Going ‘locavore’ in Chico

More and more restaurateurs are buying produce and meat from local suppliers

Sin of Cortez manager Josh Martin presents the Market Scramble, an ever-changing special that depends on the freshest local ingredients.

Sin of Cortez manager Josh Martin presents the Market Scramble, an ever-changing special that depends on the freshest local ingredients.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Chef extraordinaire Rebecca Stewart, of Chico’s Spice Creek Café on Third Street, loves her several-times-a-week jaunts to the local farmers’ markets, where she chats amiably with diverse vendors, perusing and purchasing newly harvested produce. “Buying ripe, local food, you can’t possibly make a mistake,” she explained. “The food is just perfect as it is—the flavor is alive.”

Rebecca and husband Brian orchestrate a fine tapestry of local suppliers in the preparation of Rebecca’s highly sought-after international-inspired cuisine, which includes stunning, vegetable-bejwelled Asian dishes. Her ever-changing menus revolve around the food she can obtain locally as well as food she and Brian pick from the kitchen garden they maintain on their 11 acres in the almond orchards.

The kitchen-garden approach follows the tradition of Alice Waters, renowned chef, author, and proprietor of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse restaurant and American pioneer of a culinary philosophy maintaining that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients produced sustainably and locally. Along with fruits and vegetables, the Stewarts grow fresh culinary herbs, such as basil and rosemary, that add “really deep flavors.”

Some of the local food suppliers Spice Creek relies upon are S&S Produce, Comanche Creek Farms, Bordin Huitt Ranch (especially for corn, honey and almonds), Isern Olive Oil, and the GRUB (Growing Resourcefully Uniting Bellies) cooperative. “Everything is so fresh and perky,” Rebecca said. “The flavor is so much better than buying stuff grown hundreds of miles away or in another country.”

She said she even has neighbors who frequently bring her surplus produce from their prolific gardens, including the gentleman who lives behind her who contributes cantaloupes and onions.

Rebecca, who once studied with French culinary icon Jacques Pepin and previously worked for or owned other restaurants before coming to Chico, said relying on local suppliers works only for smaller establishments. She praised the local farmers’ markets vendors because in the past five years they’ve worked hard to grow the particular foods people desire and request.

For a time, the Sierra Nevada Taproom and Restaurant and Red Tavern had the only chefs in town relying heavily on local suppliers. (Red Tavern chef Craig Thomas recently announced he’d just worked out an arrangement with Rancho Llano Seco to purchase its free-range pork.) Now, many more chefs seek out the best, freshest produce and other supplies from area growers.

In addition to Sierra Nevada, Red Tavern and Spice Creek, some of the Chico-area restaurants and cafés that have “gone local” include Crush 201, Bustolini’s, Sin of Cortez, Bacio Carry Out Cuisine and Catering, Guzzetti Catering, Grilla Bites, Caffé Ricci, Café Flo, Raw Bar and Tin Roof Bakery.

Local dining establishments increasingly relying on local suppliers—it’s a phenomenon that corresponds with the nationwide trend of people intentionally seeking out locally, seasonally grown foods. It’s all part of the burgeoning “locavore” movement, which encourages consumers to buy from farmers’ markets and local small farms, or even to grow and pick their own food or obtain it from community-supported-agriculture programs.

Amanda Leveroni chops fresh veggies for a dish at Bacio Carry Out Cuisine and Catering.

CN&R file photo

Locavores argue that fresh, local products are more nutritious and taste better, and that shunning supermarket offerings is an environmentally friendly measure, since shipping food over long distances requires more fuel for transportation and thus leaves a bigger carbon footprint. Locavores strive to enjoy what they eat while still appreciating the impact they have on the environment, bringing together eating and ecology in an old-but-new way. Some locavores say people should try to eat only foods grown or produced within a 100-mile radius.

Spokeswoman Francine Stuelpnagel said GRUB Cooperative, a nonprofit farm with an educational component on Dayton Highway, has a great relationship with numerous local restaurants and cafés. The main vegetables they’ve supplied this summer have included various varieties of much-coveted tomatoes, but they’ve also delivered herbs, peppers, potatoes, eggplants and other vegetables to local chefs.

“Everybody says they can tell the difference with our tomatoes,” Stuelpnagel said. “The flavor of locally grown produce is much better than produce that is shipped in—our farm is only a mile from downtown.” GRUB’s philosophy includes advocating for “eating local,” and Stuelpnagel said local restaurants and suppliers who work together are good for the local economy. “We’d like to see even more restaurants buying locally,” she said, “because there’s such an abundance of produce available in our area.”

Bacio, owned by Amanda Leveroni and located in south Chico, visits the farmers’ markets three or four times a week. Assistant chef Jan Truitt said she and head chef Corinna Buchanan base their menus on available local produce—for example, they make a Chico Rice Salad with rice from local growers and whatever fruits and nuts might be in season, such as apricots from Comanche Creek Farms and walnuts from Chico Nut.

Buying locally, Smith said, is “one of Amanda’s biggest things—she’s really pushing to make everything local and organic.” Smith said Bacio puts out an e-mail newsletter every week letting customers know where the popular catering company is buying its food and what they’re creating with it.

Sicilian Café, on Park Avenue, uses breads baked by Tin Roof Bakery, including sourdough, focaccia and baguettes. Owner James Taylor said he buys wines from local wineries: Bertagna Son Kissed, LaRocca, Long Creek, Quilici and Gale. He uses cheeses made by Pedrozo Dairy and Cheese Co., in Orland. And, while Comanche Creek Farms is his main produce supplier, he also buys from Durham grower Al Vogel.

“The thing about our area is we have the best-quality produce around, and we have so much of it—there’s no excuse not to use it,” he said. “The No. 1 goal is to make sure everybody in this town has a wonderful meal and that we keep our money in the local economy.”

Popular breakfast and lunch restaurant Sin of Cortez, in north Chico, perhaps best epitomizes a small restaurant’s reliance upon local suppliers. Like Rebecca Stewart at Spice Creek, owner Danielle Ius and her chefs shop weekly at the various farmers’ markets, taking advantage of whatever foods are available. Sin of Cortez even has a dish called the Market Scramble, a special that constantly changes depending on which local vegetables are in season.

Working with local growers is an amazing opportunity, Ius said, and Sin of Cortez steadfastly makes the weekly trips to the farmers’ markets because, for one, “the quality of the food is phenomenal.” Besides the farmers’ markets’ vendors, Ius relies on Danielson’s and S&S Produce. She lauded the rices her restaurant uses, grown by Richvale-based Lundberg Farms and Massa Farms Organics near Ord Bend.

Sin of Cortez rents a van every week and does a pick-up run, collecting the local products needed for creating its legendary meals.

But Ius doesn’t stop with food. “Everything we do, we go through local businesses,” she said, explaining she calls on local printers Graphic Fox for menus and a local service company, Gager, for servicing the restaurant’s dishwashing machines. She also relies on Jessee’s Heating and Air and Mission Linens, both locals. “It’s so important to support other local businesses and keep our money within the local economy,” she said.