Beyond snobbery

Why are Chico’s restaurants so much better than they used to be?

When the waiter set the dish before me and I took that first bite, all of my assumptions about food flew out the window.

Here I was, eating poached salmon with oysters on top, a dish I couldn’t have imagined even existed, much less eating, and it was splendid.

It was served in a light cream sauce, and the oysters seemed to float atop the pinkish fish. There was something vaguely bosomy about the arrangement. It was not hard to bite into.

My wife had urged me to it, God bless her. “Try it,” she’d said. “Be adventurous.” I’m glad I accepted her challenge. It made me appreciate forevermore the excitement of discovering surprising new dishes that are artfully presented.

This occurred about 15 years ago in Bill Wallace’s restaurant, Chico Cheese and Charcuterie. Wallace is one of the major figures in Chico’s recent culinary history, of course. Not only was he the town’s first truly artful modern chef, he also—along with George Benson—did a weekly food and cooking show on KCHO that for a while had nationwide distribution, it was that good.

One of the challenges listeners were given each week was to “stump the chef” by asking a question Wallace couldn’t answer. As they soon learned, Wallace was unstumpable.

When I say Wallace was artful, I mean he brought a highly creative style to food, and his menu was constantly changing. He merged a European-style devotion to sauces with the newly emerging West Coast emphasis on fresh produce and lightness, and he was also a stickler for esthetic presentation at a time when most Chico restaurants tended to pile it on.

This was new for Chico. Before Wallace arrived, one had to go to San Francisco or some other big city to find such food. Here, unfortunately, he was ahead of his time. The food was fancy, the prices were, well, pricey. Chico, long accustomed to eating large portions of predictable foods inexpensively, wasn’t ready for Bill Wallace or his charcuterie, whatever that was. Not yet, anyway.

It’s a late-summer Sunday afternoon, and Craig Thomas and Maria Venturino, the owners of what is probably Chico’s most adventurous restaurant, Red Tavern, are in the sprawling back yard of their north Chico home, doing what they do during the rest of the week: cooking and entertaining.

Kids are splashing in the pool, and off to the side, in the shade of some towering black-walnut trees, several guests are playing bocce on a court Thomas has fashioned there.

On the deck overlooking the pool, Venturino has the Webber cranked up and is busy making small pizzas there. Each one is different: Using leftovers from the restaurant, she’s experimenting, trying different toppings each time. She offers me a slice topped with pear, something I’ve never had before. It’s marvelous.

A number of the guests are Red Tavern employees. Some of the younger ones are feeling the effects of a raucous wedding party at the Arroyo Room the night before. One of the Red Tavern’s bartenders got married, and the restaurant closed down so all could attend.

Like most good restaurants, Red Tavern feels like family, which is why the people who work there get together off the job. Restaurant work is so frenetic and so constantly flirting with disaster that only a kind of “manic harmony” among people who care for each other can get the job done well.

The talk, naturally, is of food. These folks are in love with food the way writers love words, the way potters love clay. I tell them I’m working on a story about how tastes have changed in Chico, how the town seems better able to support restaurants like Red Tavern and the Rawbar, and ask why that is.

The answers pour forth. Look at coffee, someone says. Fifteen years ago you couldn’t get good coffee in Chico. Now it’s everywhere. And the supermarkets—they’re carrying all sorts of fresh herbs and eclectic products that they didn’t have 15 years ago.

They note the many new ethnic restaurants—Thai and Japanese and Mandarin in addition to Mexican, Cantonese and Italian. And they point out how many people are buying their produce directly from farmers’ markets. “They want quality and freshness,” someone says, “and they know that’s where they’ll find it.”

Even ordinary foods are getting better. Look at the success of Nobby’s, which makes an art form out of the hamburger. Or at the little taquería out on Highway 32, the one whose sign says, “Honk if you can’t stop!” It’s small and funky, but the food is terrific, muy auténtico.

The town’s grown, say others. There’s more money here now. More people can afford to eat at high-end restaurants like Red Tavern. And all mention the importance of the Butte Culinary Academy, which provides well-trained employees. It used to be hard to find good people, they say, but no more.

“Don’t get us wrong,” says Craig Thomas. “Far more people go to The Olive Garden than come to our restaurant, and that’s not going to change. But more and more Chicoans want quality, and that’s where we come in.”

I’m having lunch in one of the nicest restaurants in Chico—especially for a place that also doubles as a school. The tables are covered with white linen; the napkins are emerald green. Outside the expansive windows, Big Chico Creek sparkles beneath a deep-green canopy.

This is the dining area for the Butte Culinary Academy, which has taken over the kitchen and the adjacent Faculty/Staff Dining Room of what was once Selvester’s Café-by-the-Creek on the Chico State University campus. It’s the only chef preparation program in the state north of San Francisco.

Michael Iles, its executive chef and instructor, invited me for lunch. He’s a slender, lively man wearing a cook’s smock, and he talks about the academy with enthusiasm.

The academy teaches by actually running this small lunch restaurant. The menu I’m perusing offers a range of 10 small and large plates, from Saucy Roasted Bell Pepper Soup and Marinated Tofu Phyllo Pocket to Grilled Steak Fromaggio and a Wild Rice Salad. Nothing costs more than $7.

I order a green salad and the Trout Nancy. The salad is simple but delicious and nicely presented: green lettuce with large blue-cheese chunks, apple slices and lightly candied walnuts that serve as croutons. The cheese, Iles tells me, is made in Wisconsin but then cured in an abandoned gold mining shaft near Nevada City.

The trout is lovely, grilled open face in butter and topped with crab flakes and capers. Side dishes include lightly steamed, very fresh broccoli and a tasty risotto cake.

For dessert, I have Apple Harvest Tart, which is served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a fan of apple slices on top. It costs just $2.

All of this is served by a young student who seems just a bit nervous to be serving her teacher’s guest under his watchful eye but does a fine job anyway. When she brings the fish before I’ve finished my salad, he tells her, “A little early, but that’s OK,” and helps her find a place for it on the table.

While I’m enjoying this wonderful meal, Iles explains to me that the academy trains 15 students at a time over a period of seven months, and each one learns all aspects of the profession, from planning menus (they change every week) to prepping foods, from cooking to serving tables. All of the foods are prepared in-house and fresh daily using, as much as possible, local products.

“Serving food is such an intimate thing,” Iles says. “People take what we serve and put it in their bodies.” His eyes brighten: The very thought seems to amaze him. He wants all of his students to learn, he continues, how to make eating the very best experience possible.

That desire is another reason why dining out in Chico keeps getting better.