Sacramento’s Food Network: Top Chefs Mentor, Learn from and Support Each Other
In any busy evening at Mulvaney’s B&L the dining room staff plays what they call the Rockaway Game. “Who’s at table 12? Where are they from? Who are they connected to?” Chef Patrick Mulvaney explains. “In Rockaway Beach we’d say, ‘I was out with Joe yesterday.’ ‘Oh, Joe from 98th?’ ‘No, Joe who has the sister Louise who lives on 104th.’ “
The New York native, who’s built a reputation as one of the most esteemed restaurateurs in Sacramento, knows the importance of building community, and how Sacramento, in the world of restaurants, is still a very small town.
In fact, the pedigree of dozens of successful Sacramento businesses from Bacon & Butter to Hook & Ladder can be traced back to young chefs cutting their teeth in Mulvaney’s kitchen. Expand that to the kitchens of the Paragary Restaurant Group under the eyes of Executive Chef Kurt Spataro, and Randall Selland’s family owned and operated endeavors at The Kitchen, Selland’s Market Café and Ella, and the world gets even smaller.
You can trace Mulvaney himself to the early days at The Kitchen working alongside Selland, just as he rubbed shoulders with Spataro at the beginning of the Paragary empire, when the eponymous restaurant was a single location bubbling with potential on the corner of N Street and 28th in midtown.
Mulvaney sits in a sweatshirt and checkered chef pants at a white-clothed high-top surrounded by the polite and busy quiet of the Mulvaney’s B&L dining room. Cooks stand around a large counter chopping vegetables in the nearby open kitchen as servers glide adeptly between empty tables, readying the restaurant for mid-day business.
“When people ask now, in 2015, what I thought about my dreams and whether they came true, I say that the original goal was 24 seats, a menu on a chalkboard and 11 wines all available by the glass—and in that sense, clearly, we were a total and abject failure, right? Because we do a lot more than that,” Mulvaney explains.
“But the second hope was to open a space where people would come, community would come, to discuss the issues of the day—and potentially invite me into those discussions. In that sense it’s been wildly successful and a really great vantage point from which to watch the growth of Sacramento over the last 10 years,” he says, gesturing to the elegant, humming room around him.
A lot of the growth in the Sacramento restaurant scene has emanated from the ranks of the B&L’s own kitchen, from Adam Schulze now working as the chef de cuisine at Rick Mahan’s midtown restaurant The Waterboy, to Ginger Elizabeth Hahn who started her chocolate company with little more than a metro rack in the B&L kitchen, waking up at 4am to make toasted almonds and chocolate bars before she had a shop of her own.
“There was a point when we were out one night at someone’s new restaurant opening, an industry night, and [I was] chatting with the new owner,” Mulvaney says. “He just looked like he was beat to death, and he was saying, ‘I’m just so tired’ and ‘When’s it gonna end?’… and I said, ‘Hey, you know, look at who’s here. There are all these people, all restaurateurs, and we’re here [to support you] …’ And then I looked again and realized that there were eight different restaurants represented and out of those eight people, six of them [had] worked for me,” Mulvaney says, his eyes smiling.
There’s pride in local chefs seeing their protégés take on larger responsibilities in the community. “I always knew that I would have my own restaurant and I always assumed that everyone else [wanted that] too … it never occurred to me that there are people that don’t,” Mulvaney says.
Executive Chef and Owner Randall Selland, who entertained in the open kitchen of his fine-dining flagship restaurant The Kitchen for 22 years, has seen more chefs than he can recount go off to high-level positions around the world as well as here at home. In Sacramento, Selland watched as Chef Billy Ngo left his station at The Kitchen to open lauded contemporary Japanese restaurant Kru, while Michael Thiemann left his post as executive chef at Ella to pursue his own burgeoning ventures with business partner Matt Masera: the gourmet vegetarian favorite Mother, and its soon-to-open meat-centric sister restaurant next door, Empress Tavern.
“It’s funny when people leave us,” Selland muses. “I get calls from media saying, ‘Tell me about the big blow-out fight you had with these people’. They think something happened.” Selland explains that in reality, his cooks have usually asked for his advice. He tells them, “If you have that great of an opportunity then you should go do it.”
Striking out on your own isn’t easy, though, as any chef will tell you. It takes drive, passion and, as Selland’s wife and co-owner Nancy Zimmer suggests, “a good business plan.” But even with those tools, it’s hard to know exactly what to do when you’re calling the shots.
Mulvaney takes his role as a mentor for new business owners seriously, remembering his own confusion when opening his first restaurant. “When you own your own place,” Mulvaney says, “you’re standing on the front of the boat looking out at the ocean, and there are no road signs in the ocean. So our job as mentors is to help people navigate those things.”
The tight relationship of the dining community in Sacramento has helped many new restaurateurs to navigate those turbulent waters, pulling on the collective knowledge of a business community that can feel a lot like family.
“The restaurant community here is very closely knit and very tight,” Mulvaney nods.
Selland and Zimmer began The Kitchen in 1991, going on to open Selland’s Market Café in 2001 and Ella in 2007. As a result, the couple have carefully built up a restaurant empire run by themselves as well as their son Josh Nelson and daughter Tamera Baker, who oversee the staff and team at all locations.
Selland credits the “family feel” that extends to all of their employees as the cornerstone of their success over the years.
“A lot of time people will open multiple units and they lose something along the way; our aim is not to lose anything,” Selland says. “We think we’re accomplishing that by what people tell us about our staff at all our restaurants—they say, ‘Wow, they’re so nice.’ I say, ‘They’re just an extension of the family.’”
As Sacramento rises in the ranks of world-class cities, many local chefs are wondering how the dining scene will adapt. Kurt Spataro has overseen as many as 14 locations with the Paragary Restaurant Group as a partner and executive chef, and has seen the Sacramento scene change from a couple of brick-oven pizza places to a city that’s challenging itself to innovate and grow faster than ever.
“This whole farm-to-fork thing, that in and of itself is cool,” Spataro says, “but the most important aspect to me is the way that it’s sort of created a camaraderie, allowing the chefs to kind of band together. I think we’re still competitive, but there’s also a feeling of brotherhood and we’re all in it together. We’re representing our city as a group—there’s pride associated with that.”
Randall Selland is hoping to see the dining scene keep up the pressure. “I’ve had calls from a couple of nationally known [chefs] saying ‘We’ve got your name, we’ve heard about you … tell us what’s going on because all we hear is that we have to come to Sacramento,’” he says. What the city needs now is to not let up.
Mulvaney can’t help but wonder how the younger generation of restaurateurs will approach the opportunities at hand. “I start to think, ‘How is Billy Zoellin doing with the people who work for him [at Bacon & Butter]? How is Adam Pechal doing with those folks?’ he says.
“And the example that you follow is Paragary’s, right? How Kurt and Randy [Paragary] have held and grown their empire by supporting good people. And now, though I’m not doing it in restaurants that have my name on them, I’m doing it with a community that’s mine. So it’s very important for us that as our community within the community expands, that the people that are doing it have support from those who came before them.”
As Spataro notes, as a mentor, it’s not always just the teacher that does the teaching.
“A lot of people have come through our restaurants and moved on and done other things. Hopefully they’ve taken the best things that we have to offer. But it goes both ways,” he says. “[It’s] immeasurable what I’ve learned from these guys, what I continue to learn. As the skill level rises and some of these guys return to your kitchen, they’re sort of teaching you, which I think is the way it should be.”