New executive chef taking the stage at The Kitchen

With little fanfare or public announcement, The Kitchen Restaurant has replaced its executive chef and, for the next month or so, brought back founder and frontman Randall Selland to cook and perform at his family’s landmark eatery.

David Chavez, who has held high-level kitchen positions at several properties in the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, has taken the helm at the restaurant after John Griffiths, who won the job more than a year ago in a national search, decided to leave the post. Selland will help Chavez acclimate to working the $135-per-person dinners, in which the chef not only cooks but acts as a sort of an emcee for the evening.

“It’s a very humbling opportunity to take (up) Randall’s legacy – what he has done for Sacramento and the community – and I just hope I can live up to it,” Chavez said.

Chavez, 31, had been hired several months ago as a sous chef by the Selland Family Restaurants, even though Selland said there was not a specific job opening at the time. The Selland Family also owns highly regarded Ella Dining Room and Bar, and two locations of Selland’s Market-Cafe. When Griffiths announced he was leaving, Chavez, who had shown both his culinary and people skills, was named to what many consider to be one of the most coveted kitchen jobs in the city.

Griffiths’ departure after a relatively short tenure came as a surprise to many.

“John decided to do something else, so he left last week,” Selland said. “David came to us about three months ago from Bouchon in Los Angeles. He understands hospitality and that’s what all of our restaurants are about. At The Kitchen, I want people to really feel at home and feel like they can do whatever they want and have whatever they want, and David really grasps that concept.”

Griffiths, who is still listed as executive chef on the restaurant’s website, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While Selland repeatedly stated that Griffiths’ decision to leave was his own, there were signs that Griffiths’ lower key persona wasn’t the best fit for entertaining the dinner crowds seated in a semi-circle that faces the large open kitchen. Griffiths broke tradition by using a portable microphone to speak to diners, a practice that some said led to a less intimate experience.

Asked if he was happy with Griffiths’ run at The Kitchen, Selland said: “That’s a really difficult question to answer.”

He added: “Sure, we could keep filling the seats, because there are still a gazillion people who want to come to The Kitchen, but if it wasn’t working the way the family wanted it to, we would rather shut it down that just keep flat-lining.”

Griffiths relocated to Sacramento from St. Louis in the summer of 2013 to take the lead role at The Kitchen. He replaced longtime chef Noah Zonca, who left to open Capital Dime. Zonca has since moved on to focus on catering.

Chavez becomes just the fourth chef to lead The Kitchen since Selland opened it in 1991. He said he will not be using a microphone and will seek to include other employees in supporting roles throughout the lively presentation, which often includes a detailed rundown on product sourcing, cooking techniques and a good bit of humor.

Chavez, who is married and has a young child, said he and his wife chose Sacramento in part because they were looking for an alternative to the fast-paced big-city life they had experienced in New York and Los Angeles.

In New York, Chavez opened Bouchon Bakery at Rockefeller Center, then went on to be chef de cuisine at two Bouchon Bakeries in Manhattan. He served as executive sous chef for Bouchon’s bistro, bakery and bar in L.A. He began his tenure with the Keller Group in Las Vegas.

Asked why he would give up a job at such a prestigious restaurant company whose properties include world-renowned The French Laundry and Per Se, Chavez said: “I had to ask myself, ‘What’s my end game?’ It’s personal ownership of a restaurant. That’s my ultimate goal, my ultimate dream.

“It was a personal choice,” he added. “I wasn’t going to take the easy road.”

Selland said the family asked Chavez for a two-year commitment at The Kitchen.

Chavez will have the title executive chef and will work with the Selland family in creating the menus, which are considered over-the-top extravaganzas that change monthly.

Chavez, who went to culinary school in Texas, said he likes to take classic dishes and give them a new twist that may simultaneously surprise and entertain diners.

Meanwhile, Chavez will be working alongside Selland for the coming weeks as he eases into his star turn at The Kitchen. Referring to the new-found attention he’s been getting, Chavez said with a laugh: “I didn’t know how big of a deal it was.”

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