Creativity rules

At The Exchange in Oroville, every ingredient has its purpose—even the microgreens

William Irwin became head chef at The Exchange in Oroville shortly after the downtown bar/restaurant opened two years ago. Here, he’s pictured with the Brussels sprouts salad.

William Irwin became head chef at The Exchange in Oroville shortly after the downtown bar/restaurant opened two years ago. Here, he’s pictured with the Brussels sprouts salad.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

When Jesse Brown and Debi Mills opened The Exchange in a 150-year-old building in historic downtown Oroville two years ago, they envisioned it as mostly a bar with tapas-style appetizers, live music and craft cocktails.

It didn’t take long, however, to see a niche they could fill by expanding their menu, and they soon hired local chef William Irwin, who now has free rein of the kitchen.

“Will’s daily specials are really our best sellers, people love them,” Brown told the CN&R during a recent visit to the Montgomery Street eatery. “He’s really creative.”

William Irwin says he loves to make sandwiches and each ingredient is placed intentionally for optimum flavor and presentation. The turkey pesto sandwich features his oft-requested sweet whiskey onion jam.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Irwin came to Butte County from North Carolina to be closer to his wife’s family. After stints at Red Tavern in Chico, and The Patio (which he helped open) and Feather Falls Casino Brewing Co. in Oroville, he found his way to The Exchange. He describes his first food passion as Italian—before choosing life in the kitchen, he dabbled in deconstructing the Americanized dishes he’d grown up on, searching for their roots.

“Italians really put a lot of their heart and soul into their food,” Irwin said. “And they make it about community—I like that.”

To that end, The Exchange sources much of its ingredients locally. To name a few, the microgreens, which top many of Irwin’s dishes, come from Steedman’s Micro-Meadows out of Palermo; and balsamic comes from Live Oak’s Renfree Farms.

When it came to describing sexy dishes, Irwin brought out his Brussels sprouts salad, which he said came about much by happy accident, as a vendor delivered shaved sprouts one day instead of whole ones.

“We just decided to see what we could do with them,” Irwin said. Verdict: success. The shaved sprouts are mixed with applewood smoked bacon, caramelized onions, garlic and a housemade strawberry balsamic. It’s then drizzled with Renfree’s trademark balsamic. The onions and strawberry balsamic add a bit of sweetness to the salad, and the shaved sprouts are a nice departure from the traditional fare, adding a bit of crunchy texture to the plate.

Irwin also plated one of his signature sandwiches, the turkey pesto, which features his to-die-for sweet whiskey onion jam (people regularly ask him to jar it for sale), bacon, pepperjack cheese and micro red acre cabbage on Tin Roof seeded multigrain bread. Everything on the sandwich has its place, Irwin explained. The onion jam, for instance, has to go on the top piece of bread—that way it drips down into the other ingredients without making the bread soggy. That helps with presentation, too, he said, as the bread can stand up that way.

For Valentine’s Day, Irwin is working on a handmade lobster ravioli. That would have been his choice for sexiest dish, but with the holiday still a week away, he didn’t have all the ingredients on hand.

“There’s something instrinsically sexy about Italian food, ” he said. “I have no shame when eating pasta—I actually licked the plate on my first date with my wife.”

He said inspiration struck him for the dish in the middle of the night recently and he called up the owner of Steedman’s to request micro basil. “She put on her slippers and went out and planted some right then,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s so nice to have those kinds of relationships with our growers.”

The micro basil will add both color and aroma to the dish, plus it packs a wallop of flavor despite being “micro.” That’s all part of Irwin’s plan, after all—creativity, community and intention.