A Q&A with Sicilian Café head chef James Taylor
James Taylor is in his 34th year cooking in Chico restaurants. Born in Watsonville, Taylor moved to Chico in the early ‘80s, and was head chef at The Oaks restaurant (where Mom’s is now) for 18 years. Taylor, 49, continues to love his work as CEO, executive chef and sommelier at Sicilian Café. “I’m the luckiest man in the world,” he says, in appreciation of his family, job, customers and co-workers.
What is your culinary specialty?
It’s Italian infused with Northern California. Fresh is what I do. I’m proud of the way we prepare our scampi. In fact, I’ve been told our calamari is the best in the world. I’ve been told that about our Chicken Piccatta, that it’s second to none. But, I’ll take second place to anything your mom cooks. I won’t try to compete with your mom.
Where do you look for inspiration for new recipes?
There’s so much out there at this point in time, with the Internet and all the other technologies. I love to watch what trends are happening now. I enjoy the cooking shows on TV, and reading great books from my favorite chefs.
What dish would you like to include on your menu, but worry that it might be too exotic for Chico?
We’ve done a few of those here. Osso bucco is a specialty dish. It’s a veal shank slow-cooked. We can’t serve it every night, because we don’t want to waste product. It’s a recipe from my family, and that’s what we do. It’s delicious. People are afraid to eat veal, though.
What won’t you eat?
I won’t do eyeballs. My mom and her family are from Tunisia in North Africa, and they eat the eyeballs from the lamb. I won’t go where my mother has gone in that respect. It’s also traditional Italian to serve half a lamb’s head, with the eyeballs in it. It’s a delicacy, but I’m not doing it. I can’t eat something that’s looking at me!
What is the ingredient you can’t live without?
Garlic. Garlic and olive oil are my two staples. It’s the mainstay of what we do here. We use extra-virgin olive oil. Those are what life is about here.
At home, what three things are always in your fridge?
Tortillas—that’s for sure in there. They’re my daughter’s favorite. Chocolate milk, because it’s also my daughter’s favorite. She has to have that every morning. And lettuce. We’re big salad people. Salad is what I love, and I love getting our biggest favorite, the spring mix salad, from the farmers’ market.
As a pro, what mistakes do you see novices make most often?
Lack of reading skills. They can’t read or comprehend what’s written on the ticket. That’s the biggest thing for new people. Also portion control, keeping the serving sizes consistent with each serving. But I’m in there the whole time.
What’s the most underrated ingredient, in your opinion?
For me it’s octopus. I always think it’s phenomenal. Same with arugula—people don’t know what it is. I can serve it fresh on salads, or fry it. It has so much flavor, wild and fresh-tasting.
Octopus I like to poach and marinate with a little vinaigrette. When it’s cooked right, it’s the best in the world. My grandparents made it when I was a child. I always order it at Mexican restaurants, like in an Octopus Cocktail at El Patio. Try it!
When it comes to local ingredients, what are your faves?
In this area, it’s olives, basil, tomatoes, olive oil—plus, every herb is perfect, and I look forward to serving them here. Also, our local wine. Those are what I enjoy every second of every day, serving those foods. When you come here, I want it to be an event. I want everyone who leaves here to come out happy.
Where do you like to eat out of town?
I usually like to go to the Napa area, to a small bistro that’s subtle, simple, and that’s it.
What’s the most outrageous thing that’s happened in a kitchen where you’ve worked?
Downstairs from The Oaks one time, the fire system was being tested, and during the fire check, this foam was emitted that gave off a residual smoke. The fire-suppression system was tripped accidentally by the people doing the testing. It freaked everyone out, and we had to close everything down. We had to evacuate the whole restaurant, and it stayed closed for three days. That was the freakiest thing. Thank God I had nothing to do with it.
What’s your death-row meal?
At this restaurant, a glass of Prosecco, with Calamari Originale. Then I’d like a Walnut Bleu Cheese Citrus Salad, a 6-ounce fillet, prawns scampi, roasted fingerling potatoes and, for dessert, warm chocolate cake.
Describe the restaurant you would create if cost and demographic were not an issue (your fantasy restaurant).
It would be close to the downtown area, with plenty of parking, open with skylights, with a patio area overlooking the creek. It would have a fantastic nighttime ambiance all lit up, with an open kitchen, and a small venue for live music.
We might have something like that here, yes. But I want to see more of the sun and moon. People would know if it’s a full moon or raining outside. Lots of open glass.
Who was the biggest cooking influence in your life?
My grandfather. Not that I worked with him that much, but he gave our family the experience of his cooking knowledge. He was Sicilian, and very appreciative of food. I remember he had this layered calamari eggplant dish. His influence was his execution of dishes, and how to put flavors together from the simple to the exotic. And it was just there. It was just perfect. He was an extraordinary man. No fanfare; no “I’m the best.” I’ll never forget him, and I try to emulate him here, and give back to people what he gave to our family.