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Enotria’s guest chef program brings national culinary stars to Sacramento

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 18, 2013 - 5:53 pm

The dishes arising from Enotria’s cramped kitchen on a recent summer evening could double as art projects. Among these edible exhibits: a small, green leaf that mimics the flavor of oyster; curly and delicate ribbons of beef tongue with Thai-inspired peanut sauce; a guava-based liquid dessert that’s drunk from a glass resembling a test tube.

Looking at the plates, a diner might think they were sampling the chef’s tasting menu at Atelier Crenn, the two-star Michelin restaurant in San Francisco heralded for its avant-garde cuisine. That guess would be partially correct. These dishes sprung from the August installment of Enotria’s successful series of guest chef dinners, in which chef Dominique Crenn collaborated with Enotria executive chef Pajo Bruich for a $175 prix fixe menu.

Enotria launched its guest chef dinners in February. It has held four of them so far and each event sold out — in the case of Crenn, within three days of its announcement. They’ve attracted a who’s-who of Sacramento’s culinary scene as well as discerning gourmands looking for a taste from Michelin-starred chefs without leaving the 916 area code.

By hosting these dinners, Bruich, 33, hopes to build bridges with the upper echelons of the Bay Area’s food community, to show that Sacramento isn’t just a pit stop for grabbing a burger on the way to Lake Tahoe.

“Everyone’s stepping up to the plate and working hard to create an identity for the city,” Bruich said. “Forming relationships ... outside the area only benefits Sacramento as a whole. (The dinners are) about showing them who we are as a community, that this is a cool place and we’re excited to have you here.”

The series arrives as Sacramento’s dining scene is reaching new heights of recognition, including a package of stories in the San Francisco Chronicle (“Sacramento comes of age”), a recent feature in Sunset magazine and chef Adam Pechal’s stint on the ABC-TV cooking competition “The Taste.”

It’s also hoped the guest chef dinners will pique the attention of Michelin inspectors, who’ve thus far shunned Sacramento.

All the chefs who’ve made an Enotria cameo since the series’ start have boasted a Michelin-starred background: Former Folsom resident Mark Liberman of San Francisco’s AQ, a James Beard nominee for best new restaurant; Matthew Accarrino of SPQR, the lower Pacific Heights restaurant renowned for its modernist Italian cuisine; Joey Elenterio, formerly of Chez TJ, who helped bring a Michelin star to Mountain View; and Crenn, the first female chef in the United States to earn two Michelin stars and who once triumphed in a yogurt battle on “Iron Chef America.”

Another chef arrives Saturday for the series’ latest installment. Mark Pensa, the chef de cuisine for Acquerello who was named in March as a “rising star chef” by the San Francisco Chronicle, will collaborate with Bruich on a mix of Italian dishes featuring contemporary flourishes and techniques.

Bruich aims to serve Sacramento on a silver platter for these out-of-towners. Part of the process includes introducing the chefs to Sacramento purveyors and others in the culinary community, even taking field trips if time allows. Excursions have included a visit to Passmore Ranch — the freshwater fish farm in Sloughhouse that supplies many of Sacramento’s finest restaurants — with Accarrino, and post-dinner cocktails at Red Rabbit with Elenterio.

The Crenn dinner was attended by some of Sacramento’s key culinary talents and purveyors. John Griffiths, the new executive chef of The Kitchen, dined at one table with colleagues from his restaurant. Pechal was also in the house, as was Nguyen Pham of Sunh Fish, the popular local fish supplier, and Kru’s Billy Ngo. After the dinner, hearing that Crenn and her crew were hungry, Ngo rushed to J Street and re-opened his restaurant where he served nigiri, wine and sake into the wee hours.

Accarrino said he was sold on Sacramento by the end of his visit. He had poked around this city a couple times before, eating at The Kitchen and Press Bistro. Accarrino had also heard some of the recent buzz about Sacramento, especially since one of SPQR’s sommeliers is Jeremiah Morehouse, an alumnus of Enotria.

