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Upon meeting Michael Tuohy, the executive chef and general manager of Golden 1 Center’s food operation—which has been branded as Local Eats—you’re inclined to not totally trust him on two counts:
1. He claims to be 54 years old—but has the energy and enthusiasm of someone half that age.
2. He’s a highly respected, experimental chef and isn’t even remotely tubby (if you subscribe to the old maxim, “Never trust a skinny cook”).
“Oh, I think I’ve gained some weight,” he says, as he laughs and pinches a nonexistent paunch in a conference room at the J Street offices of the Sacramento Kings. “I mean, I haven’t had much time to exercise since starting the job.” (Busted again! Tuohy confesses a little later in this interview that he and his wife, Patti, who does clinical research and regulatory compliance for the UC Davis Medical Center, power walk at a park near their East Sacramento home nearly every morning at 5.)
Gags aside, Tuohy is actually the soul of credibility when it comes to his work, a farm-to-fork guy who chose to accept a job in Sacramento partly on the basis of the area’s farmers markets and “the accessibility of great, locally grown food.” He opened Grange, the much-lauded restaurant at downtown Sacramento’s Citizen Hotel, eight years ago. Before landing his current gig, he was also the executive chef at popular midtown eateries LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar.
He and his wife lived in Atlanta for more than two decades before Tuohy took the job at Grange. “We loved it here, almost immediately,” he says. “Not only was the whole farm-to-fork brand authentic but so were the people. You maybe have to leave this town for a while to appreciate how genuine people are here.”
While Tuohy half-jokes that he has “innumerable” bosses, the company that signs his checks is Legends, a formidable firm that manages food service at stadiums across the country for teams that include the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, Anaheim Angels and San Francisco 49ers. Running the food op at Golden 1 Center, he says, “is my opus. The scale of this is much larger than anything I’ve ever done.” At various points in the interview he equates his role in the hospitality industry with one in show business. “When you think of it,” he says, “it’s like being on-stage in front of 18,000 people every time there’s a game.”
That qualification—“every time there’s a game”—is an important one since the full complement of Tuohy’s food fiefdom won’t be activated for every event at Golden 1 Center. Event planners and concert bookers reserving the facility will be offered the choice of various vendors within the fold but, as Tuohy says, “It would be a little foolhardy to have 32 portables (roving food carts) and 16 stands (concessions) available for a smaller-scale event.”
For the record (or your dining plans), Golden 1 Center will feature five club lounges and 82 suites. If you’re hosting a suite, you’ll need to order the food 72 hours in advance. For day-of-game menus, you’ll be able to order off iPads located in the suite.
So: What’s cookin’?
Local eats, that’s what. Playing to its location in America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital—with the only farm-to-fork sourcing charter in the NBA—the Sacramento Kings and Legends have committed to sourcing 90 percent of their culinary ingredients from producers and growers within a 150-mile radius of Golden 1 Center. An advisory board made up of national and local experts in sustainability and sourcing, which includes Sacramentans Josh Nelson of Selland’s Family of Restaurants and Shawn Harrison of Soil Born Farms, has helped develop the mission. Tuohy, meanwhile, leads the board and oversees food sourcing and all the culinary operations in the center.
He says there will be 16 concession stands—eight on the main concourse, eight on the upper one. The informal venues will include three from the Randy Paragary eatery empire—spin-offs of Paragary’s original self-named pizza den (but this time, the pies will be gas-cooked instead of wood-fired), Centro Cocina Mexicana and Café Bernardo. Selland’s restaurants will offer two tandoori spots. Petra Greek, a popular downtown restaurant, will sell “gyros, Grecian burgers and fries,” according to Tuohy. Chef/entrepreneur Mai Pham, who helped introduce Vietnamese cuisine to the region at her Lemon Grass restaurants, will open a stand-alone version of her Star Ginger Asian Grill & Noodle Bar.
Local celebrity chef Patrick Mulvaney, LowBrau and Block Butcher will also have outlets inside the arena, as will places serving rotisserie chicken and porquettas (also called porchettas), that savory slow-roasted pork dish considered one of Italy’s great gifts to the world.
“By creating these stands and carts, we’ve essentially taken some great restaurant concepts and distilled them down to make them appropriate for the informal style of an arena,” Tuohy says.
PLENTY OF SUPPORT
When this interview was conducted, the arena’s opening was fewer than 100 days away. If Tuohy was nervous about anything, it certainly wasn’t the infrastructure. “I have support kitchens scattered around the Golden 1 Center,” he says, waving his arm slowly as though pointing them out. What he calls the “real work” will be bringing in and unpacking untold numbers of utensils, pots and pans, as well as hiring the serving and cooking crews. Two large-scale job fairs took place at the arena earlier this summer.
It’s been quite a journey for Tuohy, who says his mother encouraged him to go to cooking school “since I wasn’t especially terrific at other things.” Another supporter: James Beard award winner and celebrity chef Mark Miller. “He’s my cousin, and I didn’t quite realize it for some time,” Tuohy says, still amazed by the connection. “Once we got in touch with each other, he’s been amazingly supportive.”
He reserves his greatest hero worship for chef and writer Joyce Goldstein, with whom he opened the singular Caffe Quadro not long after he graduated from restaurant school in the Bay Area. Goldstein was the chef and owner of Square One, a Mediterranean place in San Francisco that became one of that city’s many destination restaurants. (It closed in 1996. Tuohy says he saw Goldstein last year for her 80th birthday celebration, when she reopened Square One for just one night.)
Apparently, the fondness for that genre of cooking stayed with Tuohy. “I cook almost anything except things that I sincerely think a restaurant might do better than I could,” he says. “But if I have a favorite cuisine I always go back to, it would have to be Mediterranean. Fresh ingredients. I also like the cuisine of North Africa and Spain, which are similar but usually spicier.”
Tuohy says, “I try my best to be a mindful eater, as opposed to a mindless one” (this last part said Groucho Marx-like, as though as soon as he said “mindful eater,” he found it a comical term). “I pay attention to what I’m eating.”
He says that the farm-to-fork ethic that drew him to Sacramento has long been a hallmark of his cooking, both for healthful and economic reasons. “The simple logic is that if a farmer is raising vegetables and (livestock) three hours away from you at most, it’s going to simply cost less to obtain them. Not always, of course, but most of the time. And when the farmer or rancher is nearby, there’s accountability. That’s important in any industry but maybe especially in mine.”