Watershed’s Moment

For one Grass Valley restaurant, Jackie Lee Smith was the right chef at the right time.
Garlicky collard greens with blistered tomatoes from Watershed at the owl
Garlicky collard greens with blistered tomatoes. Photo by Mike Battey.

Regular diners at Grass Valley’s Watershed at the Owl are accustomed to an unusual sight: that of executive chef Jackie Lee Smith working with a baby strapped to her hip. It brings back the old line about how Ginger Rogers did everything her dance partner Fred Astaire did, only backward and in heels.

Family life traditionally was a barrier to women interested in working at the highest levels of the food industry. Often, they became pastry chefs because the hours were less punishing. In two decades of writing about Sacramento’s food scene, I rarely came across a woman in charge of a restaurant kitchen. But that’s changing. In the past year, I’ve written about three, all of them young mothers.

executive chef jackie lee smith and her son at the watershed at the owl
Jackie Lee Smith. Photo by Mike Battey

Being a mother, says Smith, gives her some natural advantages working in the top job at a restaurant. “It’s really hard to take down a mother,” she explains. “A woman is fierce and strong, but a mom is a different breed.” Running a restaurant, she says, is a bit like raising a teenager: If you’re not tough, fair and consistent, your kid will behave like a punk. So will your restaurant.

Smith has three boys: 13, 8 and 8 months. The baby accompanies Smith to work five days a week. When he’s not lashed to her body, he’s napping in a back room or getting passed around by staffers who jockey to hold him. The 8-year-old comes to the restaurant after school to help out, cutting limes, moving plates, washing lettuce. Smith loves raising her kids in a restaurant. “It socializes them,” she says.

Left: Stewed beef tacos with smoked corn and lime-chèvre cream; right: grilled quail on purple grits; top: succotash; bottom: cornbread with jalapeño honey butter
Left: Stewed beef tacos with smoked corn and lime-chèvre cream; right: grilled quail on purple grits; top: succotash; bottom: cornbread with jalapeño honey butter. Photo by Mike Battey

When Oakland resident Ian Moll opened Watershed in 2018, diners thought it was too edgy and upscale. The online reviews were brutal. “People didn’t get us,” says Moll. Two years ago, he hired Smith to reinvent the restaurant. She’d grown up in Grass Valley, so she understood the locals’ tastes and sensibilities. Dishes from the original menu such as octopus al diablo were 86’ed in favor of more accessible fare such as grilled rib-eye.

Smith already had relationships with farmers and ranchers in the area, and she focused the menu on sustainable, ethically raised produce and proteins from local sources. Hyperlocal ones, too, from within 2 miles of the restaurant. The food has a heavy Southern influence; Smith’s husband is from Savannah, Georgia, and the menu is her love letter to him, with dishes like shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes and raw oysters. Okra shows up in many guises: in a stuffing for quail, perhaps, or blistered in a cast-iron skillet and seasoned with lime and sea salt.

Kushi oysters with house-fermented hot sauce
Kushi oysters with house-fermented hot sauce. Photo by Mike Battey.

Smith’s food, while approachable, looks and tastes special. Many dishes are artfully plated and—dare I say it?—feminine, thanks to Smith’s keen eye for color and liberal use of micro florals. Take, for instance, the spring menu’s beet carpaccio, a dish that looks like it sprang from a painter’s box. Paper-thin slices of rainbow baby beets in vivid reds, purples and oranges are laid out in a single layer across the plate, lightly dressed in horseradish vinaigrette, punctuated with pickled mustard seeds for pop and strewn with tiny herbs and flowers. It’s almost too pretty to eat.

Built during the Gold Rush, the restaurant building itself offers a rustic counterpoint to all that pretty food. Historic black-and-white photos and vintage gold pans decorate the old brick walls; a small fireplace just inside the front door brings the cozy on cold nights. Home for more than 100 years to a bar once frequented by rowdy miners and gamblers, the place is dripping in history. Some say it’s haunted by a ghost named George, killed long ago for cheating in a game of cards.

watershed at the owl
Photo by Mike Battey

Grass Valley locals who once considered Watershed too edgy now find it a comfortable place where they feel at home. One satisfied diner left a note, written in crayon and decorated with hearts and flowers, for Smith and her mostly female staff: “Thank you Megan & Jackie and all you lovely people.”

Watershed at the Owl

134 Mill St., Grass Valley