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Sacramento's Best Chefs


Posted on January 18

Photography by Terrence Duffy/521 productions

These local chefs are a diverse lot: male and female, young and not so young, classically schooled and trained in the trenches. But there’s one thing they all have in common: a passion for cooking.

STU EDGCOMB

Esquire Grill
1213 K St., Sacramento; (916) 448-8900
Edgcomb is a chef’s chef, a workhorse who still retains the innocence of a wide-eyed foodie. He was born in England and sailed here with his parents, who came with $300. By the time Edgcomb was a teenager, he was already working in an Italian restaurant in Dublin, Calif. He got a degree in hotel management from Diablo Valley College and, after a stint at the Long Beach Hyatt, headed to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. (The speaker at his 1990 graduation: Julia Child.) He’s cooked at Wente Vineyards, The Moosse Cafe in Mendocino and Piatti at Pavilions. After eight years at River City Brewing Company, he catered with Patrick Mulvaney. Cooking is his calling. When Paragary Restaurant Group exec chef Kurt Spataro needed a chef to run Esquire Grill, the pensive Spataro and the garrulous Edgcomb bonded over a shared quest for quality and perfection. “Esquire is a monster,” Edgcomb says. “Kurt knew I could pump it out.” He also pumps it up, particularly when he knows his food will land in the belly of frequent customer Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Age:
42

First kitchen job: Dishwasher

Food style: American grill

Inspiration:
Sunday farmers market

Culinary philosophy: “Life is short; enjoy every sandwich.”

On the menu:
Butternut squash soup; Brussels sprouts with brown butter; prime rib slathered with sea salt, pepper and Dijon mustard and roasted on a spit; hand-ground hamburger
Favorite ingredients: Extra-virgin olive oil, Meyer lemons

Signature dish:
Pan-roasted Rocky Jr. chicken on a produce “hash” of butternut squash, parsnips, Fuji apples and smoked bacon with cider-sage pan sauce

Happy it’s over with:
Food skyscrapers on the plate

Who you’ll see in the dining room: Developer George Tsakopoulous, sports broadcasters Grant Napear, Jerry Reynolds and Marv Albert; coaches Phil Jackson and Dusty Baker; NBA player LeBron James; Velvet Revolver roadies and drummer Matt Sorum; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger

Memorable meal:
Watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on TV while eating his mom’s roasted leg of lamb, potatoes and parsnips in bacon fat, and fresh mint sauce

Where he eats:
Home

Last meal on earth:
Perfectly roasted chicken brined in water with thyme, peppercorns, bay leaves, sugar and salt, stuffed with Meyer lemon and rosemary, slathered with olive oil and roasted on a bed of yellow onions, with Yukon Gold potatoes roasted in bacon fat and sautéed spinach with garlic


MATT WOOLSTON

The Supper Club
1616 Del Paso Blvd., Sacramento; (916) 920-2885
Downtown and midtown may have it all going on, but don’t tell Woolston. Six years ago, this dynamic chef staked his claim on seedy Del Paso Boulevard and never looked back. Raised on a ranch in Hollister, he worked restaurant jobs while going to college for a business degree. After graduating, he decided accounting wasn’t his true calling. So he cooked in several local kitchens before joining upscale deli David Berkley, where he cheffed for 12 years. In 2002, he and wife Yvette opened The Supper Club, a restaurant with an unusual format: reservation-only, single-seating, multiple-course dinners with wine pairings.

Age: 46

First kitchen job: Dishwasher at a family-style restaurant outside Hollister

Food style: New American

Inspiration: Wine—he selects the wines, then designs the meal around them.

Culinary philosophy: Use great ingredients and cook them simply.

Influenced by:
His wife, Yvette

On the menu: Yukon Gold blini with sturgeon caviar; lobster crêpe; “Duck Duck Goose” (duck cooked two ways and served on goose demi-glace)

Favorite ingredient: Cured and smoked meats

Signature dish: Frenched rack of rabbit

Food trend he hates: No-fat, no-carb cooking

Memorable meal:
The French Laundry

Favorite food memory: As a kid, eating his grandfather’s homemade scrapple and eggs fried in bacon fat

Where he eats: Thai, sushi and pho restaurants

Last meal on earth: A big plate of “duck candy” (oven-crisped duck skin) and a good bottle of red wine

 
BIBA CAGGIANO

Biba
2801 Capitol Ave., Sacramento; (916) 455-2422
The grande dame of Sacramento restaurateurs, Caggiano’s done it all: She’s fed the rich and famous, written bestselling cookbooks and starred in her own TV show (not to mention stolen the show more than once from Martha Stewart during guest appearances on Stewart’s show). She’s an unlikely culinary superstar. Born and raised in Bologna, Italy, she moved to New York in 1960 and landed in Sacramento nine years later. Married to an American doctor, she raised two daughters and cooked for friends, serving the cozy foods of her childhood. That led to a local gig teaching cooking classes, which first put her on the map. In 1986, with no training or restaurant experience, she opened Biba, which over the years has routinely topped Sacramento Bee restaurant reviewer Mike Dunne’s list of the region’s best restaurants. Caggiano still comes to the restaurant daily to work on menus and recipe development, although she leaves the hardcore cooking to her longtime chef. And she’s often in the dining room, greeting her fans. Ever youthful looking, she has no plans to retire. “This is a lot of fun,” she says. “I love it.”

