As the tribal executive chef for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, Casey Willard oversees the food program at the tribe’s school and its Séka Hills olive mill tasting room in Capay Valley. In this interview, Willard chats about early food memories, being an ambassador of sorts for the tribe and teaching kids to love their veggies.
Where did you grow up and, more importantly, what did you eat as a kid?
I’m a local kid; I grew up in Dixon. I didn’t realize it then, but we were getting Capay Valley veggies before the Capay Valley was a thing. My grandfather lived in Winters and had a huge backyard garden. I remember eating fresh tomatoes with salt on them, cucumbers, watermelon, corn, blackberries from his bushes. And now here I am in the Capay Valley utilizing those same kinds of foods. I draw on those memories and those tastes.
You trained at the Culinary Institute of America and have worked in all types of settings—restaurants, hotels, even sports venues. What did you learn along the way?
You either have to adapt or you die. Each city has different people, different cultures, different ways of doing food. You have to adapt to what’s happening on the local level.
And what do you see on the local level in your current job?
The tribe was looking for an opportunity to tap into the Capay Valley. They knew what they were surrounded by: some of the best food in the state. They see the value in local eating and healthier eating and a smaller carbon footprint. They needed a bridge to the community, and I’m that bridge. It’s an honor for me to be the face of Séka Hills when it comes to the food.
What was it like introducing farm-to-table eating at the tribal school?
There was definitely a learning curve. It wasn’t just, “Here’s your veggies, now eat it.” I came up with recipes that almost hid stuff, like a sneaky chef. If they wanted berry smoothies, I might add beets. What boosted everything was when I started cooking classes with families. We’d make fresh pasta together and talk about why this was better than pasta from Walmart, that pasta’s been made this way for hundreds of years. Once I got them involved on a hands-on level, it piqued their curiosity. From there, we started a garden and cook food from it. Giving them 100% ownership of everything really helped spark the food revolution here.
You’ve come full circle, working near your hometown. How does that feel?
It’s a blessing. I go to Winters now and it’s a great little downtown scene. If my grandfather could see it now, I think he’d be honored. This whole valley—to be able to work and live in the area where my family grew up—I cherish it and I do whatever I can to honor it through my food and through my story.