“Pajo was an amazing host,” Accarrino said. “I think we’re in a very exciting age of American dining. That concentration of amazing food isn’t just for big cities. We buy tons of product from that (Sacramento area) and there’s no reason why there shouldn’t be amazing restaurants. Pajo’s really doing something for Sacramento, not just himself.”

But a main motivation behind the guest chef dinners is to gain attention from the Michelin guide, which rates only the world’s finest restaurants. Just 10 restaurants in the entire country can claim a three-star Michelin rating, the guide’s highest honor.

A Sacramento restaurant has never earned a single star, much less a visit by a Michelin inspector. The guides are currently limited to just three American cities: San Francisco Bay Area & Wine Country, Chicago and New York City. If such metropolitan areas and food hot spots as Los Angeles and Las Vegas aren’t deemed worthy of a Michelin guide, then Sacramento will likely be a long time coming. But if Sacramento were to be included in, say, the Bay Area guide, it would signal a major arrival for the city.

Nevertheless, the dinners have still helped Enotria land on the Michelin guide’s radar — or on its Twitter feed at least.

Enotria has tweeted information and photographs about its guest chef dinners to @MichelinGuideSF. In turn, Michelin retweeted a photo from a late-August pop-up dinner held by Enotria in San Francisco. For that dinner, Bruich and crew set up shop for one night at the former location of Saison, which earned two stars in the 2013 Michelin guide.

“I’ve aligned myself with Michelin-starred chefs, and in the last six months, Michelin is paying attention and interacting,” Bruich said. “This is great for our city.”

Bruich goes to great lengths to prepare for these events. After a chef agrees to come to Enotria, he books a table at their restaurant for research pruposes. He also assigns homework to Enotria’s staff so they get a feel for their guest’s culinary style and approach to hospitality.

“We design the menu to mimic the style of their restaurant and adapt their service principles to show we’re really welcoming,” Bruich said. “We’re not paying for chefs to come. We’re literally asking, ‘Will you come cook with us?’”

Bruich, who is self taught, said it took some time to find the confidence to reach out to these culinary stars.

“I was nervous at first to send out the invitations and that they’d say, ‘No,’” he said. “Overcoming that and saying ‘We are good enough’ was a good challenge.”

High-end chefs can often be a stubborn and uncompromising bunch. However, the adage of “too many cooks in the kitchen” hasn’t proved to be much of a problem with the dinners.

Crenn is considered among the vanguard of modernist cooking in the United States, with poems that double as menu entries and courses that look more like precious landscapes. Liberman specializes in seasonal ingredients that are elevated by impeccable technique. Accarrino’s repertoire includes flax seed spaghetti, smoked fettuccine and other modern interpretations of Italian cooking. And then there’s Bruich, who made his name in Sacramento as its chief practitioner of molecular gastronomy.

Liberman, the first chef featured in the series, found the experience at Enotria helped solidify his view that Sacramento’s dining scene has evolved quickly. When he left the Sacramento area two years ago, he bemoaned the city’s small-town attitude toward food and fine dining. Now he’s a fan, to the point that Liberman said he wants to open a Sacramento restaurant soon.

“I think it’s grown by leaps and bounds,” Liberman said of Sacramento. “It reminds me of the Northwest, like what Portland’s doing. It’s not super avant-garde, but for the most part the food is really done well. I’d maybe like to get (Sacramento) chefs to come out here for a guest dinner.”

Bruich already has a wish list for future guest chefs: Timothy Hollingsworth, former chef de cuisine at The French Laundry and James Beard winner for “rising star chef;” Jessica Largey of Manresa, the two-star Michelin restaurant in Los Gatos; Joshua Skenes, the owner and executive chef of Saison, with its much heralded tasting menu that costs $298.

“Sometimes I’m so busy that I finally pick my head up and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” Bruich said. “It takes a lot of guts to invite people of this level and feel comfortable enough to bring them in. We walk through the dining room at the end of the night and the general consensus is, ‘Thank for coming to Sacramento. What an amazing thing.’”

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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