Age: 71

First kitchen job:
Opening Biba

Food style:
Regional Italian

Inspiration: Ingredient-driven California cuisine

Culinary philosophy: “Use the best ingredients possible and treat them with respect.”

Influenced by:
Her Italian mother, and cookbook author Marcella Hazan

On the menu: Polpettine di maiale con sugo di pomodoro (pork and ricotta meatballs in tomato sauce); gnocchi; osso buco

Favorite ingredients:
Prosciutto, pancetta, balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil, porcini mushrooms

Signature dish:
Housemade gnocchi

Craziest work experience: One night when Ronald Reagan was president, a staffer turned presidential daughter Maureen Reagan away because the restaurant was booked. The next day, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown called Biba and said, “What are you doing?”

Memorable meal: Dinner at The French Laundry. “The food was simply amazing.”

Favorite food memory:
Eating her mother’s aromatic meat broth with tagliarini (long, thin noodles) every Sunday

Where she eats: Lemon Grass, 55 Degrees, The Waterboy

Last meal on earth:
Risotto with white truffles
 

MOLLY HAWKS

Hawks Restaurant
5530 Douglas Blvd., Granite Bay; (916) 791-6200
Hawks grew up in Hillsborough, attended UCLA, got a degree in biology and thought she was headed to medical school. While working at a boring Stanford lab as she waited for acceptance letters, she took stock. “I thought, maybe I’m in the wrong area of the medical field,” she recalls. Turns out, she was just in the wrong field. “I told my parents, ‘I’m going to cooking school.’” She enrolled at California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, took a position hosting at Aqua when Michael Mina reigned as chef, and gained professional experience at The Village Pub in Woodside, where she met her chef husband and restaurant partner, Michael Fagnoni. The pair recently opened Hawks to rave reviews.

Age: 34

First restaurant job: Host at Aqua in San Francisco

Food style:
Clean and classic

Inspiration:
“Being able to have a direct effect on someone, to see their pleasure.”

Culinary philosophy:
“Don’t adulterate great ingredients.”

On the menu: Grilled meats, beautiful fish, Dungeness crab, cauliflower risotto with black-truffle Bordelaise sauce

Favorite ingredient:
Produce

Signature dish: Hawks burger of Hereford beef (freshly ground at Vande Rose Farms Meat & Fish store) on housemade buns, served with house-made pickles, aioli and house fries

Not gonna happen:
Unisex restrooms

Who you’ll see in the dining room:
“Sopranos” cast member Joe Pantoliano; Kings exec Wayne Cooper; Kings player Brad Miller; former baseball great Steve Sax; KCRA financial expert Kurt Halverstadt

Favorite food memory: “My mom’s entertaining, setting her table and her perfect dinners.”

Where she eats:
“We’re never off—not yet. We eat at Hawks.”

Last meal on earth:
A water’s edge picnic of sandwiches made with Parisian baguette and Ibérico ham from Spain, a bottle of ’95 Salon Champagne and Pierre Hermé macaroons in chocolate, white truffle and rose

RANDALL SELLAND

The Kitchen2225 Hurley Way, Sacramento; (916) 568-7171
Ella Dining Room & Bar1131 K St., Sacramento; (916) 443-3772
Until he gave up cooking at The Kitchen thanks to a skiing injury, Selland staged his demonstration dinners before a live restaurant audience, complete with jokes and applause. Before he served one of the most expensive meals in town, he played with the food, flailing fish or throwing vegetables with sous chefs in on the act and letting the burner’s flame lick high on purpose. But seriously, folks. Selland learned the restaurant biz by working for chefs who passed their formal training on to him. When he worked under Jean-Luc Chassereau at Bernice’s Cookery in Carmichael, Selland cleaned bathrooms and did “whatever he yelled at me to do.” Before landing in its spacious current location, The Kitchen began its commercial life in the former La Bernice cooking school. With his wife and business partner, Nancy Zimmer, Selland recently opened Ella in a soaring space on K Street. At Ella (named for his granddaughter), Selland’s goal is to offer the equivalent of a 12-course French Laundry-style meal, but to do it Sacramento style: all the flavors and textures in five or six courses. He doesn’t hang around with chefs, preferring to dote on his two grandchildren.

Age: 52

First kitchen job:
Washing lettuce at Fat City

Food style:
Food you can’t make at home

Inspiration: Chefs Thomas Keller, Charlie Trotter and Jacques Pépin

Culinary philosophy: “Everything on the plate has a purpose, so eat it.”

On the menu: Crab Louie with baby iceberg; meatballs topped with tomato sauce and fresh sheep’s ricotta; ceviche with shrimp, halibut and scallops

Favorite ingredient:
Organic butter

Signature dish:
Pappardelle with a poached egg, lemon butter sauce and Parma prosciutto cut in squares and crisped in the fryer. When you cut into it, it’s like making your own hollandaise on the plate.

What he’s working on:
Being a kinder, gentler tyrant

Who you’ll see in the dining room:
Former Gov. Pete Wilson and Gayle Wilson; visiting basketball teams; LeBron James with no entourage; Willie Brown; Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez; state Treasurer Bill Lockyer

Favorite food memory: “My first date with Nancy. It was on her birthday at the original La Salle on Howe Avenue for Châteaubriand with sauce Béarnaise.”

