Family Affair

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The Kitchen’s Randall Selland is betting his family’s future on a $4.5 million restaurant downtown. In the weeks leading up to the opening, we went behind the scenes to see what goes into the making of the menu
(and more) of a hot new restaurant.

When it comes to food, Randall Selland has opinions. Lots of them. I’m not a fish-stock person, he’ll announce. Or I don’t like truffle oil. Other dislikes include figs, meatloaf, short ribs, and hanger, skirt and flap steaks. And don’t get him started on offal (animal innards such as sweetbreads and calves’ brains). I’m not big on body parts.

Selland’s idiosyncratic palate has made him one of Sacramento’s most successful chefs. At The Kitchen, the pricey demonstration-style restaurant that Selland has run like a dinner party on steroids for the past 16 years, he’s shown he knows just what people in Sacramento want to eat: upscale American food with an ingredient-centric focus. 

This summer, Selland launches a new venture: Ella Dining and Bar, his long-anticipated, $4.5 million, 200-seat restaurant and bar on the K Street Mall in downtown Sacramento. It will extend The Kitchen brand, offering rustic-elegant dcor, friendly but exacting service and the same kind of cozy, stylish food Selland is famous for. Call it family food refined to the nth degree.

We want people to feel like they’re eating at our house, says Selland. The menu will be inspired by the meals Selland and his wife (and business partner), Nancy Zimmer, serve at home. In fact, Ella is a family affair: Daughter Tamera Baker and son Josh Nelson also are partners, and the restaurant is named after Selland and Zimmer’s granddaughter and Baker’s daughter, Ella.

The restaurant is an expensive gamble. The city ponied up a $700,000 loan, and 10 couples (all Kitchen regulars) kicked in some investment money. But the family owns the majority of the business&emdash;the risks and the rewards. Nancy and I pushed all our chips in the middle, says Selland. We’re all in.

Intrigued, Sacramento magazine recently spent several hot and hectic days with the Selland team as they brainstormed a menu and performed initiation rites, of sorts, on the newest member of the kitchen crew.
   
Selland won’t be the one rattling the pots and pans in Ella’s kitchen. He hasn’t cooked full time since a skiing injury and two hip replacement operations sidelined him 2½ years ago. He’ll work the front of the house, shaking hands and kissing babies, as Nelson puts it.

For the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, the family has hired David English, a lanky 35-year-old who’s worked at high-profile restaurants in Europe and the States.

Monday, July 9. It’s English’s first day on the job&emdash;the culinary equivalent of a first date. English learned of the opening in April through a help-wanted ad on craigslist.org and got the job after three rounds of interviews with the family. But the audition isn’t quite over. During the next several weeks, he’ll cook his way through the Ella menu. It isn’t set in stone&emdash;Selland and Zimmer are looking to see what English can bring to the table. It’s their chance to take the measure of their new hire.

It’s also a chance for English to see where people’s palates are&emdash;people in this case meaning the Selland family. He knows he can cook. But can he cook food they like?

It’s 11 a.m. Dressed in jeans and a baseball cap, Selland leans back in his barstool at The Kitchen, which is quiet, dark and cool. At 52, he doesn’t look like a Very Important Chef&emdash;more like a big kid with ants in his pants. Nelson, seated across the table, works his Apple laptop and iPhone as Selland jokes and makes impish asides. English, in a baggy white T-shirt, Chefwear pants and black kitchen clogs, is like a racehorse at the starting gate&emdash;ready and rarin’ to go.

We need to firm up a schedule, Selland says to English.
I’m totally open, says English.
You have no life, Selland replies.
No.
Cool.

On today’s agenda: the food. Selland has already come up with a typewritten sheet listing about 40 dishes. Devising the menu, Selland says, he asked himself, What would Nancy and I like to eat? Comfort food is the answer: The menu is filled with dishes such as corn chowder and wood-oven-roasted meatballs with sheep’s milk ricotta. Superfoodies might not do well here, Selland notes. You won’t find calves’ brains on the menu.

English has gone through the proposed menu and typed up a five-page memo of questions, comments and critiques.

English’s first concern: the menu’s organization. Rather than being divvied up into appetizers and entres, it’s broken down into small plates (cold and warm), salads, soups, pastas, large plates, shared plates and additions. He wonders, will diners get it?

Next worry: English thinks the menu is too wordy. One entry, for instance, reads: Herbed butter leaf salad with creamy whole-grained mustard, chives, chervil and tarragon.

English questions whether every ingredient needs to be listed. Too much information, he thinks.

Nelson disagrees. I hate going somewhere and getting something different from what I expect, he says. Bespectacled and serious, Nelson, 35, is the rational ego to Selland’s playful id. He runs The Kitchen’s wine program and is overseeing many of the operating and financial details involved in opening Ella. If a salad comes with chervil and I’m not expecting that black-licorice flavor, I’m pissed.

English doesn’t back down.

Really, he says. It’s more a statement than a question. He asks about the shallots and parsley in another dish. Do you list those or no?

There shouldn’t be any huge surprises, Nelson insists.

English, for now, fails to sway Selland and Nelson. But debate is good, Selland believes, and no detail is too insignificant to joust over. We’re personally, emotionally involved in every aspect, he says.

The discussion drifts to the way ingredients are referred to on the menu. The trend these days is for menus to note (brag about, even) an ingredient’s provenance. Bledsoe pork. Liberty ducks. Del Rio Botanical tomatoes. Ella’s menu is mum on where the pork and produce come from, but chatty about the source of lesser ingredients such as olive oil and salt. 

