Behind the food
Six area chefs dish out their recipes for success
Most of us will never meet the chef at our favorite restaurant, but we will get to know a little about the person through his or her food.
We thought it would be nice to let the chefs, rather than the food, do the talking for once. We interviewed six chefs whose restaurants have received generally positive reviews from the RN&R and our staff. The chefs told us a little about themselves—and a lot about their restaurants. After all, when you spend most of your time in the kitchen, you tend to focus on the food.
Here are the people behind the food.
Troy Cannan likes change. This need for variety is reflected in the regularly changing menu at LuLou’s. One month, you’ll find something like duck confit agnolotti with truffled butternut squash puree and shaved pecorino on the menu; the next, you might see butterflied lamb with garlic potatoes and roasted pepper salad.
“The food I like to eat is basically what we serve,” the chef and restaurant owner said. “Sometimes it doesn’t go over as well as I would like, but for the most part, people have been receptive.”
He called the cuisine at LuLou’s “creative American,” in that he uses ingredients from cuisines around the world but presents meals that are distinctly American. A glance through a recent lunch menu revealed items such as paella with sea bass, clams and chorizo; grilled salmon with saffron pearl pasta; and sugar snap peas and grilled chicken salad with baby green beans, potatoes and pesto.
Cannan and his wife, Colleen, who is the restaurant’s manager, opened LuLou’s two years ago at the former Portofino site. Cannan said the name is a combination of his wife’s middle name, Lucille, and his mom’s middle name, Lou.
The Tonopah native said he’s been interested in cooking since he was a boy, getting his first job at a restaurant where his mother worked when he was 12. By age 17, he had moved up from bussing tables to cooking meals. Since moving to Reno about 20 years ago, he has worked at several area restaurants, most recently at the Bistro Roxy in the Eldorado Hotel Casino. He’s never gone to culinary school, but said he developed his skills working with numerous chefs in Reno and in San Francisco.
After 11 years at the Eldorado, Cannan said, he was ready to do something else. He and Colleen were considering moving out of town but decided to open a restaurant instead. After looking around for inexpensive sites, they thought the Portofino location was just right, and they asked the owner if he was interested in selling. A little more than a year later, they purchased the building at the corner of South Virginia and Mt. Rose streets.
Although he works long hours and must cope with the daily distractions that come with running a kitchen, he said he likes the challenges of his job, especially in coming up with new menu ideas.
“I find it more challenging to keep [the menu] the same, because I get tired of it,” he said. “It’s not something that I force myself to do; it’s something that I feel the need to change, just to keep the customers interested, the servers, everybody.”
But as much as the menu changes, some items remain. Cannan said foie gras and scallops are two items that the restaurant regularly offers. Crab is also an oft-requested item, depending on the season. But it’s the variety that Cannan thinks brings his customers back.
“We try to offer some things here that maybe not everyone else has,” he said. “It’s kind of our niche. We are so small [that] we’re able to do pretty much whatever we want. As long as our customers are happy, we can have fun, too.”
Top of the Flamingo
John Scott could very easily be instructing a class of third-graders right now, instead of running the kitchen at the Top of the Flamingo.
Scott liked working with kids and was majoring in liberal studies at California State University, Chico, with plans to become an elementary school teacher. But something happened along the way: While working in restaurants as a student, he realized that he liked to cook even more. He dropped out of college and made plans to attend culinary school.
But those plans didn’t pan out, either.
After he took a three-week course at the prestigious Culinary Institute Academy in Hyde Park, N.Y., he decided that he’d rather get on-the-job training working at smaller restaurants in Chico. Eventually, he made his way back to Reno.
He credited chef Bill Gilbert, with whom he worked with at the now-closed Marie’s Petit Bistro, with putting him on the path to becoming a chef. He also cited locally revered French chef Yves Pimparel as a mentor.
“The guy can make water taste good,” Scott said.