Where he eats:
Kru

Last meal on earth:
East Coast oysters, Caesar salad, steak with Béarnaise sauce

RICK MAHAN

The Waterboy
2000 Capitol Avenue, Sacramento; (916) 498-9891
Mahan zigzagged through most of the kitchens that nurtured Sacramento’s culinary coming of age on his way to becoming the chef-owner of The Waterboy. He cooked at Cafe Natoma and Limelight Bar, catered with Joan Leineke and went in and out of many kitchens bearing the name Paragary. When Mahan toured France with Jean-Pierre Moullé, a chef connected with Chez Panisse, he dined at the legendary restaurants of Paul Bocuse and the Troisgos brothers and came back “full of France, the lifestyle and the idea that food is entirely different there than it is here.” He opened The Waterboy (named after a Celtic band) in hopes of re-creating that sunny French feeling and to get Sacramentans to embrace localized eating. He took over the space of the beloved Americo’s, lit it seductively and prepared food to match. “I love restaurant people, the people who work in them, and people who go to restaurants,” he says. “I can be in a small town on a trip, but if I’m in a restaurant I’m completely at home.” If you catch Mahan at the right moment, he might perform a magic trick. His best trick: getting The Waterboy to tick like a fine clock. “Sometimes,” he says, “I just sit back and marvel at it all.”

Age: 47

First kitchen job: Dishwasher at Buffet Excellence in Carmichael

Food style:
Simple Mediterranean comfort food

Inspiration: “The restaurant business itself.”

Culinary philosophy: “Everything’s better with bacon.”

On the menu:
Duck confit; pork shoulder; cassoulet with garlic sausage; hearty braised meats

Favorite ingredient:
The pig, especially shoulder and belly

Signature dish: Sweetbreads with lemon, mushrooms, bacon and capers

Who you’ll see in the dining room: Wayne Thiebaud; Darrell Corti; Patrick Mulvaney; Peg and John Poswall; former Chez Panisse pastry chef Lindsey Shere; Stan Atkinson; politicians Willie Brown, Roger Dickinson and Sandy Smoley; Kurt Spataro and Kitty O’Neal; Mark and Monica Deconinck

Favorite food memory:
Sunday breakfast in Boothbay, Maine

Where he eats:
Kru, Spataro, Nopalito’s and dives with great food, like Jamie’s Bar & Grill on Broadway

Last meal on earth:
Lobster, butter and sweet corn in Boothbay, Maine

BUU "BILLY NGO

Kru
2516 J St., Sacramento; (916) 551-1559
Ngo is Sacramento’s youngest star chef, but he’s appreciated by chefs twice his age. Ngo was born in Hong Kong to Chinese-Vietnamese parents who brought him here as a baby. For a time, his parents ran a restaurant. (That’s where he did his homework.) By age 15, he was working at Fuji Restaurant on Broadway, where he learned to make classic sushi. From there, he went to Mikuni, discovering it’s OK to put fish on the outside of the sushi roll. Next up: a stint at Taka’s Sushi in Fair Oaks, where he created specials and experimented with shellfish. For the finishing touch on his education, he enrolled at California Culinary Academy in San Francisco for a two-year dose of Cordon Bleu training and an externship at The Kitchen with Randall Selland. Kru opened in 2005 (as an expansion of Taka’s); customers ranging from midtowners to culinary colleagues come to be amazed by this shy man’s ability to whip up a list of ingredients based on a customer’s impulse. Mushrooms? Ngo is ready with matsutake, the truffle of Japanese cuisine. Duck? He’ll nod, smile and quietly present little skewers of pan-seared duck breast topped with a fluff of microchives.

Age: 26

First kitchen job:
Busboy at Fuji Restaurant

Food style: Contemporary Japanese with French-Japanese technique

Inspiration:
His parents and TV’s “Iron Chef”

Culinary philosophy: “Know the rules so you can break them.”

On the menu:
Matsutake mushrooms sautéed with shallots, garlic, soy sauce, Marsala and sake, served over soft tofu

Favorite ingredient: Butter

Signature dish: Sashimi “tapas” of five mini fish presentations on one plate: three raw, two cooked, each with a different garnish

You won’t find this here:
Sushi rolls that are way too big with too many ingredients stuffed in them

Who you’ll see in the dining room:
State Sen. Deborah Ortiz; Rick Mahan, Patrick Mulvaney, Randall Selland, Mason Wong, Ali Mackani and Chris Nestor; Sac Bee sports columnist Aileen Voisin

Favorite food memory:
Visiting the San Mateo fish market at 3 a.m. “I saw how they cut up the fish and repackaged it all in about three hours.”

Where he eats:
Ink, 55 Degrees, Ella, Mason’s, The Waterboy

Last meal on earth: “A good pizza.”


KURT SPATARO

Spataro Restaurant and Bar
1415 L St., Sacramento; (916) 440-8888
Spataro has been cooking in Sacramento nearly 25 years—long enough to play Six Degrees of Kurt Spataro. (He’s cooked with Rick Mahan and Patrick Mulvaney, to name just two of the many chefs he’s worked with.) Spataro is calm and thoughtful, but inside, he’s just thinking about his next dish. Spataro could have been a rock star, with his Sacramento State music degree. But he was already captured by cooking; when he went on the road, he read recipes aloud to the band. After dining at The Cafe at Chez Panisse, it was game over: He had to cook, so Spataro worked at three restaurants—at the same time.  Today, as executive chef of Paragary Restaurant Group, Spataro oversees 10 holdings, including Paragary’s Bar and Oven, Cafe Bernardo (two in Sacramento, one in Davis), Esquire Grill, Monkey Bar, Blue Cue, Centro Cocina Mexicana, R15 and his namesake restaurant, Spataro. Coming up are two more from PRG: the tentatively named Cosmo’s at 10th and K and a Paragary’s Bar and Grill in Stockton.

