Michelin-starred chef returns home to open restaurant with star potential

Clay Nutting, formerly of LowBrau, partnering with chef Brad Cecchi will open a tavern-style restaurant named Canon in East Sacramento.
Clay Nutting, formerly of LowBrau, partnering with chef Brad Cecchi will open a tavern-style restaurant named Canon in East Sacramento.

Can you create high-caliber but affordable food in a casual setting with a neighborhood vibe? Brad Cecchi, armed with a coveted Michelin star from his stint in Napa Valley, is returning to his hometown with intentions of doing precisely that.

Cecchi, the executive chef at Solbar, the Calistoga restaurant that has earned one Michelin star for the past several years, is a Sacramento native who worked as a line cook at Mulvaney’s and made his way up to second in command at Grange. He went on to run a 250-seat farm-to-table steakhouse at the Westin Hotel in downtown Cleveland before he was recruited to work at Solbar as chef de cuisine and then was named executive chef.

The new tavern-style restaurant and bar in Sacramento will be in a warehouse space on 34th Street between Stockton and Folsom boulevards. Called Canon, it’s expected to open this spring.

Cecchi is partnering with Clay Nutting, formerly of LowBrau, the popular midtown craft beer and sausage spot. He left in March to focus on plans for a new restaurant and immediately thought of Cecchi to helm the kitchen, Nutting said.

“When I was presented with an opportunity to open up a new spot, Brad was the first call that I made,” he said. “It was really a hail Mary, a shot in the dark. I had always been a fan, as a lot of people were in Sacramento. I thought we would be a good fit together. His food is approachable, but also incredible.”

Unbeknownst to Nutting, Cecchi had been charting a course that would lead him back to his hometown. During his six years at Grange, Cecchi, 34, built a reputation as a top-flight chef, perhaps best known for his skills with charcuterie.

“I had a timetable for myself about how I wanted to return to Sacramento. That was always my intention,” said Cecchi.

Asked for examples of the kind of food he’ll be creating, Cecchi said he wants to have dishes at a variety of price points that engage diners and encourage what he and Nutting call a “social dining experience” — sharing, talking about and, yes, photographing wow-factor plates and posting the results on social media sites.

Asked if he will be serving up the same caliber of food that won him a Michelin star, Cecchi said Michelin inspectors have begun to look well beyond pricy fine dining restaurants for high-cailber fare.

“That Michelin style of food has totally evolved, in the Bay Area and the rest of the United States, into something that really can be anything.” the chef said. “Even the London Michelin Guide this year has five pubs in it.”

Examples of the kind of food he will put on the tavern-style menu include a wide range of culinary inspirations and edgy, creative interpretations — bulgogi beef Philly, a riff on the famed cheesesteak but with kimchi, scallions and cheddar sauce; seared broccoli diciccio that involves caramelizing “bolted” leafy broccoli and adding a kimchi made with Granny Smith apples, ginger, garlic and gochujang (Korean chili paste) that is then pureed, poured over the broccoli and garnished with toasted cashews; and a curried and smoked lamb’s neck with harissa hot chili pepper paste, pickled raisins, coffee-pickled carrots and garlic flatbread.

“This concept is essentially a tavern in a neighborhood setting,” said Nutting. “Then to have someone of Brad’s caliber doing the food program, it’s elevated. It’s chef-driven. You want to be casual and approachable, but you also want to be creative and interesting and let the talents of the chef really shine through.”

For Nutting, a co-founder of TBD Fest, the new restaurant marks something of a comeback. He remains embroiled in legal issues over the music and arts festival formerly held in West Sacramento. TBD Fest LLC was suspended by the State Franchise Tax Board on Dec. 1 for an unpaid balance of back taxes for $4,281.94. TBD Fest LLC was named as a defendant in four cases during 2016, including a $100,000 lawsuit over non-payment of a loan. TBD Fest LLC was most recently named in a Dec. 1 lawsuit for non-payment of more than $8,000 to an equipment rental company.

Nutting said Monday “those issues are still being resolved” but declined to elaborate.

The new restaurant concept, he insists, will be a boon for East Sacramento and, if all goes well, far beyond.

“The name ‘Canon’ speaks to the desire to be among the canon of great Sacramento restaurants,” he said. “We want to aspire to do great things. Brad didn’t leave a Michelin-starred restaurant to do something ordinary.”

Noting that several high-caliber chefs have returned to Sacramento in recent years — including Michael Thiemann of Empress Tavern and Mother restaurant; Matt Masera, who is now executive chef at Hook & Ladder; and Kelly McCown, executive chef at The Kitchen — Nutting said the dining scene has reached new heights.

“If we all continue to hold each other to a higher standard, Sacramento can be mentioned among the great restaurant communities,” Nutting said.

Cecchi was chef de cuisine, or second in charge of the kitchen, when Solbar was awarded a Michelin star. This year, as executive chef, he received the call himself from Michelin informing him the restaurant would be getting another one-star rating. Michelin does not rank restaurants in the Sacramento area, focusing instead of the Bay Area/Wine Country.

His two former bosses at Grange think highly of his work to this day.

“I’m excited for him. He’s Sacramento born and bred and he has always had a passion for this area,” said Grange executive chef Oliver Ridgeway. “He’s got a lot of energy and creativity and he’s proud of where he’s from.”

“Brad is a talented guy and he excelled at a lot of things. I think it’ll be great,” said Michael Tuohy, the executive chef who opened Grange in 2008 and who now presides over the food program at the new Golden 1 Arena.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob

The Bee’s Chris Macias contributed to this story.