Cal’s Kitchen: Chico’ only tofu shop
On a recent 108-degree afternoon, Ken Musselwhite moved about inside non-air-conditioned Cal’s Kitchen, the small Park Avenue tofu shop he co-owns with his longtime partner Tammy Catalanello.
“Tofu shop” is the customary name of a small, artisan enterprise that produces handmade tofu (akin to artisan cheese- and wine-makers). Cal’s Kitchen—home of Chico Tofu—is the only tofu shop in Northern California between Arcata and San Jose. If you’ve eaten any tofu dishes at The Rawbar or Grilla Bites, you’ve eaten Chico Tofu.
Musselwhite and Catalanello bought Cal’s Kitchen in March 2006 from former owner and retired tofu master Cal Parrott. The shop was called California Kitchen during Parrott’s 25-year ownership but was often referred to simply as “Cal’s kitchen.” Musselwhite, who learned the art of making tofu from Parrott more than 15 years ago, thought “Cal’s Kitchen” would be a nice tribute to the modest Parrott, who would never name the business after himself.
“The process is very loud,” the amiable Musselwhite explained about tofu making, which uses a soybean grinder, a massive metal pressure cooker and loud hydraulic tofu “pressers.”
“It goes off like a steam engine when the pressure gets too high,” he explained. “You never know when it’s going to do it, but when it does, it makes everybody scream.”
Musselwhite and Catalanello’s 19-year-old son, Koleal Shey, who occasionally helps make tofu, and Chico Chai producer Sarah Adams, a business tenant at Cal’s Kitchen, are part of that “everybody,” as is Catalanello, who makes the tasty kale chips, cilantro pesto and Flax Crax crackers that Cal’s also sells.
On this day, Musselwhite was waiting for the middle of the night to start the noisy, sweltering process of transforming the little, white, organic beans into Chico Tofu. In the afternoon heat, he did a mock walk-through of the process that he goes through four times each week to make a total of 320 pounds of gourmet tofu.
It starts with a 13- to 20-hour soaking process, after which the soybeans are ground to “a kind of thick pancake batter” and put into the huge, flame-heated cooker (“a modern cauldron”) in which water has been heated to a rolling boil.
Thirteen to 15 minutes is the “magic time period” for cooking the soybean slurry, said Musselwhite. “You can’t cook it longer than 15 minutes, or it doesn’t curd up properly.”
The hot slurry goes into four metal “curdling barrels,” lined with muslin bags. Each bag is then attached to a hook and drawn up out of its barrel to separate the mash, or okara, from the soymilk. In Japan, the nutritious, light-brown okara is used in cooking, but Musselwhite saves it for his friend’s pigs (“They just dive into that stuff!”).
The real art of making tofu is contained in the next step—adding a coagulant called nigari to the remaining soymilk. Musselwhite pours a nigari-water solution into each barrel of soymilk while swirling the milk in a clockwise motion with a special slotted paddle. After seven minutes of “spin,” the milk becomes “curds and whey”—a clear, yellow liquid containing a “cloudy puff-ball” of soybean curd sitting at the bottom of the barrel.
“This is the part of making tofu that makes everybody’s tofu different,” explained Musselwhite. “Nobody’s handmade tofu is ever the same.”
Musselwhite likened each master’s signature tofu to the difference between the works of great artists. “Jackson Pollock and Rembrandt both used the same red,” he said. “But they did different things with it.”
It’s the burst of counterclockwise motion he adds at the end, said Musselwhite, as well as the shape of his barrels, the way he uses the nigari and the special something—what one might call Musselwhite’s chi—that only he can bring to his tofu making, which gives his tofu the sweetness and firmness he wants.
After going into cloth-lined, metal “settling pans,” the fluffy, hot curds are pressed into large blocks, and stored away in tubs of very cold water, ready for market.
Cal’s Kitchen’s tofu ($4.60 per pound) and other products—including their signature chips, crackers and pesto—are available at the family’s Saturday farmers market booth and at Chico Natural Foods and S&S Produce.