Age: 49

First kitchen job:
Dishwasher at Parisi’s Bit of Italy on Riverside Boulevard

Food style:
Finessed power

Inspiration: Watching Julia Child and The Galloping Gourmet on TV

Culinary philosophy: Procuring the best ingredients and doing as little to them as possible

On the menu: Ribollita (vegetable and bread soup); grilled chicken with faro, hazelnuts and dried cranberries; salumi; little meatballs with soft polenta

Favorite ingredient: Italian parsley

Signature dish:
Pizza

Who you’ll see in the dining room: Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs player Tony Parker; Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Spurs coach Greg Popovich; Lance Armstrong; Gwyneth Paltrow; Hillary Clinton

Favorite food memory: Going to the Oaxaca market with Mexican cookbook author Diana Kennedy. “She saw a vendor with something under a shroud. It was a steamed cow’s head. She said, ‘We must take this.’ We had tongue tacos for breakfast.”

Where he eats: Biba, The Waterboy. “For a weeknight dinner, almost always Japanese or Thai.”

Last meal on earth:
“It’s a meal in Alba—or in the hills above Alba—in Italy’s Piedmont. It’s in the middle of white truffle season with a multicourse meal in which white truffles are eaten in each course, with an old Barbaresco or Barolo.”
 

LUC DENDIEVEL

Restaurant 55 Degrees
555 Capitol Mall, Sacramento; (916) 553-4100
When Belgian-born Dendievel was 8, he told his mother he wanted to cook. He ascended the kitchen ranks the old-fashioned way: through the humiliation of the formal French method. He made a name for himself not in Belgium but in New York City, where he worked at Le Zoo, a small bistro in the West Village with an intimidating celebrity clientele, from Cindy Crawford to Lionel Richie. Dendievel later cooked French-Belgian food at Waterloo Brasserie and roasted entire foie gras at Bayard’s. At Brasserie 360, Dendievel’s dish of pig trotters with black-truffle sauce was named one of the city’s best dishes by New York Magazine. Dendievel is the only chef in Sacramento who brings to the table an iron pot brimming with mussels cooked in beer, Belgian style, and serves it with perhaps Belgium’s greatest gift to the world, french fries.

Age: 41

First kitchen job: Washing vegetables and pots at age 14 in Belgium

Food style: Spontaneous

Inspiration:
Chef Michel Richard of Citronelle in Washington, D.C.

Culinary philosophy: “Never more than three things on the plate.”

On the menu: Braised veal cheeks; Belgian-style mussels with french fries

Favorite ingredients:
Fish, vegetables

Signature dish:
Pig trotters with black-truffle sauce

What he finds ridiculous: Sacramento County regulation that bans presetting the table with silverware. “That was the most stupid rule I ever heard in my life. For a customer to see a beautiful a table is very important. Silverware on the table isn’t going to kill anybody.”

Who you’ll see in the dining room: David Berkley, Fabian Núñez, Mayor Heather Fargo, Maria Shriver, former Gov. George Deukmejian

Favorite food memory: “My mother’s meatloaf. It’s pork and veal with eggs, bread and herbs. I can’t duplicate it.”

Where he eats: At the home of his partner, Ali Mackani, for his mom’s Iranian home cooking

Last meal on earth: Something with a black truffle
 

MAI PHAM

Lemon Grass Restaurant
601 Munroe St., Sacramento; (916) 486-4891
For Pham, raised in Thailand by Vietnamese parents, opening a restaurant was a way to connect with her roots. “I was 19 when I came here,” she says. “Back then, nobody wanted to talk about Vietnam.” A television journalist and, later, a speechwriter for Gov. George Deukmejian, she had no formal culinary training when she opened Lemon Grass in 1989. It was the first restaurant of its kind in Sacramento, and she had to educate diners about Vietnamese and Thai food. “People would ask, ‘Where’s the sweet-and-sour sauce?’” she recalls. Now, it seems like everybody is hip to pho, the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup that helped launch Pham’s empire. In addition to running Lemon Grass, she teaches, develops food products and writes books. She also runs Lemon Grass Asian Grill and Noodle Bar, a quick-serve, Asian-street-food-style restaurant in La Bou on Howe Avenue, and she came up with the concept for a series of express noodle bars on college campuses, including UC Berkeley, UC Davis and the University of Massachusetts, and at airports. (The first is set to open at Sacramento International Airport’s Terminal A.) But what she likes best is cooking, which means you’ll find her, dressed in her chef’s whites, in the kitchen at the noodle bar at lunch, the restaurant at dinner. “My day is all about food.”

Age: 50

First kitchen job: Opening Lemon Grass

Food style:
Traditional, upscale Vietnamese and Thai

Inspiration:
Her Vietnamese mother and grandmother

Culinary philosophy: “Fresh is best.”

Influenced by:
Asian street cooks

On the menu:
Green papaya salad with lemon grass shrimp; Thai green curry; “shaking beef”; catfish in clay pot

Favorite ingredient: Fresh herbs

Signature dish:
Pho

Food trend she hates:
Fusion cooking as practiced in the United States, “where chefs do it just for the sake of doing it.”

