Sacramento’s Food Network: The chefs behind the farm-to-fork dining scene

by juli boggs

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On 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 say, ‘I was out with Joe yesterday.’ ‘Oh, Joe from 98th?’ ‘No, Joe who has the sister Louise who lives on 104th.’ ”

The NY native who’s built a reputation as one of the most reputable restauranteurs in Sacramento knows the importance of building community, and how Sacramento, in terms of the restaurant-world, 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 Cafe, 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 st. 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 B&L dining room. Cooks stand around a large counter chopping vegetables in the nearby open kitchen as servers adeptly glide between empty tables preparing to open 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, menu on a chalkboard, 11 wines all available by the glass— and in that sense clearly we were a total and abject failure, right? Cause 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 in to those discussions- and 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 ten years,” he says, gesturing to the clean and humming room around him.

A lot of the growth in the Sacramento restaurant scene has come 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 who started her company with little more than a metro rack in the B&L kitchen, waking up at 4 A.M. 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 describes. “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 restauranteurs, 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, 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 behind the counter 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 bourgeoning ventures with business partner Matt Masera: the gourmet vegetarian favorite Mother, and its soon to open meat-centric sister next door, Empress Tavern.

“It’s just funny when people leave us,” Selland muses. “I get calls from media saying, ‘Oh, tell me about the big blow out fight you had with these people,’ or, you know, they think something happened, and I say, ‘Well, they came and said they had an opportunity and asked us what we thought, and we say, “if you have that great of an opportunity then you should go do it,” ’ ” Selland explains.

Striking out on your own isn’t easy though, as any chef will tell you. It takes drive, passion, “a good business plan,” Selland’s wife and co-owner Nancy Zimmer suggests. 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’re no fucking roadsigns in the ocean. So our job as owners is to help people navigate those things.”

The tight relationship of the dining community in Sacramento has helped many new restauranteurs 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.

Randall Selland began The Kitchen with his wife Nancy Zimmer in 1991, going on to open Selland’s Market Cafe in 2001 and Ella in 2007. As a result, Selland and Zimmer 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, [but] our aim is not to lose anything,” Selland explains, “and 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,” [and] I say, ‘Well…they’re just an extension of the family.’ ”

As Sacramento impatiently prepares to rise to the rank of a world-class city, many local chefs are wondering how the dining scene will adapt. Kurt Spataro has been overseeing 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, allowed the chefs to kind of band together. I think we’re still competitive, but there’s also sort of a feeling of brotherhood and we’re sort of all in it together, and we’re representing our city as a group. And there’s pride associated with that.”

Randall Selland is hoping to see the dining scene rise to the occasion that’s being presented as well. “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.’ ” Selland says. What the city needs now is to not let up.

Mulvaney can’t help but wonder how the younger generation of restauranteurs will approach the opportunities at hand. “My hope when you asked, ‘Who worked for you and where did they go?’ is that 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?’ ” Mulvaney says, “And the example that you follow is Paragary’s, right? How Kurt [Spataro] 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 though, it’s not always the teacher that does the teaching. Mentoring goes both ways. “A lot of people have come through our restaurants and moved on and done other things and hopefully they’ve taken the best things that I or we have to offer,” he says, “but it goes both ways, you know? [It’s] immeasurable what I’ve learned from these guys, what I continue to learn…it’s funny. As the skill level rises and some of these guys return to your kitchen they’re sort of teaching you, which, I think that’s the way it should be.”

*As appears in Edible Sacramento May/June 2015 issue.