Scott has worked in many area restaurants, including the Men’s Club, Pimparel’s La Table Francaise (now the site of 4th St Bistro), The Brasserie (now inhabited by Brick’s), Marie’s Petit Bistro (which became the site of Portofino and, later, LuLou’s) and—are you still with me?—Midtowne Market (later Midtowne Dinnerhouse and Bar, now closed), where he was an executive chef and business partner.
He described his time at the Midtowne as “a learning experience,” but he seems content to leave the past behind. He’s more excited about his new job as the executive chef of the Flamingo Hilton’s celebrated rooftop restaurant, a position he took over in January after the departure of head chef Doug Chapman.
He said the Top of the Flamingo will unveil its new menu March 21. Muscovy duck and venison are some of the items that will appear on the menu. Scott described these as two of his favorite dishes to make—and apparently they’re good enough to make a carnivore out of a vegetarian.
“My wife [Nicole] was a vegetarian when we met, and I made her try—well, I didn’t make her, I encouraged her—to try the Muscovy duck. Now she likes red meat,” he explained. And, no, Scott reassures, she didn’t have a crisis of conscience, since she was a vegetarian mainly for health reasons.
At age 30, Scott has gained a lot of experience in his cooking career, and he’s got the cooking scars on his hands and arms to prove it.
“You have battle wounds,” he said. “[Chefs] usually know that you’re a chef or a cook because they can identity another one when they see them. You always have little marks.”
Not only must chefs contend with burns and cuts, they must also accept working long hours in the kitchen, even on holidays and weekends. After all, they’re working to please customers who expect a good meal and an enjoyable experience for their money.
Service is just as, if not more, important than the food, Scott said.
“You’ve got to have good service. You’ve got to have good food and a nice environment, but I think service comes first,” he said. “You probably won’t hear too many chefs saying food comes second, but I think … if the food is excellent, but the service is terrible, [customers] won’t come back.”
Chef David Silverman and brewmaster Trent Schmidt were two friends with a love for beer and a dream to open up their own brewpub. It took about a decade, but the two finally made it happen when they opened the Silver Peak Restaurant & Brewery, located in a two-story structure that used to be the home of Bailywick’s.
Silverman and Schmidt purchased the site after the last occupant, Snoshu’s, closed its doors. They renovated the 1906 building, updated the exterior and added a deck for outdoor dining in warm weather.
Silverman said he learned a lot about construction during the six-month renovation.
“It gave me a sense of accomplishment that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t participated in [remodeling] it,” he said. “From doing insulation to sheet rock—it was a great experience. A lot of blood, sweat and tears went in it.”
Two years after opening, Silver Peak continues to get raves for its food and its microbrews. Silverman said its Red Roadster is the most popular beer. The brew is also distributed in town at Foley’s Irish Pub, Deux Gros Nez and Claim Jumper. Some of the brewpub’s signature dishes include salmon fish and chips, a barley-crusted chicken sandwich and seared ahi salad for lunch. Its garlic- and chili-rubbed rib eye steak and smoked chicken pasta are regularly ordered dinner items. And for dessert, the restaurant prides itself on its chocolate bread pudding and white chocolate tiramisu. Bon Appétit magazine even requested the tiramisu recipe, Silverman said, although he doesn’t know if or when it will be published.
Silverman, who graduated from Reno High School and was trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., has lived in Reno most of his life. He worked at the old Pasta Fresca (now occupied by Daddy Jack’s BBQ) as a teen, moving on after high school to Adele’s at the Plaza and the Eldorado.
Schmidt, whom Silverman has known for almost 20 years, attended the Siebel Institute of Technology, a brewing training school in Chicago, to develop his skills. In 1994, the two men opened a food and beverage complex for a riverboat gaming company in Baton Rouge, La. Although Silverman enjoyed the experience and learned a lot about Cajun and Creole food and culture, he missed his hometown.
“That year we spent in Baton Rouge was [distressing] to me, because nobody knew me, and I knew no one down there,” he said. “Familiarity is an important thing.”
They returned to Reno and dedicated themselves to opening up their restaurant and brewery. Silverman said it took a lot of time and effort to get the financing and find the right spot for the restaurant.