Craziest work experience:
About 10 years ago, she staged an Asian dinner at Mort and Marci Friedman’s house for a story in Martha Stewart Living. The magazine left nothing to chance, FedExing in flowers, dishes, clothes for Pham, even a custom-built dinner table. “It was quite amazing.”

Memorable meal:
A few months ago, she ate “the most phenomenal” roast duck at Da Dong restaurant in Beijing. “The chef had only one recipe and took it to perfection. The skin melted in your mouth.”

Favorite food memory: When she was a child, her grandmother would visit every couple of months, bringing food she’d grown or raised herself, including bananas, bamboo shoots and live chickens. “The chickens always looked neurotic and rattled from the two-hour bus ride.”

Where she eats: Marnee Thai, The Slanted Door, Zuni Cafe, all in San Francisco, and Berkeley’s Chez Panisse

Last meal on earth:
A bowl of pho

REBECCA REICHARDT

Tazzina Bistro
614 Main St., Woodland; (530) 661-1700
Reichardt was studying accounting at American River College when she realized her calling was cooking, not bookkeeping. So she left school and went to work in a succession of local kitchens (Morrison’s First Street Deli in Woodland, Paragary’s, Zinfandel Grille), quickly climbing the ladder from pantry cook to executive chef. By age 26, she was ready to strike out on her own. “My family has always owned their own businesses,” she says, “so it was a natural thing.” Using the equity in her house (bought when she was only 19), an SBA loan and some seed money from her parents, she opened the highly regarded Tazzina Bistro, which serves upscale takes on homey classics such as meatloaf and lasagne. Being the boss has its drawbacks, she notes: Payroll, staffing, even sewer problems (on the eve of opening day, no less) are no fun. “If I could just be a chef, that would feel like a vacation.”

Age: 30

First kitchen job:
Flipping burgers at Murder Burger in Davis

Food style: Upscale comfort food

Inspiration:
Cookbooks (she owns thousands)

Culinary philosophy:
“Stick to the basics. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

On the menu:
Bacon-wrapped bleu cheese-stuffed meatloaf; carpaccio with green peppercorn-caper vinaigrette; braised-beef lasagne; Kobe beef burger with Tabasco aioli and housemade pickles

Favorite ingredient:
Bacon

Signature dish:
Deep-dish quiche

Food trend she hates:
Foam

Craziest work experience: At Rocklin’s Zinfandel Grille, she and her crew were slammed with customers one Christmas Day. “People told us we ruined their Christmas.”

Memorable meal: Dinner at Catahoula Restaurant in Calistoga, where she ordered oysters, pork with braised beet greens, huckleberry dowdy for dessert—and Pepsi; at 18, she was too young for wine. “They treated us like royalty. The evening was perfect.”

Where she eats:
Taco and pupusa trucks

Last meal on earth:
Her German grandmother’s Speck Pfannkuchen: a large pancake made with diced bacon in the batter and drizzled with melted butter and sugar
 

PATRICK MULVANEY

Mulvaney’s Building & Loan
1215 19th St., Sacramento; (916) 441-1771
Mulvaney has the soul of a poet and the brain of a scientist—no surprise, given his dual degrees in English literature and chemistry. Starting in the mid-’80s, he cooked at The River Cafe in Brooklyn and RoxSand in Scottsdale, Ariz., before moving to California, where he worked for the famed Madeleine Kamman at Beringer Vineyards. After stints in some of Sacramento’s top kitchens (Paragary’s, The Kitchen, Piatti Roseville), he started his own catering company and in 2006 opened his eponymous midtown restaurant. Generous and gregarious, he makes the rounds of the dining room, stopping at each table to schmooze, and he’s known for his annual St. Pat’s pig roast, a bacchanalian event that attracts hundreds of local fans and foodies.

Age: 46

First kitchen job: Apprenticed in Ireland with celebrity chef Sean Kinsella

Food style:
Playful and rambunctious

Inspiration:
“Whatever the farmers bring in the back door is what goes on the plates that night.”

Culinary philosophy:
“Food is love.”

On the menu: House-smoked salmon and brown bread (a nod to his Irish forebears); crispy sweetbreads; housemade linguine with house-cured bacon

Favorite ingredient: Pork

Signature dish: Spit-roasted pig stuffed with chickens and bacon

Working style:
The restaurant has an open kitchen, because Mulvaney wants his staff “to see people enjoying their food.”

Who you’ll see in the dining room:
Farmers who supply the restaurant with heirloom produce, meats and other products

Favorite food memory:
When he left The River Cafe, every cook at the restaurant prepared a special dish, and they all dined under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Where he eats:
The Waterboy

Last meal on earth:
Bledsoe Pork bacon and fried eggs over easy with Acme toast, grilled tomatoes from Ray Yeung’s farm, coffee and Champagne. “And a cigar, if I’m not dead yet.”


DOUG SILVA

Silva’s Sheldon Inn
9000 Grant Line Road, Elk Grove; (916) 686-8330.
Silva has spent more than 20 years in the Central Valley countryside south of Sacramento living a chef’s dream. Not only does he revel in fresh local ingredients, develop his own menus and cook what he wants, he also owns his restaurant and the two acres it sits on, outright. No landlords, no triple net. Silva headed for the boonies so long ago, he’s become the grand master of scratch cooking in Elk Grove. He’s on the line every night, standing in an aromatic mist from bubbling stocks and herbal infusions. The emphasis here is on housemade, always fresh, always good. Silva grew up in Curtis Park, attended Christian Brothers High School and, for the love of cooking, landed jobs at Scoma’s in Larkspur Landing and at the five-star Ernie’s in San Francisco. With his Portuguese-Italian ancestry, cooking was going on at his house all day, every day. He was cooking at a restaurant in Stockton when Darrell Corti came in, enjoyed the food and told his friend Biba Caggiano about Silva. In 1986, he was Biba’s opening chef. In those days, he worked alongside fellow chef Don Brown, who last year rejoined his old colleague in Elk Grove, as if 20 years hadn’t gone by.

