Sept./Oct. 2013 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Jennifer Harrison
Photos by Matt Salvo
Sacramento chef helps pioneer local farm-to-fork movement.
Dinner and a show! At The Kitchen, a well-known Sacramento restaurant, owner Randall Selland's demonstration dinners are a hit. The Kitchen chefs have been playing to a packed house for 22 years.
Sacramento chef Randall Selland is in his element. He's waving to familiar faces and chatting with complete strangers. A policeman on a bike rides up and they share a quick laugh. Clearly, the officer knows Selland, who jokes, "Did you just give my van a ticket?"
The place? Not one of Selland's popular restaurants, as you'd expect. But rather, he's at the farmers market in downtown Sacramento.
Selland is a farmers market regular. Shopping at a market in downtown Sacramento, he poses with Magda Morgan of Twin Peaks Orchards in Newcastle, from whom he's bought fruit for many years.
In fact, if the farmers market had a mayor, Selland could hold the honor. Donning signature tomato-print pants or ones with flying pigs, he comes here at least once or twice a week. "I love looking at and buying fresh food, whether it's fish, strawberries or squash," he said.
On this sunny morning, he's excited about black raspberries from Placerville, peaches from Newcastle and basil from Exeter. The chef is also thrilled to see the farmers who supply him with the fruits—and vegetables—of his labor.
The Sacramento area is home to about 50 regional farmers markets.
"For me, it's about personal relationships and that's what I love," Selland said. "I like working with people."
The feeling seems to be mutual. "He's the real deal," insisted Heidi Watanabe of Watanabe Farms in West Sacramento. Watanabe, along with husband Clark, a fourth-generation farmer, grows tomatoes, garlic, squash, peppers, greens and peaches on their 7-acre farm. She met Selland at a farmers market 12 years ago and they've been doing business ever since. The chef even drives out to the farm if he needs something special. "Randall is super hands-on," Clark Watanabe said.
Truly, relationships are the backbone of Selland Family Restaurants. The family owns four highly successful eateries, three which have distinctly different business models: The Kitchen, Ella (named after his granddaughter) and Selland's Market Café in two Sacramento-area locations. Selland insists their success wasn't mapped out in a perfectly executed business plan; rather, it was the serendipitous result of a passion for farm-to-fork eating, before that now-trendy term even existed.
It's a family affair. The Selland family at The Kitchen in Sacramento: from left, Tamera Baker, Nancy Zimmer, Randall Selland, Owen Nelson, Josh Nelson and Gina Funk Nelson.
An artist by trade
Art was Selland's first career. Originally a stained-glass artist, he married Nancy Zimmer, a gallery director who shared his enthusiasm for creating beautiful things. "One thing my wife and I had in common, even when really poor, was that we like to eat good food, fresh food," Selland recalled.
Their son, Josh Nelson, said, "I can honestly say I don't think I ever ate a cafeteria meal at school. I always had a good boxed lunch." Nelson, along with his sister and company co-founder Tamera Baker and his wife, Gina Funk Nelson, all work for Selland Family Restaurants.
"(My parents) weren't always as efficient as they are now, so we had a lot of late dinners as a family, eating at 8 or 9 o'clock as kids," Nelson said.
Freshly picked berries highlight a dessert.
Those late-night dinners sparked an idea with their mom. Zimmer, the quieter of the Selland duo ("I like to be behind the scenes," she said), started catering gallery events. Soon, friends were asking for private, catered dinners, with both Zimmer and Selland cooking, but Selland putting on a show of sorts, explaining where ingredients came from and what they were cooking.
"I was doing the same thing I used to do—art—but now people have to eat what I do," Selland said with a laugh.
Executive Chef John Griffiths, left, and Richard Horiike prepare one course of a six-course meal.
The dinners quickly became popular and The Kitchen was born, 22 years ago. Today, there's a two-month waiting list to get in.
A revolutionary restaurant
Blink, and you'll miss it. The Kitchen, tucked into an inconspicuous location (there isn't even a sign), is a highly acclaimed restaurant that serves demonstration dinners to guests from around the world. It's literally dinner and a show, as Selland or new Executive Chef John Griffiths entertain guests with an informative and humorous presentation of their six-course meal.
