Sisters in Sustienance
By Jan Ferris Heenan
Posted on October 31
Photography by Roy Wilcox
Nicole Mitchell graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1989 with an art history degree and headed to Florence to train in painting restoration. There was just one problem she’d have to reckon with: She couldn’t draw worth a darn. That, she would learn, was a deal breaker.
So Mitchell (nee Lavezzi) got a job in an Umbrian trattoria only to nurture another creative calling: the culinary arts. Her language skills were limited in the early days, and her mostly male colleagues often spoke in dialect to confuse her. Yet, Mitchell, who had cooked in the kitchen with her own Italian grandmother from early on, thrived. She worked her way up from salad maker to the chef entremetier in charge of pastas and risottos.
When the pastry chef post came open, Mitchell was tapped for the job and sent to Ecole Lenôtre near Paris to train for a month.
“I didn’t want to do it at all. I was very good at pasta. Pasta to me was very calming,” she recalls. “But once I got into pastries, I said, ‘I’m not going back.’ You have so much more creative freedom.”
Mitchell returned to the United States after six years abroad and settled in Sacramento to be near her family. She worked briefly at Enotria, went back to France for more schooling, and since 2000, has worked as the pastry chef at The Firehouse in Old Sacramento.
General Manager Mario Ortiz remembers the tasting when Mitchell tried out for the job, especially her citrus-chèvre cheesecake. “It was, ‘Wow. This is what we’ve been waiting for,’” he says of the goat-cheese variation. “She just had some amazingly fresh, incredible desserts.”
Her days at The Firehouse start early. Mitchell is in by 7 a.m. She and her assistant, Peggy Nason, prepare desserts for the dining room as well as the restaurant’s sizable banquet service.
On any given day, the two turn out upward of 80 individual cheesecakes, 40 ramekins of crème brûlée, 60 flourless “chocolate sins,” lavender-honey Bavarian cream tortes and more. Mitchell estimates she goes through at least one case of European-style Plugra butter and two flats of eggs a week. Holidays double and triple the work. Last Mother’s Day, some 600 desserts were created and consumed.
Mitchell works as a private chef for a family she prefers not to name, and occasionally makes soups and other nondessert specials for The Firehouse. She once worked all of two weeks as the sauté chef at Biba, but quit because her passion clearly rests with pastries. She left the restaurant business briefly in 2000, burnt out on the hours and the male-dominated culture. When she saw an ad for her current job, she was ready to come back.
“It really satisfies a creative need. It’s the only thing I’m artistically inclined in,” she explains.
And she is happy at The Firehouse. Mitchell says she is given the latitude to buy the best ingredients, from Valrhona chocolates and praline pastes to canned French pears (for banquet use; smaller orders are made with fresh Bosc pears). She also has access to the tools and supplies that transform her desserts into what she calls “perfect pieces of artwork,” such as silk screens to decorate her miniature cakes.
Mitchell delights in working with different consistencies and flavors. The Ganduja mousse tart—an otherworldly blend of almonds, hazelnut paste, Italian meringue, candied hazelnuts and chocolate ganache—is her chef-d’oeuvre (masterpiece), though it is not a crowd-pleaser at The Firehouse, she says.
At home, Mitchell enjoys making fruit tarts, especially with frangipane-poached pears. When all is said and done, though, Mitchell says nothing satisfies her own sweet tooth like a roll of SweeTarts.
Dru Rivers and Judith Redmond
Dru Rivers and Judith Redmond have run the Full Belly Farm for years, and have witnessed the transformation of “alternative farming practices” into the much trendier and more mainstream “organic” movement.
Their pesticide-free fruits and vegetables grace plates at The Waterboy on Capitol Avenue and at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the legendary birthplace of California cuisine. The Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op is one of their larger customers. And each Wednesday, some 50-plus families pick up their week’s worth of organic, seasonal produce from a Land Park drop-off point as part of Full Belly’s box subscription service.
Rivers and Redmond’s work in the far northwestern reaches of the scenic Capay Valley, an hour’s drive from downtown Sacramento, has helped transform the 220-acre Full Belly Farm into one of the region’s agricultural success stories.
But for both women, who knew each other casually at the University of California, Davis, the public educating they and their two partners have done along the way has been as important and fulfilling as the planting and harvesting.
“It’s easier when you really love what you’re doing, or believe in it even more than love it,” says Rivers, 47, who started Full Belly Farm with her husband, Paul Muller, in 1985 and was joined by Redmond, also 47, four years later. A fourth partner, Andrew Brait, lives with his family on an adjacent farm.
“We believe that the things we do really count,” she continues. “That makes it easier to feel good about what you’re doing.”
And on a breezy spring day on the farm, with the daffodils and almond trees in bloom, the good vibes are catching. The property, half of it owned and half of it rented, includes nearly 4 acres of flowers, nut and fruit trees, hay and dozens of other rotating crops, from eggplant to several varieties of kale.