Age: 54

First kitchen job: Original Fish Emporium trolley on J Street

Food style:
Traditional European technique

Inspiration:
His family’s food (Portuguese dad, Italian mom)

Culinary philosophy:
“Making simple ingredients amazingly pleasing.”

On the menu: Butternut squash soup; braised dishes; domestic lamb; seasonal specials featuring fresh thyme, rosemary, sage, basil and sorrel grown on-site

Favorite ingredient:
“Whatever we’re growing.”

Signature dish:
Center-cut 10-ounce pork chop stuffed with Granny Smith apples, applewood-smoked bacon and fresh sage, sautéed and finished with Martinelli sparkling cider cream sauce

Who you’ll see in the dining room:
Darrell Corti; Elk Grove professionals and business owners

Where he eats:
The Waterboy, Harry’s Cafe or at home for wife Barbara’s beans

Last meal on earth:
“It’s spring, and I’ve got a great loaf of bread, phenomenal cheese, pâté, a bottle of wine, and I’m with family and friends.”

PHILIP WANG

Mason’s
1116 15th St., Sacramento; (916) 492-1960
Growing up in Indiana in a family of doctors, Wang expected to add “M.D.” to the end of his name. But during his junior year at Tufts University, he spent a semester at culinary school—and all his plans went out the window. Instead of medical school, he ended up at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., and did his externship at Rubicon in San Francisco. (He dropped out of culinary school when Rubicon’s owner offered him a full-time job.) Wang went on to work with some of the country’s biggest chefs, including Traci Des Jardins, Charlie Trotter, Paul Kahn and Daniel Boulud. He ran the kitchen at Truc in Boston, then moved to Napa to oversee food operations at The Carneros Inn. After that job ended, he was driving to San Francisco to look for work when Mason Wong called, asking him to exec-chef the soon-to-open Mason’s in downtown Sac. What’s next for this baby-faced wunderkind? Probably his own restaurant in San Francisco. But, he says, “I’m in no hurry.”

Age: 36

First kitchen job:
Roasting turkeys, making stuffing and mashing potatoes at Strongbox Inn in Valparaiso, Ind.

Food style:
A marriage of ingredient-driven California cuisine and technique-driven French

Inspiration:
Whatever’s in season

Culinary philosophy:
“Food should shine on its own.”

Influenced by:
Food magazines Saveur and Art Culinaire

Working style:
He considers himself one of the cooks. “I like to be in the trenches with everybody else in the kitchen.”

On the menu:
Oven-baked crunchy-topped macaroni and cheese; fritto misto; seared scallops over tarragon-scented creamed corn; pan-roasted chicken

Favorite ingredient:
Nuts

Signature dish:
Sautéed frog’s legs smothered in tomatoes, garlic, black olives, capers and almonds

Craziest work experience:
The night President Bill Clinton came to Daniel restaurant for a $25,000-a-plate fundraiser in the private dining room. Also in the house that night: famed French chef Joël Robuchon and supermodel Cindy Crawford.

Memorable meal:
In Hong Kong, he ate freshly caught seafood cooked to order at the end of a pier. The meal included “the most incredible thing I’ve ever eaten”: a pen shell scallop, steamed with a little vermicelli and served with scallions and crispy fried garlic.

Where he eats:
Ethnic restaurants like Pho Bac Hoa Viet on Broadway

Last meal on earth: His parents’ homemade steamed pork dumplings

WENDI MENTINK

Bidwell Street Bistro
1004 E Bidwell St., Folsom; (916) 984-7500
Mentink thinks cooking must be encoded into her DNA: She comes from a family of chefs, and her grandparents once owned Buckhorn Steak & Roadhouse in Winters. She was working in the deli at Nugget Market when she decided to put that DNA to good use and go to culinary school. After graduation, she landed at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, working her way up to the top job at the resort’s top restaurant, The Summit. Back in Sacramento, Mentink was cooking at Piatti when she got a call from restaurateur Richard Righton, who was looking for an executive chef for the Folsom restaurant he was about to open. They clicked, and the rest is history. At Bidwell Street Bistro, Righton gives Mentink free rein to create her California take on the French classics, which are heavy on the seasonal ingredients, light on the sauces. “I’m a minimalist,” she says. “I like flavors to sing on their own.” 

Age: 40

First kitchen job
: “Cheese girl” at Nugget Market

Food style: Seasonal French with California influences

Inspiration:
Seasonal ingredients

Culinary philosophy: “Food should be an exciting experience, whether it’s a bowl of soup or a rack of lamb.”