Selland checks out tomatoes growing at Watanabe Farms in West Sacramento.
These exclusive dinners happen five nights a week to a packed house of 50. Guests can mingle with chefs and wander back into the kitchen to check out all the preparations.
The dining room has a stage where Selland shines. "Now see this egg?" he asks in a booming voice. "It is going into your opening dish of Warmed Lobster Vichyssoise with Robiola Egg Yolk Raviolo, English Pea and a Hint of Smoked Pork."
There's often a surprise or two—especially for farmers. Sometimes, if they are dropping off supplies, Selland will call them to the stage for impromptu introductions.
While the unexpected limelight doesn't always appeal to Heidi Watanabe (especially wearing work clothes in front of a group of well-dressed diners), she enjoys seeing her farm fare on the menu. "It's very rewarding," she said. "It is nice to see the end product."
Fourth-generation farmer Clark Watanabe and his wife, Heidi, grow produce used in Selland's restaurants.
Today, the Selland family's restaurants run the gamut from high-end (The Kitchen and Ella) to grab-and-go (Selland's Market Café). Prices vary, but one thing is constant: You'll always find farm-fresh ingredients.
Many of the restaurant's ingredients are grown within a 50- to 100-mile radius of Sacramento. This simple fact sparked another light-bulb moment in the family, one that they hope will put Sacramento on the farm-to-fork map.
Selland smells garlic that's been harvested at Watanabe Farms.
"My wife read an article … that chefs were out and farmers were in, that farmers were going to be the new rock stars," Nelson recalled.
That got him thinking. His hometown had both: a burgeoning food scene with great restaurants, and farming. The Sacramento region has thousands of acres of farmland and 50 regional farmers markets. His family's livelihood was based on the area's bounty. And Nelson thought, "Why not promote Sacramento for its true identity—America's Farm-to-Fork Capital?"
"Sacramento is obviously uniquely positioned geographically with the class A soil, rivers and climate," he said. "I think it's a title that is fitting and one we deserve."
His father agreed. "To me, what is exciting is that instead of people thinking of us as not having a tourism identity, now we are going to be known for what we really are—an agritourism center," Selland said.
Sacramento chefs enjoy easy access to farm-fresh produce throughout the year.
Farm-to-fork: a team approach
To achieve his vision, Nelson worked with many community members to officially designate Sacramento as America's Farm-to-Fork Capital. He met with Mayor Kevin Johnson, who embraced the idea and got the backing of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, which has taken up the charge in promoting it.
And to commemorate its new distinction, Sacramento will celebrate the city's first-ever Farm-to-Fork Week, Sept. 21-29.
But similar to when Austin, Texas, claimed to be the Live Music Capital, declaring official mottos can elicit criticism. In the case of Sacramento, some skeptics noted that while the region grows a lot of food, much of it isn't consumed here.
Selland interprets that information in a positive light. "Yes, 98 percent of food grown here gets shipped out, but it gets shipped out for a reason—because it is high in quality. So it goes to Japan, China, it goes across the U.S. That's what we're known for."
Additionally, he said, Sacramento as America's Farm-to-Fork Capital isn't intended to diminish what other regions in California and throughout the nation do and grow, but simply to showcase Sacramento to the world.
As Selland said, "People will come here to eat at our restaurants, go to the farmers markets, see what we are doing and enjoy the bounty that we've had all this time."
Farm-to-Fork Week in Sacramento
From Sept. 21 through Sept. 29, Sacramento will celebrate its distinction as America's Farm-to-Fork Capital, highlighting the region's bounty, agricultural heritage and culinary culture. Events include wine pairings, a festival on Capitol Mall and the Farm-to-Fork Tower Bridge Dinner, where more than 30 top chefs, including Randall Selland, will serve a family-style meal to 600 guests. The California Bountiful Foundation and California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom will take part in the dinner. For details, go to www.farmtoforkcapital.com.
A taste of America's Farm-to-Fork Capital
Walk, learn, eat, repeat. Join California Bountiful TV on a food tour of Sacramento.