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A chronology of Sacramento’s farm to fork identity

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 24, 2013 - 12:40 pm

Farm to fork has come to define the Sacramento region. What began as an idea for how to market Sacramento has quickly become a part of its identity. In order for the campaign to work, it had to make sense.

Indeed, many of the building blocks were already in place. Restaurants had emphasized their increasingly deep connections with area farmers, so much so that some farmers were becoming well known to the public. The Slow Food movement already had an active Sacramento chapter. More and more people embraced the idea of knowing where their food came from.

By the time the farm-to-fork idea went public, it was easy to understand the slogan and easy to see the potential. With the Farm-to-Fork Festival set to launch Sept. 28 on the Capitol Mall, many may wonder how we got to this point. Based on interviews with key participants, what follows is a chronology of how farm to fork grew out of a simple idea to tell the story of what this region was already doing so well.

January 2011: Chef Patrick Mulvaney suggests to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson that the city’s next initiative could be, “The year of food,” and the tagline “The Emerald Valley feeds the world.”

May 2011: In commemoration of The Kitchen’s 20th anniversary as a restaurant, T-shirts are printed with a fork sticking out of the soil and the declaration of Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” The moniker is the idea of Josh Nelson, co-founder of The Selland Group, which operates The Kitchen and other gourmet restaurants in Sacramento. He’s meanwhile worked on drafting a city resolution to declare the city as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” with help from an intern at The Kitchen, Noah Painter, district director for Councilman Darrell Fong, and others.

November 2011: A group of local chefs including Mulvaney, Brad Cecchi and Adam Pechal meet with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership to talk about moving the date of Dine Downtown Restaurant Week, which features downtown restaurant specials each January. Riding the elevator down from the meeting and thinking about the success of Sacramento Beer Week, Nelson shares his idea for a local food festival that celebrates the city’s farm-to-fork heritage.

April 3, 2012: Nelson attends a dinner in Clarksburg benefiting the Center for Land-Based Learning, an organization in Winters dedicated to developing the next generation of farmers. The event is attended by Alice Waters, the figurehead of the Slow Food movement. After a few months of slow-going to officially declare Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” hearing Waters champion the Sacramento area’s farmers and culinary leaders reassures Nelson that he’s on the right track.

July 2012: At a meeting with officials at the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau, Nelson shares an idea to brand Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” The initial response from the visitors bureau is positive, but concerns are expressed about logistics and cost.

September 2012: Staffers in the mayor’s office meet at Ella Dining Room & Bar with Nelson, Painter, Mulvaney and visitors bureau officials to solidify plans for the “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign. Fong, who has helped coordinate the meeting, has sponsored the proclamation. Mulvaney stresses that the effort should be regional in scope, since most of the farms are in a six-county area surrounding the city.

Visitors bureau officials (Mike Testa, senior vice president; Steve Hammond, president and chief executive officer; and Sonya Bradley, chief marketing officer) begin research quickly and confirm, as Testa said, “Yes, we can do this.”

Oct. 31, 2012: The mayor proclaims Sacramento as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” in a press conference, flanked by more than 30 local chefs, and announces a food festival and other related events will be held in fall 2013.

“This is one of the cool things in Sacramento,” said Johnson in his remarks. “Everyone is always talking about what’s wrong with Sacramento, but this is the best of Sacramento. We are learning to play to our strengths.”

Testa was thinking, “How will we do the proteins?” and then asked, “What if we do a cattle drive through downtown Sacramento?” The idea quickly becomes one of the main events for the festival.

Early November 2012: Amber Stott, executive director and founder of the California Food Literacy Center, meets with Testa. She begins working to recruit nonprofits to be involved with the Farm-to-Fork Festival and include an educational component explaining the role of nonprofits in the food system.

Meanwhile, the visitors bureau calls a meeting of all the chefs. About 60 invitations go out, and 15 chefs show up. Testa tells them, “We are not food experts. We are marketing experts and special-events experts. You need to set up special events at your restaurants, and we will market for you.” The officials throw out ideas, such as shutting down a parking garage and doing a dinner there, or on Tower Bridge.

Mulvaney and Nelson get back to Testa and tell him, “We love the Tower Bridge idea.” Mulvaney offers to help create a menu that tells the story of the region and seasonality of the farms, seeing the bridge as link between city and the rural landscape of Yolo County.

Early Dec. 2012: The visitors bureau meetings are now monthly and attended by 40 chefs.

March 28, 2013: Johnson proclaims 2013 as Sacramento’s “Year of Food” in his “State of the City” speech at Memorial Auditorium. The mayor also announces monthly farm-to-fork events leading up to the fall festival and increased food education in local schools.

Mulvaney tells The Bee about plans for a gala dinner on the Tower Bridge that will include an all-star cast of local chefs feeding hundreds of guests who will sit at a long community table spanning the bridge’s length.

April 2013: Mulvaney begins brainstorming with others about ideas for the menu. He uses the popular monthly Monday family-style dinners at his restaurant as a template. His enthusiasm eventually leads him to exclaim, “Wow, this would be cool to do twice a year because we have a fall harvest and a spring harvest.”

July 2, 2013: At $175 each – and with sponsored tables of eight selling for $3,000 and $5,000 — all 600 tickets for the “Farm-to-Fork Tower Bridge Dinner” sell out within six hours. Proceeds for the dinner are geared to benefit public events during September’s “Farm-to-Fork Week.” A waiting list for tickets is created at

July 28, 2013: Mulvaney and Shawn Harrison, founder of Soil Born Farms Urban Agriculture and Education Project, co-author an editorial in The Bee. They address what some see as prohibitive pricing for the Tower Bridge dinner and ask for widespread support for the farm-to-fork movement. “Clearly, many residents recognize that this dinner isn’t an end in itself,” said the editorial. “Instead, it is acknowledged as one way of recognizing a vast array of efforts focused on elevating our status as a food capital.”

Sept. 11: With the festival just days away, chefs, visitors bureau officials and others gather at Hook and Ladder for a final monthly meeting. About 110 people show up. Testa says the idea is to position Sacramento as the Silicon Valley of food. “It’s not worth doing if it’s not all the way,” Testa said.

Sept. 16: Mulvaney hosts members of the media at a dry run for the dinner, including a presentation of prototypes of the four main dishes that will be served.

Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob

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