Cooking with panache

Chef Rebecca Stewart’s dishes please the palette and the eye

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Food flair Spice Creek Café is located in downtown Chico at 230 W. Third St. Look out for chef Rebecca Stewart’s occasional cooking classes. For hours and additional info, visit

One’s senses are instantly gratified upon walking in the door of Spice Creek Café, a cozy downtown eatery.

The aroma of curry spices bathes the nostrils with the promise of yummy goodness, and the deep curry-yellow of the interior walls and colorful display of large-scale paintings by such popular local artists as Cynthia Schildhauer, Salvatore Casa and James Snidle are pure pleasure for the eyes.

And the food, well, Spice Creek’s multi-ethnic food—South American, Mexican, Indian, Italian, Japanese and so on—is as delicious and as beautiful as one would expect from first impressions.

The owners of Spice Creek—chef Rebecca Stewart and her husband, Brian Diendorf—have achieved the enviable: the creation of a fine-dining establishment with a seasonally changing menu that perfectly melds bold flavor and décor into an artistic (on a number of levels) eating experience that is not pretentious. On top of that, they focus on using fresh, local, seasonal produce picked out several times a week from the various farmers’ markets in town, and sustainably procured seafood.

A hefty bowl of Spice Creek’s Southwest Cioppino ($25.95), made to order, arrives at your table picture-perfect, its large, pink ocean prawns and lemon wedges perched jauntily atop a sea of white fish chunks, scallops, navy-blue mussels and clams in red chili sauce, accented by leaves of green cilantro. It could easily be the subject of a still-life painting.

A big (or “Fred-Flintstone-sized,” as Stewart described it) poblano Chile Relleno ($17.95) with a sumptuous chocolate mole sauce is served with a colorful array of white hominy, black beans, roasted sweet yellow corn, red tomato and pink prawns, set off by the green of avocado and cilantro.

Stewart said she regularly sees diners whipping out their cell phones to take pictures of their food before they dig in.

Local artwork adorns the walls of Spice Creek Café.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

Enjoy Spice Creek’s scrumptious world cuisine at one of the eatery’s dozen tables, or plunk down at the long wooden bar (built by Diendorf) to devour cioppino or chile relleno or Caribbean coconut crab cakes with mango cream sauce ($10.95), along with a glass of wine from Spice Creek’s excellent selection focusing on wines from the Western United States, with no fears of being under-dressed or overly zealous about the food. Table or bar, Stewart and Diendorf encourage patrons to make themselves at home in their restaurant.

As Stewart put it, “We’re not pretentious at all—I’m Hungarian.”

Stewart, a 53-year-old Canadian ex-pat who learned to cook at an early age from her Hungarian mother (who is still, at age 76, “a huge entertainer and wonderful cook”), said she “grew up looking at cookbooks and not being afraid. My mom would have 20 people over at the drop of a hat.”

Stewart’s fearlessness and vast, accumulated knowledge of cooking led her to open her own cooking store and school in Victoria, British Columbia, where she often served as cooking assistant for the likes of such famous chefs as Jacques Pepin, Marcella Hazan, Perla Meyers and Dianne Kennedy when they came to town.

Spice Creek is Stewart’s sixth restaurant. Before moving to Chico with Diendorf five years ago, she served as executive chef for Bon Appetit Restaurant in Los Angeles.

“It’s all about contrasts and textures and colors, and the sweet, salty and spicy,” said Stewart. “Just as a painting instills feelings of happiness, or whatever other emotion it instills, it’s the same with food.”

A summer salad brightens up any plate.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

“She draws from the palette of each culture,” offered Diendorf, who is also a painter (ask to see his sweet portrait of Stewart, done early in their relationship). “When she’s cooking Latin, she stays within the Latin palette. When she’s cooking Asian, she stays in the Asian palette.”

In other words, don’t expect to find a wasabi-spiced taco, or any other type of fusion food.

What you will find are aromatic, mouth-watering dishes from around the world made with expertise, style and a love of food.

At Spice Creek, you’ll discover why the Greeks customarily put cinnamon in their tomato sauce, why the Japanese use nutmeg and cloves in their curries, and why the Italians are so partial to fennel—because those spices, in addition to cardamom, cumin, coriander and ginger, are just so sensuously delicious.

Pam Laughlin, a local musician/businesswoman and down-to-earth foodie who travels frequently—both nationally and world-wide—is utterly sold: “Spice Creek is my most favorite restaurant in the world!

“The chef, Rebecca Stewart, is incredibly talented and imaginative,” Laughlin continued, “truly an artist with her cuisine. I remember reading the menu the first time [my husband and I] went there and thinking, ‘How could those herbs and spices go together?’ and then trying some of the dishes and just marveling over the beautiful presentation and taste treats. Having gone there many times now, I never hesitate to try a new dish. … Whenever we want to go out to dinner for a special occasion, Spice Creek is always my first choice.”