Since it began rather modestly in 1991 as a once-a-week, performance-style, hang-out-with-the-chef, three-courses-for-$35 restaurant, The Kitchen has grown into a beloved, unique, essential and very expensive destination at the upper end of the local pecking order.
Now, with a new executive chef sporting impressive culinary credentials – but who is a far less flamboyant showman than his predecessor – The Kitchen has started another chapter. Is the famed institution that Randall Selland and family created still as good as it once was? Is it even better? Does it need some retooling? Is it still worth the money?
We recently visited this one-of-a-kind restaurant – where the chef not only cooks but acts as a sort of an emcee for the evening – for a close look at the new man at the helm, John Griffiths, who came on board a year ago. We wanted to get a sense of his food and, more than anything, the overall experience. In the past, that has always included plenty of laughs, more than a few groans, lots of great food and wine, wonderful service and a bill for two that averages about $500.
We found a culinary artist who was likable but who sometimes stumbled over his canned delivery. His few attempts at the brand of boisterous humor for which The Kitchen is known received the kind of nervous laughter that seemed to suggest: “We want to like you, we’re paying big bucks to like you, and we hope the jokes get better.”
The concept at The Kitchen has always been something special: Invite people into an intimate setting where the dining room is like a small theater and the kitchen a stage, then cook and serve and talk and laugh for three-plus hours.
Through the years, The Kitchen has had three main chefs: Selland, the gregarious, brilliant and at times bombastic founder; Noah Zonca, who started as a teenage dishwasher and absorbed much of the Selland schtick and enough of the cooking prowess to be able to succeed him rather seamlessly; and now Griffiths, 35, who had been working in St. Louis for the past decade and had emerged the winner in a nationwide search after Zonca left to start his own restaurant.
Griffiths was one of many candidates the Selland family interviewed via Skype and one of about two dozen who came to Sacramento for a cooking tryout. After sizing up the applicants and picking Griffiths, the family knew things were going to be different.
Unlike Selland and Zonca, Griffiths, charming as he may be, is not a natural performer. And he’s not a comedian. In fact, his most telling line came early in his monologue when he said with a shrug and smile, “These jokes don’t get any better.”
I can confirm the truthfulness of that statement.
Still, Griffiths – tall, slim, shaved head – has plenty of presence, especially when impeccably attired in his chef’s whites. He uses a microphone to address audiences, which is a departure from his two predecessors, who could easily be described as “loud and louder.” Some Kitchen-goers will prefer his more refined presentation; others may conclude he is about as wooden as a butcher block. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of leading this restaurant into a new era. It simply suggests that he still needs to figure out how to make the act his own.
The wireless and visually discreet microphone may be convenient, but it does not serve the chef well in a setting that’s supposed to be intimate and informal. It creates an artificial barrier between him and us and feels somewhat commercialized. At times, the miked-up presentation made me think I was at the State Fair watching a sales pitch for a product that slices, dices, cleans up like nobody’s business and, yes, cuts a tomato like a hot knife through butter.
After an initial spiel from Griffiths, the first course arrived. Cooking and serving 50 people at once can be a tall order when it comes to timing. In previous iterations of The Kitchen, much of the food was prepped and cooked in advance – much like a catered event – and the live act contained little in the way of actual cooking. Griffiths’ kitchen has introduced significantly more real-time cooking. That’s potentially a great thing, but it also seems to affect Griffiths’ ability to engage the crowd successfully.
Griffiths clearly knows his way around a burner. The first thing I noticed was that the chef and his staff were hard at work, and there were pots simmering with multiple stalks of asparagus standing up. Turns out, that’s a technique pioneered by the great French chef Alain Passard. His 2012 book, “The Art of Cooking with Vegetables,” features an image of this famed procedure.
The asparagus, cooked in clarified butter for 90 minutes, was exquisite to eat. As the chef explained, this technique, with the stalks only partially immersed in the hot butter, gives three distinct textural experiences – gelatinous and tender, al dente and nearly raw and crunchy. It was a fun course and very tasty, plated artfully in contrasting colors with house-cured lardo, pickled rhubarb, sweet onions and chervil. Griffiths had given us a rundown of the process and many in the audience seemed captivated.
Not long after, I had a clear view of Griffiths pan-frying halibut. I watched him gently pierce the fish with a metal cake tester, then place it against his upper lip. What in the world was he doing? Many foodies would have loved to know that he was getting a sense of the internal temperature, an old-school substitute for the instant-read thermometer. I subsequently watched him make risotto, a challenging dish for even professional kitchens, and noted his focus on when to add more broth to the rice. But what exactly were we witnessing? Griffiths never filled us in on the details.