Apparently it was worth the wait. The spot remains popular with the after-work crowd, as well as those seeking a good meal in a casual atmosphere.
“You can’t be too ‘fine dining,’ because that drives away the guy who just wants his beer or nachos and burger,” he said. “But at the same time, the person who wants a bottle of wine and … to enjoy a meal, we have separate areas to accommodate them.”
As for happy customers, Silverman said one of the best compliments he received on his food was from a customer who ate two bowls of his shrimp and andouille sausage gumbo. The man had lived in New Orleans for 20 years and declared Silverman’s gumbo to be the best he’d ever had.
While he has proven his mastery of the culinary arts, Silverman said there’s one other thing he’d like to accomplish.
“I’d love to be a professional golfer, but I’m a terrible putter,” he said.
When chef Jimmy Chan was planning to open a new Asian restaurant, he wanted something different than all the other Asian restaurants in town. After all, Reno was already teeming with Chinese restaurants and gaining an appetite for Thai food and sushi.
Chan decided his restaurant wouldn’t specialize in one type of Asian cuisine. He determined to feature the gastronomic offerings of several regions—China, India, Indonesia, Korea and Japan, among others—and for a little twist, add a bit of Irish flavor.
Chan opened Rickshaw Paddy about two years ago in the strip mall between Kietzke Lane and South Virginia Street. The name reflects both the Asian cuisines and the Irish heritage of former co-owner Denis Connolly, who’s no longer with the restaurant. Guests are served dishes such as lamb shanks Madras, Malaysian chicken and Jinrikisha Medley (tempura shrimp and vegetables with teriyaki chicken breast).
Chan, a native of Hong Kong, learned a lot of what he knows from his grandfather, who was also an executive chef. Chan also gained experience working at various restaurants in California.
“I was trained by Western chefs, but, being Asian, I have an advantage,” he said. “I know Asian spices very well. I’m able to take the Asian way to cook and present it in a Western style. That works very well.”
Chan—who worked for Harrah’s as an executive chef for 25 years, first in San Francisco, then in Reno—said some of the restaurant’s most requested items include the Filipino coconut shrimp and Thai spring rolls as appetizers, and the coconut crusted halibut, Thai spicy basil chicken and the grilled Mongolian lamb chops as entrees.
His goal is to open up another Rickshaw Paddy in the area within a couple of years, perhaps in the northwest part of town or in Sparks.
Chan said Americans are much more accepting of different cuisines than they were when he began his cooking career.
“A lot of things, in the old days, Americans would not eat them,” he said. “I remember when I started cooking in 1965, I purchased stuff from the meat company, like oxtail or chicken wings. [The company] would just give it to you. In those days, they didn’t want these [cuts]. And now, chicken wings [are popular].”
Like every chef interviewed for this story, Chan said the freshness of ingredients and buying in season are key to making delicious meals. However, some vegetables, like asparagus, are on Rickshaw’s menu all year. Chan said he doesn’t mind paying more when it’s out of season, since dishes containing asparagus sell very well. Other seasonal items, such as game meats, like venison and pheasant, have also appeared on the menu in the wintertime.
Chan said the venison Rickshaw serves is marinated in Chinese aged vinegar and braised with herbs. He said the sweetness of the aged vinegar helps mellow the strong taste of game meats.
When he’s not cooking at the restaurant, Chan said he eats all kinds of cuisines, from French to Mexican. He also likes to watch TV chefs and read about new recipes and learn the latest trends in the cooking industry.
“You have to refresh your mind all the time,” he said.
4th St Bistro
Natalie Sellers always had a passion for cooking, but as a young woman growing up in New Orleans—the center of Cajun and Creole cooking—becoming a professional chef just wasn’t an option. The world of professional cooking was regarded as men’s domain, so Sellers didn’t pursue it. As she prepared to graduate from high school in 1972, people tried to push her into becoming a dietitian or nurse.
Nearly 30 years later, Sellers is the chef and co-owner of 4th St Bistro, located at the former site of Pimparel’s La Table Francaise on West Fourth Street.