 

So the red-gem lettuce salad is sprinkled with Maldon sea salt from the east coast of England, and the tomato salad is dressed with Prunatelli olive oil (an orchard-designated oil, comparable to a single-vineyard wine); the heirloom-tomato soup is made with Vetrice virgin olive oil. Each olive oil has a different flavor profile, Selland explains.

Do you put Prunatelli on the menu? Nelson muses. Maybe so, maybe not. He notes that 80 percent of diners wouldn’t know the difference. But we want to cater to the 20 percent who do&emdash;without alienating the 80 percent. It’s a fine line to walk.

For the next three hours, Selland, Nelson and English thrust and parry. How about adding branzino to the menu, English suggests. No, says Selland; too many other local restaurants serve it. What about line-caught halibut? Maybe, if Selland’s fish supplier can give them a Sacramento exclusive. English doesn’t like the way the crispy flatbread with wild salmon gravlax&emdash;an upscale take on pizza&emdash;is listed under warmed small plates. Shouldn’t that category be hot small plates? No, says Nelson decisively: The Dining Divas or Mike Dunne will read that on the menu and write, ‘My hot flatbread was warm.’

Lunchtime. The trio troops across the street to Chevys. Over chips and salsa, they continue the discussion. English worries about the price of the grilled rib-eye: almost a hundred bucks. Selland points out that it’s meant to be shared by two or more people. Ella will have a couple of long communal tables, perfect for parties of 12.

It’s an important dish for Selland&emdash;a showstopper.

From Day One, I knew we were going to do that dish, says Selland. I searched high and low for that meat.

English suggests adding a less-expensive beef en-tre&emdash;braised short ribs or a hanger steak&emdash;to the menu. Short ribs&emdash;to me, that’s an appetizer meat, says Selland dismissively. I’ll do beef cheeks before I do short ribs. He shows similar disdain for hanger and flap steaks. Not cooked properly, he says, they taste funky and liverish. Selland had a $28 hanger steak at Bouchon in Yountville and hated it.

What about the foie gras torchon? English frets that the dish&emdash;poached duck liver&emdash;is over the heads of Sacramento diners. Forget you’re in Sacramento, Nelson advises. Proceed like you’re in San Francisco or New York.

Lunch done, the three return to The Kitchen. English’s cell phone rings. The caller is a Biba sous-chef looking for a job. Bring him in for an interview, Selland instructs English. Have him cook something. English paces back and forth, talking to the sous. Eager to make a good impression, the sous-chef wants to prepare sweetbreads for his interview. Not for Randall, Nelson warns.

One week later. Selland, Zimmer, Nelson and Baker gather at The Kitchen for a tasting. English is in the back, making his renditions of dishes from the Ella menu. The family is here to decide which dishes work and which ones don’t.

English places the first dish on the table. It’s a Peruvian-style ceviche of shrimp, octopus, halibut and bay scallops, garnished with deep-fried, salty sweet-potato shreds. Everyone grabs a fork and digs in.

Too tart, says Zimmer.

Needs more spice, more cilantro, says Baker. She’s 37 and the manager of the family’s other business, Selland’s Market-Cafe in East Sacramento. Pretty and petite, she looks wan; she was up for hours the night before with a stomach bug she caught from her child.

Selland pours some salt from his fist onto the ceviche and takes a bite. The octopus is too chewy.
Baker chimes in again. The bay scallops are too fishy. But she and Zimmer like the arugula underneath the marinated fish.

Baker acts as secretary, writing the family’s criticisms on a paper cocktail napkin: More arugula. Needs spice. Garnish is tasty but doesn’t work with the dish. For English, it’s back to the drawing board.

Next dish: Lemon-black pepper ravioli two ways, one filled with goat cheese, the other with mushrooms. English made the pasta dough with an extra egg yolk to give it some tooth and folded the pasta into triangles for a rustic look. They come in a buttery broth with fresh corn kernels and sliced artichoke hearts.

I’d be very happy with this dish, says Baker.

Selland thinks the pasta triangles are too big.

I disagree, Zimmer and Baker say in unexpected unison. Everyone laughs. Despite the endless debates, it’s clear they’re on the same page when it comes to their goal: making the final product sing.

Two more dishes arrive: grilled swordfish topped with a fennel-olive slaw and served on a bed of peeled, gently cooked heirloom cherry tomatoes; and lamb loin, which English seared, then cooked sous vide, wrapped in plastic wrap and poached in a warm-water bath. He cut the lamb into noisettes and topped them with olive-mint pesto. The family debates: Is the lamb too rare? The pesto too minty? Not minty enough? Would it be better if the mint were chopped more coarsely, or if nuts were added?

It sounds like a lot of negative feedback. But Zimmer is pleased. We see he can cook, she says happily. Everything’s really close to what we want.

After the tasting, English is left alone to wash dishes and contemplate the next step. Ella&emdash;the kitchen gods willing&emdash;opens in less than six weeks. He’s already hired two sous chefs. A general manager is on board. Everything’s falling into place.

It’s exciting, he says.

Selland’s ready. A few weeks earlier, he’d donned a hard hat and picked his way through the half-finished restaurant. He’s here to check up on the construction’s progress. The handmade cement floor tiles from Mexico have been laid, the amber-glass-walled wine room built. A massive Carrara marble oyster bar sits in its crate on the floor, waiting to be unpacked. Gleaming stainless steel ovens, not yet hooked up, are lined against the kitchen wall. This will be my new home, he says proudly.

Soon, someone from the fire department shows up for an appointment. Selland approaches and sticks out his hand. I’m Randall Selland, he says. This is my little place.