Food & Drink

Chef seeks to redefine arena food for new Sacramento venue

Chef Michael Tuohy, who is the executive chef and leads the food program for the Golden 1 Center, said “Pricing has to be accessible. Just because you’re using better product doesn’t always equate to being expensive. We have to change that paradigm.”
Chef Michael Tuohy, who is the executive chef and leads the food program for the Golden 1 Center, said “Pricing has to be accessible. Just because you’re using better product doesn’t always equate to being expensive. We have to change that paradigm.”

When the Golden 1 Center opens in October, there’s no telling whether the Sacramento Kings will find the winning formula on the court. It’s been a mighty struggle for the team and for the fans.

The food promises to be another matter. Riding Sacramento’s campaign as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” the arena’s food and beverage program might be the most ambitious, if not idealistic, ever attempted at a mainstream sports venue. The concept centers around a written charter that pledges to source 90 percent of all ingredients from a 150-mile radius.

What’s more, the program calls for high ethical standards, sustainability, the embrace of local ingredients, environmental friendliness and seasonal options that are diverse, delicious, fast and affordable.

“There’s no comparison,” said Kings owner Vivek Ranadive when asked how the Golden 1 Center will distinguish itself from other major sports venues. “This is an order of magnitude beyond what anyone has ever attempted.”

That’s not mere hometown boosterism. There will be healthy choices, possibly a salad with golden beets, whole grains and kale. There will be a giant meat smoker and a tandoori oven for Indian dishes. A food station at one side of the arena, Porchetta House, will feature all things pig – but humanely raised and fed healthy food as they grow to maturity. Ice cream? It’ll be made in-house. The menus will change with the calendar, so only the freshest, timeliest ingredients are showcased.

There will be hot dogs, of course, but they’ll feature organic beef from star rancher Bill Niman’s BN Ranch.

Chicken tenders? Need to have ’em. They’re the No. 1 seller at almost every sports venue in the country. But the chicken will come from Mary’s Free Range Chickens in Fresno, considered one of the best poultry producers in the nation. There will be nachos, too, but don’t expect pub grub with that nuclear orange, greasy cheese mixed with piles of guac, shredded pork and refried beans.

“Why can’t we do a GMO-free, organic tortilla that’s locally made and get four different cheeses from Petaluma Creamery and make our own cheese sauce? We can,” said Michael Tuohy, the former executive chef at Grange Restaurant & Bar at the Citizen Hotel and now executive chef for 18,000 very hungry and distracted fans.

Tuohy’s task is a massive one. Hand-picked by Legends Hospitality, the company started by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the Steinbrenner family of the New York Yankees, Tuohy has embarked on something of a whirlwind tour to piece it all together. He has been to football stadiums, soccer stadiums and baseball parks around the country, watching how the food works and doesn’t work.

He has traveled to farms to ensure the animals he uses have been humanely raised.

Asked about the arena’s standards, Tuohy replied succinctly: “High.”

Asked whether anyone hurriedly ordering a hot dog or chicken tenders during halftime really cares if the cows munch on fresh grass while parked on a scenic hillside, Tuohy seems aghast that such a question even has to be said in 2016. Does the guy heckling George Karl or the fan weighing dumping Omri Casspi from his fantasy team even think about something called “animal husbandry?”

“It’s important. First of all, your animals are going to taste better if they are not stressed and are treated humanely. I’ve just always thought that way. Why would you want to treat them inhumanely?” Tuohy said. “I could be a vegetarian, but I see vegetables raised wrong, too.”

Tuohy has spent the better part of his professional life thinking about food, flavor, farms and how they all connect. Born and raised in San Francisco, Tuohy was fresh out of culinary school in the mid-1980s when he landed a job managing Cafe Quadro, owned by local culinary legend Joyce Goldstein, whose Square One was revered at the time.

“It was a daily education of food and wine. That was my early exposure to amazing wines by the glass paired with Mediterranean cuisine,” said Tuohy. “I was a witness to the early culinary revolution that was happening then. Chefs, believe it or not, were sourcing from farms and breaking the mold of the classic fine dining restaurants. Chefs were using their creativity, and it was a heyday for restaurants in the Bay Area in the early and mid-’80s.”

When a team of doctors looking for a tax shelter lured him to Atlanta, then-23-year-old Tuohy jumped at the chance. But it was a different mindset in the Deep South then.

“When I first got there, I said, ‘OK, who’s going to grow my lettuce?’ I got these stares,” Tuohy said, laughing as he recalled the moment. “ ‘What do you mean? You order it from the produce company.’ 

