The Kitchen’s new executive chef is comfortable in the spotlight

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013 - 11:28 am

As servers waited on standby, flanked by bowls of roasted sweet corn soup and panko-breaded poached eggs, the new executive chef of The Kitchen began the nightly demonstration dinner by way of an introduction.

“I’m John Griffiths. I’m the relatively new chef here in Sacramento.”

On that recent evening, Griffiths cut a comfortable yet authoritative presence with his tall, lean frame and crisp white coat. But he’s still in the “getting-to-know-you” phase with his fellow staff members and Sacramento itself.

Griffiths, 34, arrived in Sacramento from St. Louis in June to fill one of the city’s most prestigious culinary positions. As executive chef of The Kitchen, Griffiths designs the monthly menu for the $135-per-head restaurant and leads its popular demonstration-dinner format, in which the menu of New American food (with a touch of Japanese) is designed as a playbill and courses are “acts.”

He takes over for Noah Zonca, the restaurant’s energetic chef de cuisine who led the demonstration dinners for eight years and recently opened midtown’s Capital Dime. The only other person to own The Kitchen’s executive chef title is Randall Selland, the restaurant’s founder and figurehead.

Griffiths’ résumé includes stints at the top-tier Truffles and An American Place in St. Louis; he also served as executive chef at Washington University in St. Louis – a campus culinary program that ranked third in the The Daily Meal’s 52 best colleges for food. The Michigan native has worked in restaurants since the age of 15, and was invited to cook a dinner in 2012 at the esteemed James Beard House in New York City. That’s to say, Griffiths’ departure from St. Louis was big news in its culinary community.

The avid snowboarder says he was attracted to Sacramento for its proximity to fresh powder on the slopes and abundance of agriculture nearby. Here’s more of what Griffiths has to say about his background and plans for Sacramento:

The press seemed to cover your every move in St. Louis and now you’re the new guy in town. What’s that been like?

It’s very weird, very strange. That’s what I loved about St. Louis and what I miss the most about it now: the people. I wouldn’t say I was the No. 1 guy. I was part of a handful of guys who were very focused and motivated to do great things for that city … and I think the media responded to that. We put a lot of emphasis in connecting diners to what was around them, and really taking the city on our back to help promote it. I look back on my time there very proudly.

What are your impressions of Sacramento so far?

My perception’s been really positive. I’ve been really surprised by the quantity and the length of availability for a lot of the produce. I don’t think there’s anything I’ve seen here that I couldn’t get in the Midwest. All that stuff is available, but here there’s so much more abundance and land. We might get really great peaches (in St. Louis) for a month. Out here, it’s three months.

Is there any particular ingredient that you think grows better in St. Louis vs. Sacramento?

I don’t want to speak too soon, but tomatoes are incredibly tasty in that region of St. Louis. But I haven’t tasted all the tomatoes here in their peak season. They’re just starting to come in here. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue.

Well, this is “Sacra-tomato,” you know.

Right, exactly. I’ve noticed so far I don’t have access to as many petite vegetables, like root vegetables, that I’d get in St. Louis – and greens, too, like lettuces. We have some farmers down in Napa who are still able to do it for us, but around Sacramento that hasn’t been as prevalent.

Are you getting a sense of Sacramento’s palate, or what ingredients and dishes play better here compared with your former city?

Here, they’re a little more open and willing to try things when presented in the right context, without being put into a framework where both the style and ingredients are new. I think you have to temper that a bit, but that’s the same in St. Louis.

I said to a guest the other night: If there’s a Midwestern town in California, it would be Sacramento. Growing up in the Midwest, the people and the palate seem to be a little similar, but a little more open to the ingredients that are out here. The wine culture is much more advanced here because of the access to everything you have in Sacramento. I walk through the cellar and I get to see all the labels and think, “One day I’ll get to try all those wines.”

How would you describe your culinary style? Do you like to let the ingredients shine in a rustic way, or are you more of a technician?

I think I fall in the middle. I use technique when it’s applicable to improve that quality, or consistency or efficiency of cooking. We don’t get into a lot of foams or froths, but we do use some emulsifying products to get the right texture. But realistically, we take very few steps from receiving (the ingredients) to cooking. I think that’s a bit rustic, but there’s certainly some refinement that goes into that. We’re definitely trying to give people a level of sophistication on the plate that warrants what we do.

So, you’re not just trying to create quirky Willy Wonka-ish food.

It’s not nearly that. When you see the food you have a very direct reaction to what it is and where it’s from. The flavor and texture will tell you it’s super fresh and vibrant. The presentation is going to be one that won’t make you go, “What is that?” We’re not trying to confound people. We’re trying to engage them and show them how delicious the ingredients they have around them are.

What kinds of flavors and styles to you gravitate toward?

My style has gravitated a lot over the last few years to being influenced by southern Europe, and particularly the Italian peninsula. I don’t have any training in Italian cookery. I just gravitated to it over the last several years and studied it intensely. That’s a lot of where my style is now. We do a pasta course every month and it’s a great way to convey summertime flavors and a great vessel to bring fruits and vegetables into a dish.

I’ve been trained by French chefs but also worked for a Japanese-born chef who trained in a French manner: Takashi Yagihashi, a James Beard winner. I learned to cut fish from him, so I have some of that Japanese minimalism, but I don’t grab the (Japanese) flavors too often. In a place like (The Kitchen) where we do a lot of sashimi and Japanese presentations in our intermission, that will probably start to come back out of me a little more, and I’m excited to explore that.

You’ve stepped into one of the toughest chef positions in town. Not only do you have to cook, but you also have to be an entertainer. You’re also filling the shoes of some big personalities. How are you approaching this opportunity, and what kind of personal stamp do you want to leave?

My role and perspective is connecting people to the food. I am not a Randall Selland. I don’t have that huge, boisterous personality. He’s got a voice like nothing else. I don’t have those gifts, but I try and speak to people directly about the products and engage with them anecdotally. I’m certainly not as high strung as some really elite-level chefs, and I think that’s what attracts me to the job. I’m very focused on the food. At the end of the day, I want people to enjoy it and share the same passion for eating the food that I have in cooking it.

Call The Bee's Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.

Read more articles by Chris Macias

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