Like many ink-happy chefs, Allyson Harvie wears her past and passions on her tattoo sleeve.
Her right arm depicts a rabbit, to symbolize the first animal she raised and harvested herself; a beet, one of her signature ingredients; and a chef’s knife, because it’s almost a prerequisite for a tatted-up kitchen boss.
All that’s missing is a golf club, symbol of a pursuit in which Harvie – now culinary director of Sacramento’s LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar sister restaurants – found enormous success.
Before she attended culinary school and starred at Bay Area restaurants including Hayes Valley stalwart Absinthe, Harvie starred on golf courses.
A four-time MVP for Bear River High in Grass Valley, Harvie, 31, was chosen as The Bee’s Sacramento region female golfer of the year in 2002, her senior year. At one point the nation’s No. 3-ranked junior, Harvie later played for Ohio State – Jack Nicklaus’ alma mater.
Harvie lived on the Alta Sierra Country Club course growing up and began playing at 7, alternating with basketball and volleyball.
As a sophomore, “I decided to quit all other sports and focus on golf,” she said. “I started traveling all over the United States for it.”
She appreciated golf as an “an individual sport,” she said. “I didn’t have to rely on anybody else.”
It was not that she minded relying on other people, she said, but then did not elaborate.
During an hourlong interview, Harvie is gracious and exceptionally forthcoming about struggles that have accompanied her golf and restaurant careers. But she also can exhibit a reserve bordering on steely, and demurs from discussing her successes. She finds such talk immodest, she said.
In interviews with those who know Harvie well, the descriptor “humble” arises often. What comes forth even more is talk of that steel.
“She basically hated losing, and that is what drove her the most,” said Gayne Nakano, Harvie’s Bear River golf coach. Nakano, who still coaches golf at the school, said Harvie is the best girl golfer, and “most decorated” male or female, to play at Bear River.
Nakano caddied for Harvie at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship in 2000, “but she did better the next year,” he said, when she made the quarterfinals and finished eighth out of 152 qualifiers.
“She was disappointed she got beat by a 13-year-old,” Nakano recalled. The younger girl was Morgan Pressel, now a touring LPGA pro.
Nakano said Harvie showed intense “concentration” on the course. Such focus is easy to envision just from watching Harvie finish her sticky toffee pudding desserts at Block. Harvie’s steadiness is a thing to behold as she works a squeeze bottle, filled with spiced crème fraîche, over individual dessert plates.
“When she sets her mind to do something, she is going to do it,” said Deborah Harvie, Allyson’s mother.
Her parents were not those intense golf parents who stage-manage their children, Harvie said. They treated the junior golf trips on which they accompanied their only child as family vacations. They helped Allyson hide out when college recruiters would not stop calling.
Deborah, who works for a physical therapist, and Mark, a contractor, are from Michigan, and Mark went to Michigan State, part of the Big Ten with Ohio State. Attending a Midwestern college was not the departure for Harvie that it might have been for another California girl. Plus, Nicklaus helped renovate her college’s course.
“There was just a feeling that I got from Jack Nicklaus’ golf course,” said Harvie, who met the golf legend when she played for the Buckeyes. As a freshman, Harvie played on the Buckeyes team that won the Big Ten and finished fourth at the NCAA championship.
“To be a freshman and have an experience like that – I have those memories,” Harvie said.
She left college before graduating, after the death of her beloved uncle, who had lived in Tennessee and attended all her college tournaments.
“I stopped going to classes,” Harvie said. “Being 19, 20, you are on your own, and 3,500miles away from home. When someone close to you passes away, you feel alone.”
She could not play golf, a highly mental game, with her mind elsewhere.
She returned to her home state and and enrolled at San Francisco’s California Culinary Academy. Though she’d always envisioned a career in golf, this new career path made a certain sense. She had grown up cooking with her mother and had been a nutrition major in college.
“I think I was trying to find something to replace the only thing that I knew since I was 7,” Harvie said.