Asked why that kind of thing matters, Tuohy answered, “Freshness. Quality – knowing who was growing the lettuce, how it was grown and where it came from.”

By the early 2000s, Tuohy opened Woodfire Grill, which featured daily seasonal menus inspired by his understanding of California cuisine. He sold the restaurant and moved back to California in 2008 to open Grange, which earned a following for his embrace of local produce and regional flavors.

He then worked in the Napa Valley before moving back to Sacramento, where he hooked up with the owners of LowBrau, the bustling new craft beer and sausage house. The owners, Michael Hargis and Clay Nutting, asked Tuohy to help them launch a charcuterie concept, Block Butcher Bar, next door. At the time, Tuohy was poised to launch his own restaurant idea, a pork-centric, butcher-driven eatery to be called Porchetta House in the new mixed-use building, 16 Powerhouse, at 16th and P streets.

“I had to pull out because I just wasn’t ready,” Tuohy said with a shrug. The space wound up going to Magpie Cafe, which relocated from R Street.

Now, there is plenty at stake at the new arena. While taxpayers will continue to wonder for years if Sacramento can afford its $255 million share of the $519 million project, there will be a different kind of pressure on Tuohy.

“We view what we’re doing here as helping create the next great American city,” said Ranadive. “We decided that as long as we were going to do this, we had a big voice and we wanted to walk the walk and not just talk about it. Not only did the arena have to be great and have to be iconic and the most fan-friendly arena in the world... everything we did had to be 21st century in terms of our commitment to green, our commitment to sustainability. ... We had to apply this to the food supply chain.

“We’re blessed in Sacramento because it happens to be the food basket of the country so it makes it easier. From our perspective, the food part of the equation was essential.”

With so many moving parts and such disparate demands from fans of all income levels and tastes, Tuohy will essentially have to be all things to all people without straying from his and the Kings’ self-imposed standards. Oh, and then there are the prices. There will be plenty of pressure to keep those organic hot dogs and pristine nachos affordable for teachers and state workers.

Tuohy’s successor at Grange, Oliver Ridgeway, says there’s no better person for the job and that the Kings’ food and sustainability charter “is another testament to what we are as a city.” But even he wonders how Tuohy will be able to pull it off.

“Knowing Michael and his beliefs with food, responsibly raised animals and sustainability, I mean, that’s the whole premise of Grange,” said Ridgeway. “What I’m curious about is if it comes with a higher cost. Those animals are being fed more consistently and with better food, and the plants are grown organically. People at Grange don’t mind paying a premium for that kind of thing. But on game night, you’ve got all walks of life. How are you going to find that price point?”

Tuohy had some of those same concerns when Legends first approached him about taking the reins.

“I told them, ‘But I’ve never been an arena chef,’ ” Tuohy said. “They told me, ‘We see that as an advantage.’ 

As for the pricing, is that BN Ranch hot dog going to be $23? Will the local craft beer come with an eye-popping arena upcharge that leaves a bitter taste? With the arena’s abundance of private suites and lofts, along with general seating from courtside up to the rafters, there will be a wider-than-ever range of options and prices, though it’s too far off for specifics.

“Pricing has to be accessible,” he said. “Just because you’re using better product doesn’t always equate to being expensive. We have to change that paradigm. There is going to be a slight premium if you’re shopping seasonally. My job is to figure out the balance and engineer it so we have different tiers and different prices.”

For the past couple of years, Tuohy has been doing almost everything but cooking professionally. When he’s at the arena, he wears a hard hat, dusty boots and a bright yellow safety vest. He pores over blueprints. He’s on the phone with suppliers and vendors. He knows crunch time is coming. In fact, he’s ready to start assembling his large team of chefs and cooks (large-format hotel and arena cooking experience moves your résumé to the top of the pile).

He cooks almost nightly for his wife, Patti, a manager at the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“But that’s not going to last. She’s going to lose her personal chef in a couple of months,” Tuohy said.

During a recent visit to the arena, construction crews were framing the walls for the future Porchetta House and stringing the wiring for the walk-in refrigerators and giant meat smoker in the main kitchen on the lower level. The flurry of activity gave Tuohy pause.

He knows that what he’s doing will likely trigger a feature story from every beat reporter with every visiting basketball team. He knows food journalists will be eager to write stories, too, and TV reporters will want to highlight how the one-of-a-kind food charter came to fruition. And Tuohy knows all this will reflect on Sacramento.

“It says that we’re very concerned about food. We want to know where it comes from. That’s a big part of it,” he said. “We have a chance to expose 18,000 people on any given day to a very powerful message just by what we are serving at the arena. I don’t take that lightly at all.”

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

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