Sicilian Café chef James Taylor on his passion for food
When Chico chef James Taylor sings, it’s more likely to be a bouncy Italian classic by Louis Prima than the acoustic folk of that other James Taylor.
For the last 20 years, the head chef and owner of the Sicilian Café, located at 1020 Main St., has been living out his dream by serving tasty Italian food in the Southern Italy tradition he learned originally from his Sicilian grandparents.
In person, the “just shy-of-40” Taylor seems like a focused guy with lots of energy. Of average height and build, he defies the stereotype of the overweight Italian chef with mustache, but obviously he eats well.
His grandparents immigrated to the United States in 1950, and his grandfather worked as a fisherman in Monterey while his grandmother worked in the canning plants. The couple soon saved enough money and bought property in Watsonville, where Taylor grew up, the first-born American son. His grandparents opened a restaurant there called The Italian Gardens.
“Some of my first memories were going into the back and smelling the pizzas and eating the pastas that were there,” Taylor recalls. “From that point on someone in my family has always been in the restaurant business.”
Taylor says some of his greatest inspirations were the tales he heard about his grandfather’s annual fishing trip to Alaska, where he served as cook for the rest of the Italians on board the ship.
“Now you think about 20 to 30 guys on a fishing boat, all Italians with Old Country tastes, and you have to cook for them! When I heard those stories it put so much pride in me.”
Taylor has been living in Chico for about 26 years. He says his mother, Cathy, originally lured him into the restaurant business by suggesting a 50-50 partnership.
But, as anyone who has seen the movie Big Night knows, Taylor quickly realized how hard it can be working alongside family.
“We would have ‘talks’ after the shifts every night for two or three hours until we were exhausted, then we would hug each other, tell each other ‘we love you’ and ‘see you tomorrow,’ and that it just wasn’t working out.” He pauses. “It took us 15 years to finally figure that out.”
Finally, after years of creative differences, his mother decided she was going to move on, and Taylor and his wife took complete control of the business. Now, he says, “I’ve been able to take the handcuffs off and move in the direction I want to—and nobody is stressed out anymore.”
That direction has included using about 50 percent organic produce from the area, marinating his own olives and using local almonds for his canoli, increasing the wine list to some 150 wines and adding a rustic, glassed-in terrace in back of the restaurant whose nine tables overlook Little Chico Creek.
The cozy interior of the café, which accommodates 15 tables, features painted wall murals of green fields by local artist Scott Teeple and other little touches Taylor says were done to give the place an Italian vineyard flavor.
“We started out at the original location on 632 Walnut in a nine-table restaurant with no heating or air conditioning,” he says. “We set that up as a small menu, and every year except 1983 we have tried to add something without changing the basic consistency of the menu.”
Taylor has traveled all over Europe in order to check out the way other restaurants do things. He thinks his clientele recognizes that he does things correctly, in the old-school tradition.
“I want to provide the meal that I would be proud of, I would enjoy—something I would serve at my house. We want to touch all five senses,” he says.
Nobody ever said a chef’s life was easy. There are long days of preparation time six days a week, and Taylor employs a busy staff of around 15 people. He’s a great source of learning to younger students of Italian cuisine, some of whom come as interns to his restaurant from the Butte Culinary Academy.
One thing Taylor says he truly enjoys is custom designing menus for special occasions—going through the wine lists, pairing them up with certain courses, and deciding which meals would go best with the parties.
And, as if that weren’t enough, Taylor recently took on another restaurant project. Since last April, he, his restaurant manager and their wives have been operating a seasonal restaurant called the Fire Mountain Lodge in Mill Creek, near Lassen Park. It’s meant fixing up a very old and rustic historic landmark that had been dormant 13 years. The place had no kitchen, walk-ins or electricity and was run on a water wheel with a small generator to produce electricity.
Usually open Fridays through Sundays, the beautiful spot is surrounded by lovely trees and a running creek, Taylor says. “We didn’t want to create a Sicilian Café II. We’re doing everything from scratch, from biscuits to our chutneys, but we wanted to keep something served in that building traditionally, so we kept the red meats, the prime rib, the porterhouse but brought prawns scampi, pasta primavera, salmon Palermo and our famous calamari.”
Taylor is quite the busy chef, splitting his time between two restaurants while also arranging parties, special events and the like. Even though the business side of things can be tough to balance with the artful process of cooking, Taylor says that seeing a happy customer makes it all worthwhile.
“I look at it as someone coming through my door, and they’re saying, ‘I would like to eat dinner with you tonight,' and when I serve them something and they walk away happy, then it pleases me and I can go to bed with self-satisfaction. When I make it a memorable experience, that’s where I get my true joy out of it."