On a recent evening, customers clustered around the doorway of Capital Dime, waiting for an early taste at one of Sacramento's most anticipated restaurant openings in the past year.
Inside, Noah Zonca, sporting a black chef's coat and damp brow, popped around the place like hot olive oil jumping from a pan, chatting up guests on the patio, instructing servers, then scurrying off to fetch another order of pastrami sliders.
The eyes of Sacramento's food community are fixed on Zonca, 37, who left perhaps the city's most prominent chef position to stake his claim as a restaurateur. He's had only three months to design the menu and assemble the kitchen staff to execute his vision for Capital Dime, located in the gulch of popular eateries near 18th and L streets in midtown.
"This is my wife, the restaurant," Zonca said days after a string of preview dinners. With the Dime officially open, he was catching a breather on the expansive back patio after the lunch rush.
"I came out here yesterday and cleaned all these tables. There's nothing you can be above or below. It's a team effort – a family effort."
Sixteen-hour days are the norm for Zonca, but he seems hard-wired for the work. Zonca spent a decade handling the high-pressure demands of the Kitchen, one of Sacramento's most-lauded restaurants, where he rose from dishwashing to leading its $135-per-head demonstration dinners as chef de cuisine.
But this is different. Capital Dime, which occupies the former space of L Wine Lounge & Urban Kitchen, marks Zonca's first foray as owner. While his Kitchen work included such high-ticket dishes as goat cheese agnolotti topped with tempura egg yolk, he describes his Dime food concept as "farm-to-face."
He's developed a menu of hearty, accessible fare that includes the Damn Good Cheeseburger, chicken Caesar salad and house-cured pastrami sliders. The salad section of the menu is dubbed Rabbit Food.
Capital Dime aims to bring farm-to-fork dining down to earth with accessible prices, hence its emphasis on $10 menu items. They're made primarily with local ingredients and feature elevated touches, such as bonito shavings over a watermelon-and-shrimp salad.
Will Zonca's take on high-end foods at hoi polloi prices succeed?
He's aiming for a "perfect 10" dining experience (hence the "Dime" moniker), despite the pressures of opening a new restaurant.
"I tell the guys in the kitchen that you have to take a bullet for each other," said Zonca. "That's the kind of family I need in this kitchen. You have to have each other or else you'll sink in this tiny kitchen."
Zonca kicked off his career at the Kitchen as a scrappy 17-year-old dishwasher. He'd worked in the food business while attending Mira Loma High School, including a stint cooking at a local retirement home. Culinary school was never a consideration. Cooking was just something he always did.
"My friends would come over after school and I'd cook for them," Zonca said. "They liked that because their family had Kraft Singles in the fridge. We never had a microwave. Everyone in my family cooks and my mom is one of the best chefs ever."
Zonca's father, Albert, loved classical music and the culinary arts, and spent his workdays as a prominent advocate for the disabled. During his downtime he liked to introduce his only son to fine dining and sushi. The two were especially tight.
But he was gone far too soon. Albert Zonca died of a long illness when his son was just 16, devastated and somewhat angry at the world.
"After my dad died, I went through a little loose part of my life, getting into a bit of trouble," said Zonca.
Zonca landed his job at the Kitchen around the time of his father's death. Founded by Randall Selland and wife Nancy Zimmer, the Kitchen was quickly becoming the hot table in town with its demonstration dinners led by the affable and gregarious Selland.
More than merely serving food, Selland designed his dinners to include performances that would accompany the playbill-styled menu. Recipes and techniques would be demonstrated, with courses divided into "acts." Ingredients, such as lobster and giant halibut, would be paraded around the restaurant.
The Zonca and Selland families were already friendly. Zonca's sister, Sarah, and Josh Nelson, who serves as chief financial officer for the Selland Group, attended Mira Loma High School and served as home- coming queen and king. Sarah washed dishes at the Kitchen. When Albert Zonca died, the Selland family catered the memorial's reception.
Zonca took over his sister's dishwasher duties and within a year rose through the kitchen ranks.
"It was great to have him come in," Selland said. "It's hard to find the right person for what we do. Everyone from the dishwasher on up is part of the show. When you come in that back door you'd better be on, 100 percent. Whatever Noah was asked to do, he was into it and always there every day we needed him."
Working for Selland, Zonca proved he had the culinary chops and managerial skills to thrive in the fast-paced restaurant business. He'd previously been tapped as an off-site catering chef and named head chef for Selland's Market Cafe upon its opening in 2002, overseeing its menu of gourmet comfort foods in east Sacramento.