She cooked at Google, then Michael Mina’s Aqua and “continued to bounce around,” Harvie said. “A young line cook straight out of culinary school – that’s what you did.”
She helped break down whole animals as a line cook at Bar Agricole – an experience that would stoke a lasting affinity for butchering. She moved up the kitchen ladder, serving as sous chef and then interim executive chef at Absinthe, and executive chef at Elizabeth Falkner’s long-running (but now closed) Citizen Cake.
She reveled in the farm-to-table aspects of cooking in San Francisco kitchens, which involved shopping at farmers markets and creating menus based on seasonal foods. But she also battled that scourge of restaurant industry – substance abuse – while working in the Bay Area, descending to a point in which she “lost everything,” she said, again without elaborating.
In 2014, she returned to Grass Valley, where, with her parents, she attended recovery-group meetings. She counts 16 months sober.
“It was time to stop struggling and really re-evaluate my life,” she said, adding that she found unflinching support in her parents, who received their own year-sober chips alongside her.
Harvie eventually started butchering at Sacramento’s Corti Bros. market, a ground-level position she took, she said, to “remind me of why I do what I do.”
She re-entered the restaurant world soon after, taking a second job helping Block head butcher Brock MacDonald.
“I went in (to Block) with the intention of nobody knowing my background,” she said. “I didn’t drop a résumé. … They (just) knew I had experience.”
“Allyson came in super humble,” LowBrau/Block co-owner Michael Hargis said. “I saw this woman in our butcher room going about her business, head down, methodical.”
She left Corti Bros. after a few months to focus on Block. During a conversation with Hargis in early 2015, she revealed her Bay Area restaurant history. As the restaurants’ owners discovered more details about that history, “we began to give her more authority in our business,” Hargis said.
A year ago, Harvie became culinary director, a role similar to one once held by Michael Tuohy, who left LowBrau in 2014 to become executive chef for the Kings’ new arena. Hargis said she shows great creativity while “working within parameters” of menus focused on sausages and charcuterie, “but when she gets a chance to go outside and break out, she is even better.”
He cites the special bimonthly “Monday Supper,” ticketed dinners pairing several courses with craft cocktails featuring spirits from a single distiller. Harvie and bartender Karina Martinez plan menus together.
The most recent one, in October (Harvie and Martinez took a holiday break) focused on Old Forester and a fall menu that included expertly roasted Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and tender slices of suckling pig, its saltiness offset by blistered grapes.
“She has a rustic nature in her cooking, but her flavors are sophisticated,” Hargis said.
As her career progressed, she became more attuned to “community, family-style ideas” of dining, Harvie said. That family theme translates to a current kitchen environment where “camaraderie” rules, she said, and where the woman who preferred individual sports is a dedicated team player.
Harvie and Martinez conceived Monday Suppers because “nowhere in Sacramento is doing dinners based off and paired with craft cocktails working solely with one distiller,” Harvie said.
Such evenings are equally booze and food-centric, just as the alcohol-forward LowBrau and Block are on any given night.
“I am surrounded by bottles,” Harvie said. “How do I deal with some (bad) night of service, or things that are just always going to happen in the industry, without drinking and using? What you develop, I am learning, are sober habits, and finding new outlets.”
Those include rock climbing, as well as a more familiar activity she recently resumed: golf.
“It is part of my life I have blocked out for quite some time,” Harvie said. “What probably opened that door back up for me was moving back here, my lifestyle changes. Digging into parts of my life that I shut off.”
Harvie, as always, is loath to brag. But she acknowledges that, while no longer the nation’s No. 3 ranked junior, she’s still got it.
These days, she mostly golfs to get a break from the kitchen and to just have fun, she said. Yet the competitive nature that fueled all those years of championship golf can never be fully suppressed.
“There is the U.S. Women’s Open in California” this July near Gilroy, Harvie pointed out. “I will probably try to qualify.”