How a hotel restaurant became the feeder program for some of Sacramento’s hottest kitchens

/How a hotel restaurant became the feeder program for some of Sacramento’s hottest kitchens

How a hotel restaurant became the feeder program for some of Sacramento’s hottest kitchens

|2019-06-07T12:01:11-04:00November 5th, 2018|

Nov. 05–Hotel restaurants have a certain reputation. With a steady flow of tourists walking past, they don't need to be good to attract customers. They just need to be average.

Then there's Grange, located in Sacramento's Citizen Hotel. Grange quickly built a reputation as one of the best restaurants in town, leading a Bee dining critic to call it "one of Sacramento's finest eateries" in 2016.

But the only thing constant at Grange is the quality it's known for. Even the menu changes a couple of times a week. While the ownership group has remained the same, nearly every position at the restaurant has turned over at least once since it opened 10 years ago.

That's not a problem. That's what happens in the restaurant industry. And it's why Grange, one of the city's first places for farm-to-fork fine dining, has a track record of producing some of the highest-caliber chefs in the city.

While Grange wasn't the first farm-to-fork restaurant in town, it was the first to market itself that way. Restaurants such as Mulvaney's and The Waterboy had bought fruits and vegetables from local farmers for years by the time Grange opened in 2008. Grange, however, was one of the early adopters of the farm-to-fork movement's marketing potential, said Patrick Prager, a sous chef from 2010-13 who is now the Kimpton Sawyer executive chef.

"We put a focus on, 'Hey look, this what we're supposed to be doing, partnering with places like Watanabe Farms and Passmore Ranch,'" Prager said. "It was a PR push, and it worked really well."

What separated Grange from those other restaurants, Canon founder Brad Cecchi said, was its ability to buy local produce on an unmatched scale. It also offered more jobs with unusually strong pay and benefits. The former meant spending upwards of $130,000 per month on ingredients from suppliers within 150 miles of Sacramento, while the latter attracted some of the area's top culinary talents.

As Sacramento has embraced its identity as the farm-to-fork capital of the U.S., Grange has quietly emerged as a farm system for some of the best restaurants in town. Some chefs learned food preparation and display techniques that later became staples of their own restaurants, like Cecchi's mastery of charcuterie as a sous chef, chef de cuisine and interim executive chef from 2008-13.

Though Prager had worked in kitchens run by Wolfgang Puck, Michael Mina and Traci Des Jardins by the time he got to Grange in 2010, he credits his three years as sous chef there with teaching him how to prepare fuss-free fine dining devoid of gimmicks.

Jonathan Kerksieck learned how to manage people with a softer touch, a skill that proved useful when he launched Cacio in August alongside Katie Kinner-Kerksieck, the former front-of-house manager. The married couple fell in love over post-work drinks at Grange.

With three meals per day, banquets and room service, several Grange managers were charged with budgeting different sectors of the kitchen. They learn to structure food and labor costs, which Cecchi said served them well whether they started their own restaurant or moved onto another position.got managers typically had a hand in hotel operations, and thus had to learn to budget food and labor costs.

"The six years I spent there, that made me the chef I am today, from how to run a business to how to source ingredients to quality and food style," Cecchi said. "It produces pretty well-rounded chefs that I think employers like."

Then there's Rod Cuadra, the executive sous chef at Golden 1 Center who made desserts at Grange. Rebecka Smith did the same before leaving in August to open Milk Money, the much-hyped Ice Blocks doughnut-and-ice-cream shop that opened last week.

Paragary's chef de cuisine Brian O'Malley helped open Grange, and Cecchi brought former pastry chef Jody Chavious on board as his new restaurant's chef de cuisine, though she plans to leave around 2020 to open a picnic-style restaurant in Winn Park. Jason Azevedo leveraged his characuterie work in Grange's kitchen into a position preparing tapas and entrees as Alaro Craft Brewery's executive chef when the Spanish brewpub opened in June.

You can't forget Oliver Ridgeway, who helmed the kitchen for seven of the restaurant's 10 years. Ridgeway left in January to open The Other Side in East Sacramento and the more upscale Camden Spit & Larder on Capitol Mall, vacating a position many of his staff thought he would never leave.

Those are just the people who took traditional culinary routes. Ex-cook Chuy Lopez went on to found Azteca Street Tacos food truck, former bar manager Ryan Seng's Can Can Cocktails are sold as far away as Bermuda and onetime assistant manager Daniel Stephan will move subscription-based Niche Bread Co. to Osteria Moto Bar & Caff? when it opens in El Dorado Hills later this month.

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Backed by 198 upscale hotel rooms and the financial flexibility of being part of a hotel chain, Grange chefs had the freedom to order high-dollar ingredients, roll out daring menus and even attempt to grow some of their own produce.

"One of the nice things about the hotel is we were able to push the boundaries a little bit and challenge ourselves," Kierksick said. "If you wanted to try something new, try it. If it failed? Oh well, at least you're trying … at a smaller restaurant like (Cacio), I don't have the luxury to do that. If I screw something up, I'm losing money."

Jobs in hotel kitchens tend to be relatively cushy compared to standalone restaurants. The security of Grange cooks are paid higher and receive better benefits than many of their contemporaries around town, according to several former and current employees.

That level of comfort kept the British-born Ridgeway at Grange for seven years, and made some chefs believe there wasn't much of an opportunity for promotion. Dane Blom became the executive chef at East Sacramento's Hawks Public House and Provisions, while Cecchi joined Chavious and former Grange general manager Troy Christian at the Westin in Cleveland.

Ridgeway recommended Blom as his replacement upon leaving, though, and he's spent the last nine months adding in subtle touches of his paternal Indonesian heritage. The current menu includes an heirloom pumpkin soup seasoned with fish sauce, chiles, lemongrass and curry-seasoned granola as well as a miso black cod dish served with shrimp dumplings, maitake mushrooms and bok choy. Look for Bee critic Kate Washington's review on Sunday.

"I'd never change the concept of this restaurant, but … there's little Asian components here and there," Blom said. "Nothing the public would really notice, nothing that's like crazy stand-out, but there's little nods."

Blom's next project will be rolling out Grange's first-ever tasting menus, which he plans to stock with small bites of extra-pricey items like spiny lobster or agnolotti pasta with mortadella and black truffle. They'll start Nov. 11, after the visiting chefs finish serving their plates and polish off a few bottles of wine in their old stomping grounds.

"I love that place. It's one of my favorite restaurants, and I definitely got a little choked up when I left," Prager said. "It's really one of those places that's special. There's a positive energy that stays with the restaurant, and the chefs that come in and out are able to feed off that."

Grange alumni including Prager, O'Malley, Cecchi, Chavious, Stephan and Ridgeway are reuniting for the restaurant's 10-course 10th anniversary dinner on Nov. 10, which runs $135 and still has openings for 5 and 8 p.m. seatings. Drink pairings for seven courses are available for an additional $95.

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