor, born in Barstow, received his culinary education at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. His vibrant, contemporary restaurants—Ink and Icon—dazzle diners with playful, eye-catching artwork, yet also manage to deliver solid, delectable American fare. And they stay open into the wee hours, attracting appreciative late-night dinner crowds and a lively bar scene.
His cuisine: “Well-cooked simple food. We’re not trying to be foie gras; we’re not trying to be truffles. For example, we’ll be doing a shepherd’s pie soon. This is an old, traditional dish, nothing fancy about it, but as long as it tastes great, it looks great, it’s going to sell.'
How is Icon different from Ink? “Icon will be just a little bit fancier, but it still has the same concept: simple food, made great, with a great atmosphere. Ink has its own little niche. It has found a great following; it has a neighborhood appeal and a nonpretentious approach.'
Why there’s nothing in his refrigerator: “I eat out every single night. I go to Morton’s, I go to Lucca, Mikuni, Paragary’s, 33rd Street Bistro, Riverside Clubhouse, Zinfandel Grille, Zócalo. It’s not to see what the competition is doing; it’s just that when I’m done here, I want someone else to take care of me. I also eat at Ink all the time. That’s the No. 1 place I eat. It’s good and I get to see my own food and make sure it’s coming out right.'
Where he’s worked: Harris Ranch, Rio City Cafe, Paragary’s Bar and Oven in Sacramento, The Cheesecake Factory in San Francisco.
On Sacramento’s dining scene: “People want to go out. People want to be seen. We will never be San Francisco because we’re just not big enough. And we don’t want to be San Francisco. We will never have the tiny portions and the high prices [of San Francisco] because Sacramento is not ready for that. I don’t think we will ever be ready for that.'
On Sacramento’s culinary talent pool: “There’s tons of talent here. I could name plenty of restaurants here in town that I think have excellent, excellent food: The Waterboy, The Kitchen, Morton’s. But I think we still have room to grow.'
His goal: “In five years, we’ll be at about six restaurants. We’re trying to do 15 restaurants.'
Why he’s in Sacramento, not New York: “I don’t want to be pretentious. I’m not saying that I’m not cut out for the big-city style, but I think my patience would run out trying to be something that we’re not. Some of those restaurants [in big cities] are too pretentious—when you come into my restaurant, if my staff doesn’t say ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ to you, I get upset. That gives us that noncorporate feel, a more neighborhood feeling. When people come in here, they know that it’s not stuffy.'
Patrick Mulvaney, Chef/Owner
Mulvaney’s Building and Loan restaurant
Patrick Mulvaney, 43, may not be a household name yet in Sacramento, but he has earned his chops in the national food arena. In the late 1980s, while working as a chef at Phoenix’s RoxSand restaurant, he was named “rising star of the Southwest' by the American Institute of Wine and Food and, as a result, was invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. He also studied with, and eventually worked for, famed chef Madeleine Kamman at the School for American Chefs at Beringer Vineyards in Napa Valley.
A native New Yorker, Mulvaney launched his cooking career with a European apprenticeship 20 years ago and also studied food science at UC Davis. He is the owner of Culinary Specialists, a successful local catering company.
This spring, Mulvaney will open his eponymous, exhibition-style restaurant at 1215 19th St. in Sacramento’s midtown—a bistro where the menu, written on a blackboard, will change daily.
His cuisine: “I try hard not to label my food. I would say that I take the glorious mosaic of America and put it together with an emphasis on using fresh local ingredients. Now, do you call that New American? Perhaps.'
And a few more words on labeling: “It’s not so much about the value of having a label. What’s important to me is, how do we showcase the things that are being grown here? As that level of awareness increases, as Sacramento gets bigger, the restaurants will start to reflect that as well. An increased number of people means an increased number of restaurants, which means that there will be more opportunities for people like me to have a small restaurant and do food that’s interesting to them. And hopefully people will come and support that.'
Where he’s worked: Culinary Specialists (his catering company), Paragary’s Bar and Oven in Sacramento, The Kitchen, Piatti in the Pavilions, RoxSand in Phoenix.
The concept of Mulvaney’s Building and Loan: “Here, we’re trying to have a New American restaurant, to have a comfortable space where people can feel warm and at home and also can see the kitchen. The fact that the kitchen stays open is important to me, because what I do as a profession is cooking and sometimes the people who work as cooks don’t really think of themselves as franchised members of society, so I like the idea that they’ll be in an open kitchen with people watching them, that [customers] will be able to walk into the kitchen and see what’s being made.'
Where he likes to eat when he can get away from his kitchen: “The Waterboy, of course; Vientiane in West Sacramento for the stuffed chicken wings; Hoa Viet on 19th Street; Luigi’s for pizza; Tres Hermanas; and Bud’s Buffet on 10th Street when I miss New York.'