Artisan take-out

Chico Natural Foods’ take-out food matches that of a classy sit-down eatery

Former executive chef Bethany Hunter manages the kitchen at the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative.

Former executive chef Bethany Hunter manages the kitchen at the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative.

Photo By christine g.k. lapado-breglia

Chico Natural Foods Cooperative
818 Main St.
Daily, 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

Chico Natural Foods Cooperative

818 Main St.
Chico, CA 95926

(530) 891-1713

It wasn’t just the fact that I was hungry after a busy morning at work that compelled me to wolf down bite after bite of the freshly made chicken-topped Caesar salad I had just picked up from the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative for lunch.

In fact, the salad—made with organic romaine lettuce, parmesan cheese from Rumiano Cheese Co. in nearby Willows, insanely tender chunks of Applegate Farms chicken breast (no nitrates, no antibiotics and cruelty-free production), and sprouted-wheat croutons from Tin Roof Bakery & Café—was so mouthwateringly delicious that I didn’t want to stop eating it, even after it was gone. Thus, I licked my finger after wiping clean the plastic to-go container of the tangy salad dressing—made with lemon juice, olive oil, roasted garlic, sea salt, black pepper and Dijon mustard.

At $4.99, the co-op’s chicken Caesar is a steal. Removed from its take-out box and arranged on a fancy plate, the salad could easily fetch $10 or more if served at a dine-in restaurant. The 8-ounce cup of Roasted Tomato Florentine soup, made with roasted local heirloom tomatoes, that accompanied my salad was equally impressive (all soups of the day run $3.29 for 8 ounces; $4.89 for 16 ounces; and $7.99 for a 32-ounce container).

The Sunshine potato salad ($5.99 per pound) that I ate the following day was a delightful mixture of organic Yukon Gold and purple potatoes from local Heartseed Community Farm, seared organic yellow squash from Comanche Creek Farms, and a lemon-herb vinaigrette that popped pleasingly with the taste of marjoram. The pineapple-laced tropical rice pudding (made with sushi rice, coconut milk and toasted coconut—$3.79) that I gobbled down next was wonderful.

It will be one year at the end of June since Bethany Hunter took over as manager of the Chico Natural Foods kitchen, which turns out the wide array of lunch items—salads, sandwiches and more—that populate the store’s refrigerated sections, as well as an always-inviting daily soup offering (such as spicy coconut-curry, and creamy broccoli-and-cashew). Fresh hot oatmeal, with an assortment of toppings, and baked goods are available at breakfast time.

The co-op’s Waldorf salad with local blueberries and green-apple vinaigrette.

PHOTO Courtesy of the chico natural foods cooperative

The fingerprint of Hunter’s impressive food-world résumé is evident on every item coming out of the co-op’s kitchen. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, Ariz. (formerly the Scottsdale Culinary Institute), she spent years as an executive chef in her former hometown of Tucson and as carry-out manager for local-food-focused Bacio Catering & Carry Out in Chico

“Really, my huge focus is to work with local farmers and artisans,” Hunter said recently. Along those lines, each day she and her kitchen staff of eight create an assortment of lip-smacking dishes that conform to eclectic, health-promoting dietary guidelines, including vegan, paleo, gluten-free and lactose-intolerant.

“All of the grains we use are organic; all of the dairy we use is certified organic, with the exception of some locally crafted cheeses,” she said. “All produce is either certified-organic, or local and sustainable.”

As part of the research necessary to finish writing this review (oh, poor me!), I trotted back to Chico Natty and bought a yummy basil egg-salad sandwich (organic eggs, fresh basil, red onion, carrot, garlic, sea salt, black pepper, Vegenaise, mustard and lettuce on toasted whole-wheat bread—$5.99) and a little tub of basil spinach-pesto (gluten-free) pasta salad with almonds, feta cheese, olives and sun-dried tomatoes ($6.99 per pound). I am finishing up the divine pasta as I write.

“What is so amazing to me is that I have creative freedom, so that when a farmer walks in the back door with a box of beautiful heirloom tomatoes that he picked that morning, I dice them, throw in some lemon cucumber and purple basil and a squeeze of lemon, put it on the shelf, and it’s gone within a couple of hours.

“People just want that fresh, local food.”

Amen to that.