Much later, he mentioned an accidental discovery that led to the dessert, a ciabatta French toast with a caramelized mousse that came about from having been left in the sous vide contraption for too long. What exactly is sous vide? What are its advantages? Why does the food have be placed in Cryovac bags? Is this something we should consider for cooking at home? Again, no word.
Here’s where Griffiths can be a star in his own way. If he can’t deliver zingers and play it big, he can give us plenty of take-aways we can use at our next dinner party or around the office water cooler. He can educate. He can give us inside information. He can walk us through what he’s thinking and feeling and give us insights into the mind of a chef. He can even tell us how a guy who works around food all day manages to stay so skinny. No, we don’t want a cooking class. But we want to understand something special about what we’re eating and how it was prepared and maybe pick up some new nuggets we can use for our own cooking.
Beyond the performance, the meal was overall very good but not without concerns. It was served with a combination of artistry, inventiveness and range of techniques. But the time between courses was sometimes too long, compared to what you might find at, say, a Michelin-rated restaurant in the Bay Area with a chef’s tasting menu. Timing, or pacing, is a crucial component of high-level dining and the gaps between plates at The Kitchen were noticeable.
The halibut with shelling beans, fava beans and preserved lemon sabayon (or custardlike sauce) was beautifully balanced with flavors and complementary textures, even if the portion of fish might be seen as tiny. A couple of mouthfuls and you’re done. The risotto with English peas, prosciutto and mint was an elegant marriage of flavor and creamy, toothsome texture, but again, the serving size was tiny. Three or four forkfuls and it’s over.
The main meat course, a “bavette” cut of heavily marbled Wagyu beef, was beautifully cooked medium rare (using the sous vide technique) but it, too, was a tiny serving and was distractingly chewy for such a high-caliber meal.
High-caliber food has long been the hallmark of The Kitchen and even tiny missteps here seem magnified. Throughout the evening, I saw the service staff working harder than ever to create a meaningful customer experience, possibly because the heart and soul of the restaurant are not what they used to be.
I came away appreciating Randall Selland more than ever, even if, as he put it to me recently, he used to be “in your face the entire night.” In fact, this restaurant really could have been called “Randall Selland’s Kitchen.” He will go down in the annals of the Sacramento food scene as an innovator, a talent, a major personality and minor eccentric, a proselytizer for farm-to-fork and, given his family’s business inventory to date (including nearly perfect Ella Dining Room & Bar and two casual but quality Selland’s Market-Cafes) one of our greatest restaurateurs.
Is it fair to judge Griffiths against a local legend? Not if he’s being asked to give the same kind of performance, one that doesn’t play to the strengths of his personality. I would argue that the unyielding success and constant bookings these days are based largely on the long-term reputation of The Kitchen rather than the reality of what’s happening now.
Unless something changes, word will eventually sink in that: A) Griffiths is a likable guy but not necessarily as entertaining as he could be; B) the gaps between courses are significant and potentially off-putting; C) the portions are tiny and, most of all; D) when the evening involves watching a rather staid and sometimes awkward presentation, and when the cooking is painfully slow and there is far too much dead air while the chef works, the $135-plus asking price is too high.
For that price, you could eat very well at the Waterboy, Mulvaney’s and Biba and have enough money left over for a great lunch at Mother. What’s that you say? The Kitchen allows you to ask for seconds and thirds of certain courses? Sure, but it can often be cumbersome to do so and it can involve yet another long wait.
When Selland was doing the show, going all the way back to the days when he was working with a green enamel oven with an electric cooktop, he was funny and unpredictable, with just enough of that Joe Biden gift for saying charmingly inappropriate things that caused his more buttoned-up family members to cringe and possibly apologize at a moment’s notice.
With Griffiths, quirky and eccentric moments are a rarity instead of the rule. There is more real-time cooking, and the food is as good or better. But one has to wonder why a miked-up chef is spending so much time cooking in silence while we’re sitting there watching. And watching. We’re not just paying for a meal – we’re paying a premium for an entertaining experience that includes a meal.
It’s an opportunity missed. And as good as the food is and as fun as Griffiths potentially may be, when you compare it to Selland and Zonca and the legacy they built and maintained, it adds up to a diminished experience that may not do enough to warrant the hefty price tag.
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.