Kurt Spataro was making his usual rounds, curating the restaurants in the Paragary Restaurant Group, beginning this day at Café Bernardo at Pavilions.
He’s the corporate executive chef of the mini-empire, which over the decades has pioneered a diverse menu of restaurants and bars that have helped define Sacramento’s dining culture since the early 1980s. So many Paragary properties have opened and closed that it’s hard to keep up. Spataro and entrepreneur Randy Paragary have been business partners since 1992, seven years after the self-taught chef was hired for his first Paragary job, making pasta at Zito’s Bar & Grill.
“We have certain standards and my job is to uphold them,” Spataro said, making his way through the Bernardo kitchen. “That requires looking very closely at everything at every (restaurant). I see pitfalls on every menu, things that may be tricky for the cooks. The worst thing a restaurant can do is serve a dish that’s perfect one day and then not the same a few days later.”
It was Spataro who conceived what is perhaps Bernardo’s signature dish, Thai noodle salad with chicken and spicy peanut dressing.
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“You can’t set out to create signature dishes,” he said. “You put them out there and the customers decide if they want them every time they’re in. It’s cool when that happens, but chefs don’t want to cook the same thing over and over. They want to do something different constantly, and I’m the same way.”
On a day-to-day basis, Spataro is the hands-on authority who keeps the intricate machinery running at Paragary’s, Centro Cocina Mexicana, Esquire Grill and three Café Bernardos. No detail is too small (is the avocado toast properly seasoned?), no undertaking too large (he hires, trains and manages all the company’s chefs).
He also creates the menus and recipes for the three Bernardos and stays close to the menus at the three dinner houses. To what extent depends on the chefs’ experience. “Some have quite a bit of autonomy,” he said.
A fourth Bernardo will be added to his list in 2020, when it opens inside a long-anticipated, six-story, 105-room Paragary-backed hotel next to the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts.
There are six more Paragary restaurants between the Golden 1 Center (two Bernardos, two Paragarys, one Centro) and Sacramento International Airport (an Esquire Grill). Spataro’s role is less intense at those outposts, as they’re managed by hospitality companies. “But I influence them as much as I can,” he said.
The Paragary Group includes (and has included) many of Sacramento’s seminal restaurants, patronized by veteran diners and heavy hitters. As governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger famously held court at the Esquire Grill.
Yet Spataro remains out of the spotlight, never glad-handing his way through a dining room on a busy Saturday night. Even though his expertise surpasses that of many “celebrity chefs” around town, some of whom he mentored.
“The difference between myself and them is that the public associates them with only one or two restaurants,” he said. “I’m not thought of in the same way. Marketing is extremely important and you always want to get out there, but I don’t know how I’m viewed in public.”
“There’s a tremendous amount of respect for Kurt within the chefs community,” Paragary said. “He doesn’t promote himself like others do, but he deserves credit for his sensitivity to ingredients and the number of people he’s taught who have gone on to become successful restaurateurs.”
Paragary was quick to add that Spataro is a master of multiple cuisines – Italian, American, Mexican, Asian – a repertoire tied to his global travels, scholarly research and hands-on involvement.
His studies with legendary Mexican-cuisine authority Diana Kennedy helped bring authenticity to Centro’s menu. Cooking classes in Thailand were useful in creating dishes at Sammy Chu’s. A recent trip to Mexico sparked the idea of “procuring some awesome dried heirloom corn, grinding it ourselves, making awesome tortillas and doing some really intense one-off tacos,” Spataro said.
“That’s what he loves,” Paragary added.
Recipes and menus
Spataro left Café Bernardo and pointed his Audi SUV toward the Esquire Grill downtown. There, he sat for an hour with Chef Danny Nguyen. It was Nguyen’s first full day on the job, and he had suggestions for the upcoming fall menus: What about adding chicken pot pie with béchamel sauce? Can we do a potato gratin as a side?
Spataro listened intently, asked questions (“What’s your gratin recipe?”), massaged some concepts and brought up the realities of kitchen staffing and customer ebb and flow.
Next, he drove to American River College to meet with Kathi Riley Smith, who leads ARC’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Management program. The centerpiece is the Oak Café, the student-run restaurant.
Spataro will teach a class there this coming semester, “Restaurant Management & Production,” and wrote the menus and recipes for the café’s three-days-a-week lunch program (Sept. 19-Dec. 14.)
He and Riley Smith went over each dish vis-à-vis the students’ skill levels and the kitchen’s physical limitations. Potential problems with the apple fritters, grilled octopus and fig leaf-wrapped salmon were resolved.
They also discussed the Sept. 30 Tower Bridge Dinner, as Riley Smith is one of four headliner chefs who will work with Jeremiah Tower to prepare a four-course meal (plus dessert) for 832 people.
Spataro will work one of the half-dozen food stations. At last year’s bridge dinner he was among six lead chefs and the only one to prepare a fish dish — smoked steelhead trout with cucumber-horseradish creme fraiche. In a spontaneous vote, his fellow chefs chose him as their spokesman to address the dinner crowd. He got a big hand.
Rock ’n’ roll and cooking
Spataro and his older sister grew up in South Sacramento with a Sicilian father and French Canadian mother. Sundays were spent at their paternal grandparents’ home, immersed in the rituals of prepping, cooking and eating. “I think subconsciously I discovered that food was the way to express yourself,” he said.
Music joined cooking as a passion. Spataro learned guitar, piano and keyboard, and was a music major at Sac State. “Music allows me to express myself in a way I could never do by talking, and I’m drawn to cooking for the same reason,” he said.