A taste of the spotlight arrived in 2005. Selland had dislocated his shoulder in a skiing accident and couldn't cook for two weeks. A replacement to lead the demonstration dinners was needed, and fast.
Zonca had already prepared for the opportunity.
"I followed Randall around and watched everything he did," Zonca said. "He has the greatest palate of any chef I've experienced. Sometimes he'd teach me things, sometimes he wouldn't. Sometimes we'd communicate, and sometimes we wouldn't – but I never stopped watching."
The family members were impressed enough with Zonca's performance that they asked him to substitute for Selland for a month at a time, about two to three times a year. Their personalities were a near match: Two high-energy types who don't know the concept of "inside voices" and thrive at the center of attention and over the heat of a scorching stove.
Hip problems ultimately forced Selland to step away from the demonstration dinners for good. Selland didn't have to look far for his heir apparent. He turned to Zonca, giving him the title of chef de cuisine and the show's spotlight.
"One of the hardest things I've ever done is coming up after a legend like that," Zonca said. "I'm just some young kid, and they're, like, 'Who the hell is this guy? Where's Randall?' But once I kind of hit my groove, I just started going.
"Then there was no looking back."
The Kitchen's reputation continued to rise with Zonca starring in the show. It was nominated for "outstanding restaurant" in the prestigious 2012 James Beard Foundation Awards. Other accolades included five diamonds by AAA and inclusion in Zagat's "America's Top Restaurants 2012."
But the exhaustion could be overwhelming. After all, the Kitchen's show runs five to six nights a week, with 12-hour days the norm.
Didn't get enough sleep the night before? Too bad. It's go time.
Zonca also knew the Kitchen had a ceiling for career prospects. Selland would always have the executive chef title, whether he led the show or not.
Zonca resigned from the Kitchen at the beginning of this year. He thanked the Sellands for the opportunities. They hugged, a few tears were shed. It was time for Zonca to strike out on his own.
"He could have stayed with us forever, but he gave his all for as long as he was with us," Selland said. "We couldn't complain. He's put his time in."
Zonca didn't have any firm plans when he left the Kitchen. He considered moving to Italy, but ultimately didn't want to be away from his 16-year-old son, Evani. Zonca shares custody of his boy, whose name is tattooed near his shoulder.
More than anything, Zonca knew he wanted to be a boss this time.
"I've worked really hard for other people my whole life," said Zonca. "I should be doing it for myself."
Zonca ultimately partnered with Rick Lobley, a friend of 15 years and co-founder of the former Empire and Aqua nightclubs.
"Noah's a rock star," said Lobley. "He's a master when it comes to food. His work ethic is second to none. He's the first one in in the morning and the last to leave at night."
Lobley acquired the former L Wine Lounge space in February and showed it to Zonca, who initially had reservations about it. The kitchen was notoriously small, and he wasn't yet sold on midtown's Panhandle District. The former L Wine Lounge had also lay dormant for nearly two years and was saddled with heating and air conditioning problems.
Zonca was finally encouraged by the perpetual foot traffic and solid business at nearby restaurants, including Zocalo and the Rind.
"There's 15 restaurants in one block here and they're busy all the time," Zonca said.
Zonca signed on as a partner in Capital Dime with Lobley and Melissa Sanchez, an attorney, in March. Lobley declined to say how much money was invested in opening Capital Dime, though a minimum of $250,000 is generally required to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Along with becoming a co-owner of Capital Dime, Zonca would design the food program and become the de facto face of the restaurant. While Zonca eyes more projects with his partnership group, the first order of business is managing the learning curve of running a new restaurant. He admits some stumbles with service, and the kitchen's still settling into its groove.
"We want the 'perfect 10' experience, but do I think everybody's getting the 'perfect 10' experience right this moment?" said Zonca. "It takes a minute to get there. I think we've missed a few – a lot of hits, a few misses. We're getting there and tightening up the crew."
That crew now includes Evani Zonca, who's busing tables at Capital Dime. The workload continues to roll along, with 300 food orders taken at Capital Dime's grand opening July 20.
Selland's rooting for his protege.
"Like me, he's wound pretty tightly, but he understands the hospitality thing," Selland said. "He's become a very good chef. When he wanted to leave and do his own thing, we were like, 'Why wouldn't you?' "
Call The Bee's Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.