Influenced by: New York chefs Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten

On the menu: Roasted-garlic escargot with Burgundy wine butter; French onion soup; wine-braised short ribs

Favorite ingredient: Onions

Signature dish:
Duck confit

Food trend she hates:
Foam

Memorable meal:
A 2002 meal at Daniel Boulud’s Daniel restaurant in New York, a “four-hour food orgy” that included chilled Maine lobster salad, foie gras with apricots, and a duo of short ribs and filet mignon 

Favorite food memory:
Eating her mother’s baked macaroni-and-cheese

Where she eats: At home

Last meal on earth: Foie gras and duck
 

MARK DECONINCK

Le Bilig French Cafe
11750 Atwood Road, Auburn; (530) 888-1491
You’d never know it by the perfection on the plate, but Deconinck has no formal culinary training. He was going to be a psychiatrist. In some ways, he is, because he believes his job is to make customers very, very happy. Deconinck grew up cooking on his family’s small Breton farm. “It sounds like a little story in books,” he says. “We plucked the feathers from squab. We had rabbit and chickens. It’s a cliché, but I really was raised that way.” He came to America to follow a girlfriend to Chicago. They split up and, like so many others seeking a new life, he came West. In California, he met his future wife, Monica, and realized he wanted to cook. First, Deconinck went to New York to meet power chefs Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Boulud, then to The French Laundry in Yountville for mentoring by Thomas Keller. Relying on memories more than recipes, Deconinck opened Le Bilig in 1993 to raves that continue today. The Deconincks and their six children live in a stone house on vineyard property owned by Monica’s family, about seven minutes from the restaurant.

Age: 41

First kitchen job: Head chef and owner, Le Bilig

Food style:
Spontaneous French with rustic flair

Inspiration:
When he’s asleep, he dreams about cooking

Culinary philosophy: “Cooking can heal.”

On the menu:
Berkshire pork prime rib with caramelized onions, mushrooms and cream; scalloped potatoes au gratin; warm chocolate gâteau

Favorite ingredient:
Acme bread

Signature dish:
Pan-caramelized top sirloin of lamb served on cannellini beans               

AME HARRINGTON

L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen
1801 L St., Sacramento; (916) 443-6970
Harrington didn’t take the traditional path to chefdom (culinary school followed by stints in restaurant kitchens). Instead, she studied nutrition at Humboldt State University, then returned to her native Sacramento, where she catered at The Kitchen, helped open Selland’s Market-Cafe and ran the kitchen and deli at the short-lived Elk Grove outpost of Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Last year, her friends Marcus and Kolea Marquez tapped her to be executive chef at their new midtown hot spot, L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen. There, she runs a lean, mean operation, working with a tiny kitchen staff to produce exquisite small plates of European-influenced food that pair with the wine bar’s liquid offerings.  Despite her success, Harrington has no plans to open her own restaurant—too many administrative headaches. “I like being in the kitchen,” she explains. “I want my focus to always be on the food.”

Age:
34

First kitchen job: Pantry chef at Enotria

Food style:
Small plates of regional American food with French, Spanish and Italian influences

Inspiration:
What’s at the farmers market

Culinary philosophy:
“I don’t use a lot of butter, cream or salt—I let the food speak for itself.”

Influenced by:
Auguste Escoffier and Julia Child

On the menu:
Brandade de morue (salt cod purée); croque madame; burger with manchego cheese and frites; gnudi (Italian dumplings)

Favorite ingredient: Romesco, a Spanish sauce made of finely ground tomatoes, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, almonds and olive oil.

Food trend she hates: Massive portions

Memorable meal:
Dinner at The River Cafe in London. “I love their philosophy of very simple food. The food was amazing.”

Favorite food memory:
When she was a kid, she heated bologna slices in the oven, then ate them on toast. “I loved watching them curl up into little bowls with puddles of oil in the middle.”

Where she eats: The Waterboy, Zen Sushi, Kru

Last meal on earth:
Poached egg with romesco

TARO ARAI

Taro’s by Mikuni
Arden Fair, 1735 Arden Way, Sacramento; (916) 564-2114
On his MySpace page, he calls himself Mr. No Problem. The wild child rocking the Sacramento sushi boat, Arai is the creator of what is known even in Japan as “Sacramento-style” sushi. Imaginative and smart, Arai energizes a room, and he and his family are marketing geniuses, coming up with gimmicks from the Sushi Bus to “Sushiology” cooking classes. At 16, Arai came here with family from a remote island off the southwest coast of Japan so his father could start Sacramento’s First Baptist Japanese Church. With a gift of $300,000 from a Roseville friend (also from the Arais’ hometown), the family opened its first Mikuni in Fair Oaks. Today, nearly 1.5 million customers stream through six Mikuni-owned restaurants, including the just-opened Mikuni at the Village at Northstar in Truckee, and locations in Las Vegas and Denver are on the way.

Age: 37

First kitchen job: Dishwasher and sukiyaki maker at Mikuni

Food style:
Sushi, Sacramento-style

Inspiration:
The American dream

Culinary philosophy:
“Make what the customer wants, even if I totally disagree and it’s against the sushi rules.”

On the menu:
Pimp My Roll (tempura shrimp and spicy tuna), traditional and “freaky” sashimi, Yellow Delight (tempura-style banana with green-tea mousse and chocolate powder)

Favorite ingredient:
Mackerel from Japan

Signature dish:
Fair Oaks Roll. “I made it with broken shrimp so it wouldn’t be wasted, put avocado on top with my mom’s secret sauce.”

Who you’ll see in the dining room: Eddie Murphy, Sugar Ray Leonard, Kings players Ron Artest and Brad Miller (who won’t eat raw fish, although he’s tried)

Favorite food memory:
“We’d eat fish every day, crush the bones, give it to the chickens, then we found the worms and next day we went fishing again.”