Spataro and a core of friends formed bands through school and beyond, evolving into Secret Service by the 1980s. “There were about 10 clubs in Sacramento that had music every night, so we were making money,” he said.
When they weren’t playing, they were club-hopping to check out the competition and became fans of “this hot redhead” who was the vocalist for a local band. Her name was Kitty O’Neal. They asked her to join Secret Service and she accepted. They played gigs throughout Northern California and into Oregon.
Spataro and O’Neal have been married for 29 years; she has anchored KFBK’s “Afternoon News” for 25 years.
Spataro was still “incredibly passionate about cooking,” he said. “When we were traveling with the band, I carried the Chez Panisse cookbook with me and read out of it to anyone who would listen, including Kitty.”
“Music and food are what first brought us together,” O’Neal said.
“We began a romantic relationship and decided that if we were going to get anywhere with the music, we needed to start writing and recording,” Spataro said. They disbanded Secret Service, got day jobs and moved their music equipment into a $50-a-month “bat-and rat-infested space downtown. It was dark and scary, and we met there every day after work.”
O’Neal was an office manager at a realty company, Spataro ran the show at an espresso bar, “cooking everything.” They soon decided to find more serious jobs “so we could fund our project,” he said.
O’Neal landed at KFBK and Spataro made plans for culinary school in San Francisco. Before he could leave town, though, a customer at the espresso bar said, “‘You’re doing this incredible food at this nothing place, you need to work in a real restaurant.’”
The “guy” was Rick Whitnah, co-founder of Rick’s Dessert Diner, who had been hired as the pastry chef at the new Paragary restaurant Zito’s. “I can get you a job there,” he told Spataro.
Characteristically, Spataro ended up working simultaneously at Zito’s, Paragary’s and the independently owned Lautrec. “I’d leave one place and couldn’t wait to get to the next one, and go home thinking how I could do better the next day.” Eventually, he became executive chef at both Paragary’s and Capitol Grill, and moved into the role of corporate executive chef as the Paragary Group expanded.
Chez Panisse in Berkeley was one touchstone for Spataro when he was teaching himself how to cook. “My reference for a lot of things was going to Chez Panisse and saying, ‘Oh, this is what lamb is supposed to be.’ Or going to Italy or France or Mexico or Asia and saying, ‘Oh, this is what that should taste like.’ Travel has been hugely important to me as a chef.”
Another influence was Jeremiah Tower’s “New American Classics” (1986). “I studied it and cooked my way through it,” he said. “It was super-important.”
As Spataro and O’Neal climbed their respective corporate ladders, their dream of a future in the recording studio faded. “Our careers eclipsed our musical ambitions,” Spataro explained.
Though they did form the indie-rock band Skyler’s Pool in 2015, which plays at high-profile events around town. “It’s a great outlet for our creativity,” Spataro said.
The chef at home
The last thing most professional chefs want to do after work is cook, but Spataro makes dinner most nights for he and his wife at their Curtis Park home.
“I don’t cook at the restaurants on a daily basis, I’m busy coaching and training,” he said. “I enjoy conceiving something, developing the recipe and then making it happen on the plate. Do I miss the era when I was in the kitchen of a 60-seat restaurant, fussing over every plate and loving it? Yes, I do.”
“When we spend time alone together, it usually involves music or food,” O’Neal said. “There are many occasions when we’ll drive distances (often to San Francisco) just to try restaurants Kurt has on his list.”
“That’s been an important part of my learning and inspiration, and staying on top of the market and trends,” Spataro said.
Perhaps the most momentous piece of Spataro’s career with Paragary came in 2005 when the eponymous Spataro opened on L Street. Spataro spent 12 hours a day shepherding the $2.5 million, 8,000-square-foot showpiece that seated 240 diners.
It closed in 2013, to be replaced by Hock Farm Craft & Provisions, which closed in late 2017 with an announcement it would reopen in spring 2018 after “remodeling and reconcepting.” Which never happened.
What went wrong?
“Spataro was conceived at a time when that size space was the thing, but it was so big it was difficult to create any energy unless we had 200 people there every night of the week,” Spataro said. “It was probably fancier than it should have been and wasn’t always welcoming.”
As for “reconcepting” Hock Farm ...
“We were all teed up with partners and a concept, but at the 11th hour the landlord decided to look at other options,” Spataro said. “Our lease expired and our deal fell through. We’re done.”
A few vitals are known about the “private” Kurt Spataro, but he’s modest about them. For instance, his library of cookbooks numbers nearly 800 titles, he collects French wines (to add to his “choice Tuscans”), he’s a surfer with three boards (a fourth is coming), he stashes a dozen guitars in what once was a spare bedroom, and he owns more than 1,000 “pretty cool” vinyl records.
Yet he does not consider himself a collector. “Not at all, because I don’t go after things that are rare or expensive,” he said. “If you’ve been into something for a long time, you tend to have a lot of it.”
When he and O’Neal dine out locally, it’s almost invariably ethnic, and usually Asian. “I would be very happy living in Japan or Thailand,” he said.
Another love is pour-over coffee. “I grind beans from Kenya and Ethiopia, weigh the coffee to the tenth of a gram, then brew it with water of a certain temperature,” he said.
“Much to Kitty’s chagrin, I also have an enormous two-group Faema E-61 espresso machine from the early ‘60s on the kitchen counter, displacing a lot of things. It’s a work of art and an homage.”
One last question occurs, given Spataro’s professional interest in the Food Network. Could he beat Bobby Flay?
“That depends. He puts honey and chiles in everything, but he’s not a slouch,” Spataro said, offering a rare smile. “Could I beat him with something Mexican? I would hope so.”