Starting Fresh: Michael Tuohy Shoots to Showcase Local Food at the New ESC
The soil’s dug and the ground has been broken for growth. By October 2016, a new entertainment and sports center (ESC) will have sprouted up downtown. Much will happen here, from 44 basketball games each year to concerts and trade shows. Up to 18,000 attendees will visit the complex for each event.
As visitors come to this arena, downtown Sacramento will have new opportunities to show off to those who may not be familiar with what our city has to offer. One person who will be showcasing some of the area’s greatest assets is the center’s executive chef and general manager of food service: Chef Michael Tuohy. He will be serving up food unlike that at any other arena in the U.S.: food that is local to the area and as farm-to-fork as can be.
This past fall, Tuohy was hired by Legends Hospitality to be the executive chef and general manager of all food service at the ESC. Legends is a large company that also manages the food service for several stadiums and arenas of such sports teams as the San Francisco 49ers, New York Yankees, Anaheim Angels and Dallas Cowboys, as well as future observatory at One World Trade Center in New York City.
Chef Tuohy is well known in Sacramento’s culinary scene. He was the opening executive chef at Grange Restaurant in the Citizen Hotel, and initiated the chef’s tours of the farmers market in Caesar Chavez Plaza. After a brief stint at Dean & DeLuca in Napa Valley, he became executive chef at Lowbrau and Block Butcher Bar, where he’s been for the last two years.
A Bay Area local, he’s been forward-thinking with his culinary career every step of the way, promoting the use of local and seasonal ingredients. His early influences certainly helped along those lines: After attending restaurant school in San Francisco, he worked under famous chef and cookbook author Joyce Goldstein. He helped her open Café Quadro, and shortly thereafter moved to Atlanta, where he and his wife, Patti, lived for 22 years. There, he opened and operated several restaurants, and along the way he created a demand for the sort of cuisine folks considered to be “Californian.” In Atlanta, he says, “nobody was cooking seasonally then. I put together a network of local growers to supply restaurants there, which is still proliferating and thriving.”
In 2008, after years of humid summers and swearing he’d move back to California, he was recruited to be executive chef and open Grange restaurant in the new Citizen Hotel. Serving food that highlighted the region’s abundant ingredients was the basis for the restaurant, so it was right up Tuohy’s alley.
“When I took the job, I was shocked to see how few restaurants in Sacramento were actually embracing local ingredients at the time. Many claimed to embrace it, but really it wasn’t even a conversation then. The city’s Farm-to-Fork Initiative was the catalyst for getting the conversation going and forcing more restaurants to get involved in the game.”
While at Grange, he started the chef’s tour of the Cesar Chavez farmers market, again giving prominence to our area’s locally produced ingredients.
“It was a great way to embrace this market across the street. We invited media to join in, and people gravitated to it. It was new for Sac. That recognition drove a lot of the other restaurants to say hey, what about us. It actually created an impetus to buy more local food.”
He’s proud of what he was able to accomplish while at Grange, but laughs, “In retrospect, it’s very small potatoes compared to what I’ll be doing now.”
Over the past seven years the chef has cooked for and gotten to know many of the key stakeholders in the ESC: the mayor, Kings players, the team’s future investors. Once the arena was a sure thing, he was invited to meet with Legends to help with their bid for the food service contract. They were hoping to involve a local chef who was passionate about Sacramento’s food and agriculture.
After a couple of meetings, they asked him if he’d like to be the executive chef who oversaw food service for the entire ESC—including the main kitchens for production, the concession stands, all bars, carts, VIP dining areas and suites.
“I’d never run an arena before—the thought of it never occurred to me at all,” he says. But knowing that they were going to feature local products, he thought, “Why not? This is unprecedented.”
Tuohy is speculative and hopeful about 2015. Having started the job in mid-December, it’s been “boots on the ground” ever since. The year ahead will involve hitting the road to work in some of Legends’ 34 operations, and seeing how the other properties operate.
2015 will also be critical for laying the groundwork for the supply chain of all the food. His goal is to have 90% of the ESC’s ingredients coming from within 150 miles of Sacramento. This means working with producers and asking some farms to start planting particular crops now; there may be some proprietary items involved.
For the beverage program, that 150-mile range allows for some amazing beers and wines—he’s planning to offer several craft beers from here and wines from Amador, Lodi, Napa and Sonoma.
He’s well aware that local foods aren’t always the least expensive.
“I will do everything I can to make it affordable. You want to do the right thing, but regulations, land, transport—all that costs more here. One thing we will have is volume and scale.”
Also on the agenda for him in the new year is to get the community engaged. He’d like to involve the local urban farm community.
“The Urban Agriculture Coalition is working to get the city to approve selling directly to consumers. If we can weave that into the ESC, that’d be awesome.” Other thoughts are to involve Sacramento High School’s edible schoolyard program.
Some of the restaurants housed in the ESC will be open seven days a week, and will service not only the arena but also the neighborhood. Thinking of the larger community, he’d like to have an urban garden in the outdoor space, and perhaps a weekly chef’s market.
“My job is to bring food to this arena, so I want this to say food at every possible chance. I want it everywhere—good, fresh, healthy, local food.”