Where he eats: “I always go back to sushi.”

Last meal on earth:
“Go back to my home island; eat one more time the fish I catch.”


PATRICK HOCKING

Gianni’s Trattoria
2724 J St., Sacramento; (916) 447-1000
Hocking was 19 and working as a busboy at an Italian restaurant on Arden Way when the prep cook broke his arm and Hocking was pressed into service. He worked as a “line dog” at other local restaurants until, at age 26, he decided he wanted to be a chef, not just a cook. So Hocking went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., to be schooled in the classics before heading to Pebble Beach Resorts and Sans Souci in Carmel. Returning to Sacramento, he worked at River City Brewing Company, Riverside Clubhouse and Culinary Specialists catering company. One day, the sous chef at Peter Torza’s Black Pearl Oyster Bar called in sick, so Hocking pitched in—and ended up staying. When the Black Pearl closed, then reopened three months later as Gianni’s, Hocking was named executive chef. Improbably, he looks like an Irish bartender, cooks like an Italian grandma and talks like a French chef.

Age: 44

First kitchen job:
Busboy turned prep cook at an Italian restaurant

Food style: Simple, unfussy food backed up by classical French techniques

Inspiration:
French cookbook classics: Larousse Gastronomique, the works of Auguste Escoffier and anything by Jacques Pépin

Culinary philosophy: “Less is more.”

Influenced by:
His mother’s intuitive cooking

On the menu: Pasta fagioli (Italian bean soup); NBV (Nothing But Vegetables) pizza; baked ziti; broiled pheasant

Favorite ingredient:
Basil

Signature dish: Meat-and-mushroom lasagne

Food trend he hates:
Complicated dishes with more than five ingredients

Memorable meal:
Dinner at Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. “From the time we walked in until we left, we felt totally taken care of.”

Favorite food memory: Watching his mother make dinner rolls without a recipe

Where he eats:
“Hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurants”

Last meal on earth: Steak and lobster
 

ADAM PECHAL

Tulí Bistro
2031 S St., Sacramento; (916) 764-5922
With his cocky demeanor, bristling buzz cut and bulging Popeye forearms, Pechal would have made a great character on Bravo’s reality TV show “Top Chef.” Alas, he didn’t make the cut (though he lasted through three rounds of auditions). But Bravo’s loss is Sacramento’s gain: Late last year, Pechal unveiled his long-awaited restaurant, Tulí Bistro, a casual, open-all-day-and-most-of-the-night hangout, in the gentrifying Poverty Ridge neighborhood. Educated at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Pechal has worked at noteworthy restaurants, both here (River City Brewing Company, Riverside Clubhouse, Esquire Grill, Sammy Chu’s) and in Napa Valley (Bistro Don Giovanni and Bouchon, sister restaurant to Thomas Keller’s renowned French Laundry). At Tulí, he marries great food with an approachable, “Cheers”-like setting.

Age:
32

First kitchen job:
Grill cook at Steak Escape at Downtown Plaza

Food style:
A pancultural gumbo of Italian, Mexican, French, Asian and American cuisines

Inspiration: “My gluttony—I have a passion for eating.”

On the menu: Monkfish po’ boy; ahi tuna melt; pizza amatriciana with spicy tomato sauce, caramelized onions and bacon; wood-roasted quail stuffed with jambalaya

Favorite ingredient:
Sherry vinegar

Signature dish:
Arancini (crispy fried risotto balls)

Food trend he hates:
Foam.

Memorable meal:
A seven-course meal at Cyrus in Healdsburg. It took three waiters to serve the foie gras: one to ladle flaming rum sauce on the foie, another to throw a fragrant spice mix into the flames and a third to pour another sauce that put out the fire. “It blew me away.”

Favorite food memory:
Eating his mom’s eggs Benedict when he was a kid

Where he eats:
McDonald’s. “I love the $1 double cheeseburger.”

Last meal on earth:
Pepperoni pizza 

DENEB WILLIAMS

The Firehouse

The era of serial vacancies in the executive chef post at The Firehouse Restaurant may be over.

Deneb Williams, 36, has arrived like a bolt from above, as his name suggests. Williams is named for the star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus the Swan. “My mom sat out at night and looked at the stars when she was pregnant with me,” he says.
The natural world informs Williams’ cooking. He’s from tiny Friday Harbor, Wash., in the San Juan Islands, where professional fishermen work the pristine waters off the Pacific Northwest.

By age 12, he was washing dishes at a local restaurant. With no culinary schooling, Williams worked with chef Nancy Flume at Adriatica in Seattle, then at several microbreweries in Seattle and Denver. After a stint as chef of MacKenzie’s Chop House in Colorado Springs, he hit the heights at The Cliff House at Pike’s Peak in Manitou Springs, Colo., garnering a Mobile four-diamond rating.

Williams is most inspired by the cuisines of Greece, provincial France, Northern Italy and the Mediterranean. But because of his Friday Harbor roots, plus the fact that he spent his teen years in Hawaii, expect Pacific Rim dishes in the repertoire.

Williams has already adjusted The Firehouse menu. One of the new salads is an updated crab Louie: the Nouveau Louie, made with crab, shrimp and lobster. He sources ingredients from all over the world: 6-inch-long Nigerian saltwater prawns caught off Madagascar, Cervena farmed venison from New Zealand.

“We buy the best and the freshest of everything,” Williams says. “That’s a joy for a chef.” 

SNAPSHOTS

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Published: Monday, September 15, 2014