The fields roll all the way to the foot of the low hills on the narrow valley’s eastern side. Rivers, Muller and three of their four children live in a small house across from the main office (their oldest child is away at college), a stone’s throw from a few pens of pigs, lambs and chickens. Redmond and husband Thomas Nelson, not a Full Belly owner, live several fields over.
The partners employ from 25 to 50 full-time workers, depending on the season. Another four or five interns live at Full Belly at any given time; several have gone on to start their own organic farms.
Each of the four manages certain areas. Rivers, for one, tends to the animals, which include 200 sheep. The flock’s grazing helps clear the fields, their natural fertilizer is good for the soil, and their organic wool fetches top dollar at the co-op and other markets. Rivers, Redmond and Muller also travel weekly to the Bay Area to work the farmers markets in Berkeley, San Rafael and Palo Alto.
In the early days, they spent a lot of time explaining to their customers that the worms in the sweet corn meant the crops were free of chemicals, not that they were spoiled. Now, Rivers says, she just stands back and lets one shopper teach another.
More deliberate education also takes place. Third- and fourth-grade classes take school trips to the farm where they work and bunk. Full Belly opens its gates to several thousand people every fall for its two-day Hoes Down festival. Even the produce boxes, delivered to several Northern California cities, are a means of reaching out.
“It’s an opportunity for us to build a relationship with people who are actually eating our produce. It adds a richness to the farm,” Redmond says.
In the peak season, 15-hour days and six-day weeks are the norm. Full Belly’s internship program is always full. Rivers and Redmond are encouraged by the numbers, and by the fact that women in the program come in knowing they will be learning about all aspects of the farm, not just office operations and other traditionally female roles.
Says Rivers, “They’re demanding. They’re really wanting to be seen as equals. It’s great for this new generation of women.”
Matt Woolston may be the one with the name as the gourmet cook behind the seven-course meals at The Supper Club every Friday and Saturday night.
But Yvette Woolston, his 38-year-old wife, is clearly the one who completes the place. The ambiance and the service are gracious; the décor, understated, yet long on sophistication, from the beaded candle shades to the willowy greenery spilling out of vases throughout the restaurant.
The couple opened up shop on Del Paso Boulevard more than two years ago. Matt works the back of the house, planning menus, ordering food and doing most of the cooking. Yvette does the rest, which includes overseeing the couple’s burgeoning catering business.
The space was once spillover for David Berkley’s catering business, which is how the Woolstons came to know it. (Matt formerly was the executive chef at David Berkley). When they decided to venture out on their own, they figured the North Sacramento address would work better as a “destination” spot than an impulse choice for diners. They serve reservation-only, fixed-menu meals at their weekend seatings (“the Big Nights”), and on at least one other evening each month. They also hold cooking classes and cater private parties.
This is not the first time Yvette and Matt have worked together. The couple met at a T.G.I. Friday’s in Cupertino more than two decades ago. She was 17 and the “expediter,” the one who put the finishing touches on the plates; he was 20 and worked “the wheel,” calling out orders to the cooks. He mistook her shyness for snobbery; she simply thought he was short, Matt jokes.
The two moved to Sacramento 15 years ago and had three sons in less than five years. Matt cooked for David Berkley and Pava’s. Yvette worked as a personal chef and took on catering jobs, working around her children’s schedules. Once the boys were in school full time, and the North Sacramento space came open, the Woolstons nabbed it.
Yvette oversaw much of the design, softening the über-industrial feel somewhat and adding earth tones. A nephew chipped concrete from the walls to expose the brick. Another relative stained the concrete floors a warm shade of terra cotta. Yvette painted the walls a suedelike brown and draped the high windows overlooking the boulevard.
Her weekdays at the restaurant start about 9 a.m. Yvette manages the reservations, the catering bids and the jobs in process. She does most of the hiring. She tries to get out by 2:15 p.m. to pick up her sons—each goes to a different school—but invariably runs late.
“By the time I leave here, I’m never finished,” she says. “It’s beyond full time.” Other family members help out. Yvette’s sister-in-law tends to the books. Her mother is the web master. And the youngest son, Thomas, began teaching cooking at the restaurant to other young people earlier this year.
On a recent Saturday morning, Yvette bustled in with her arms full of forsythia and quince branches, helping ready The Supper Club for the evening meal. When 6:30 p.m. comes, she greets and seats the guests. She arranges each plate and helps her three-person wait staff get the food to the tables.
“I love to take care of people, to feed people good food, to help them have a good time,” says Yvette, who acknowledges that the public parts of the job—and a regular workout schedule—have helped her both to focus and to pull her out of her shell.
The Supper Club has taken off. The reviews are solid. Many, though not all, of the Big Nights are sellouts. Gov. Schwarzenegger even stopped by recently for a meal.
The job may seem never-ending, but it does have amazing perks. One recent morning, Matt, Yvette and their wine steward sat down to taste port, pairing the dessert wine with cheesecake and chocolate sauce. “I was truly working,” she says, half-apologetically. “But what fun work.”