There are plenty of ways to gauge how the Sacramento restaurant scene is doing. But one of the best might be Sacramento’s conspicuous presence on the roster of this week’s Pebble Beach Food & Wine, one of the most prestigious events for chefs in the United States.
The four-day gala with tastings, receptions, seminars and dinners routinely invites some of the most acclaimed culinary stars in the nation, and the competition to be there – and cook there – is fierce. This year, Sacramento is well represented with six chefs invited to cook at one or more of the 22 events.
Dorothy Maras, the woman charged with recruiting chefs to the event, is a Sacramento native, but that doesn’t mean she plays favorites. She spends her days monitoring Instagram pages, reading reviews and news stories and visiting as many restaurants as possible. Among the 120 invited chefs are major kitchen stars, including Daniel Boulud, Dominique Crenn and Masaharu Morimoto.
“I get to be the one who says, ‘Hey guys, we have to take a look at Sacramento,’” said Maras, the culinary event manager for Monterey-based Coastal Luxury Management, the company that runs Pebble Beach Food & Wine. “There are chefs who have worked in the big cities and can’t afford to live there and open restaurants there, so they are migrating back to Sacramento. They like the scene and they like the cost of living. The people who might have been in Napa or San Francisco are now going to Sacramento – and it’s creating a hotbed.”
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The Sacramento chefs invited to Pebble Beach are Oliver Ridgeway, executive chef of Grange; Billy Ngo, owner/chef of Kru; Ramon Perez, owner/chef of Puur Chocolat; Kelly McCown, former executive chef of Ella Dining Room & Bar and soon to be chef of the upcoming OBO Italian; and Michael Thiemann, owner/chef of Mother Restaurant, along with Matt Masera, the executive chef. Among the invited sommeliers is Joseph Vaccaro, formerly the general manager of Ella and now chief operating officer and wine director for Selland Family Restaurants.
Thiemann has participated in several Pebble Beach events with celebrity chef Tyler Florence, but said “it has always been a professional watermark for me to be invited on my own. It’s a big deal. It’s my favorite festival. Beyond myself, I think it’s incredible that there are five restaurants or businesses represented. It’s a sign that people are looking past the big cities.”
Thiemann added, “Looking back, this might be one of the most important gestures that says Sacramento is worth looking at from outside its borders. It just takes one or two articles and events like this to get the ball rolling.”
Maras, whose business card refers to herself as the “chef whisperer,” says she visited Sacramento on several occasions to check on its restaurants. Already familiar with Perez from his days in Los Angeles, Maras says she was blown away by his Instagram feed, which includes color photos of his innovative chocolate creations.
“I read constantly, and I watch the industry constantly because I help source the chefs for this event,” she said. “I honestly think Sacramento is sitting right on the brink. I have watched it over the years. There are places being helmed by people in their prime, and there are young and edgy chefs like Michael Thiemann opening Mother. When he did that, I went, ‘What’s he thinking? He’s going to open this strictly vegetarian restaurant?’ Then I see his food pop up and I think, ‘This is genius.’ He and Matt Masera are doing some fun stuff.”
Maras continued: “Here’s Billy Ngo doing Morimoto-class sushi and having a blast doing it. I sat though an omakase with him and never saw anyone have more fun than him. I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get this guy.’ He’s talented and skilled and it reflects on that entire business. When I was at Kru, I saw chefs from San Francisco eating there.”
On Ridgeway, Maras said, “I was totally blown away. I have a very privileged position where I get to eat in the best places with the best chefs. I like to think I have a good barometer for good restaurants. I really enjoyed what Oliver was putting out as far as showing local product. He was showing a sense of place and the technique necessary in keeping the product pristine. The detail was at a level I did not expect.”
The Sacramento chefs will cook at several of the 22 events spread over four days. Weeks ago, they submitted their detailed plans for the food.
“They’re swinging for the fences. They’re not playing around,” Maras said. “How fun it is to take these guys who are on the edge of going upward and we can give them a forum where they can come in and play with us and have the spotlight. People will say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we need to be looking at Sacramento.’ It means something to be here because we are very discerning.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.
Pebble Beach Food & Wine
What: A four-day epicurean event that matches wineries and chefs for dinners, demonstrations, tastings and parties.
When: April 9-12
Where: Several venues in and around Pebble Beach
Cost: Varies, starting at $100 per event