Sellers began working in restaurants at the age of 15. She started in the kitchen but later moved to the front of the house to make more money. She moved to Reno in 1979 and worked as a bartender at the MGM Grand (now the Reno Hilton) for several years. In 1982, she opened Truffles Gourmet Cookware Store and Cooking School. After closing that business in 1987, she helped open Famous Murphy’s and did a short stint at John’s Oyster Bar at the Nugget in Sparks.
But the more she worked in the restaurant business, the more she realized she wanted to become a chef. With more women breaking the gender barrier and entering culinary school, she decided to follow her dream. At the age of 32, Sellers moved to San Francisco to attend the California Culinary Academy.
Since graduating from the program in 1989, she went on to work at various San Francisco restaurants, including Stars and La Scene. She met Carol Wilson, who worked the front of the house in restaurants such as Bix and La Scene. The two became friends and shared a dream to open a restaurant.
They looked around the Bay Area but were turned off by the prohibitive costs and the glut of fine restaurants. They considered opening a place in Colorado, but when they learned that chef Yves Pimparel was planning to retire and close his Pimparel’s La Table Francaise in northwest Reno, they decided to inquire about leasing the site. Sellers said she often ate at Pimparel’s when she lived in Reno and was impressed by the food, as well as the building’s charm and location.
Last June, Sellers and Wilson, who is the restaurant’s manager and co-owner, opened 4th St Bistro in the familiar Reno landmark. Since opening, they’ve been busy serving up a western Mediterranean-inspired menu to a receptive public.
Sellers said the bistro’s emphasis is on fresh, seasonal food. The restaurant serves only hormone-free meats, and she uses mostly organic produce.
“I don’t buy or order food that’s out of season,” she said. “You should eat with the seasons, as far as your body is concerned.”
Some of the most popular items ordered at 4th St Bistro are braised lamb shanks and braised short ribs. Sellers said she enjoys cooking these items, as well as duck, which she said is her forte.
Although she left the cosmopolitan San Francisco behind, she doesn’t regret moving to a smaller city still known more for gambling than gourmet food. Things are changing in the Biggest Little City, and tastes have become more sophisticated.
“But I always say, I’d much rather be a big fish in this little pond here than a little fish in that huge ocean over there in the Bay Area,” she said.
Massimo Riggio & Don Hamilton
Romanza Ristorante Italiano
Ever since Massimo Riggio was a boy, he’s wanted to be a magician. Although he doesn’t pull rabbits out of hats or make objects disappear, he works his magic in another way—in the kitchen of Romanza Ristorate Italiano.
“I wanted to be a magician. I wanted to play drums. Now I play with food,” joked the 31-year-old.
The native of Milan, Italy, is the executive chef of the Peppermill’s newest restaurant, which opened in January 2000. In the eight months he’s been there, the menu has undergone a change to reflect a wider range of Italian cuisine. Riggio said he uses only fresh ingredients in his food, making the pasta on site and the tomato sauce with fresh Roma tomatoes. His butternut ravioli (pasta filled with butternut squash and poached in a sage-butter sauce) has become the restaurant’s signature dish, luring customers back for more. The Chilean sea bass and osso bucco dishes are also popular items on the menu, he said.
Riggio credited a childhood friend for sparking his interest in cooking. He said his friend, who was two years older, went to culinary school and embarked on a successful career. Riggio said he looked up to his friend and decided at the age of 14 to enroll in the Scuola Alberghiera C.O.M.P. in Milan. He completed a two-year course and worked at restaurants across Italy.
In 1995, he came to the United States and got a job at the Eldorado. He worked at La Strada before accepting the executive chef position at the Romanza.
Although Riggio was planning to move to the balmier state of Florida, he said he’s glad he accepted the offer to head the restaurant. He said the close friend who helped direct him toward a cooking career passed away, but Riggio continues to try to live up to his friend’s expectations.
“He [helped] me to really understand that [I] got to do something for [my] future. He showed me how [successful] he was and that I can do the same,” he said. “He was 24 years old when he died. I’m 31 and chef in this beautiful restaurant, and I can say, you know, he sees me, and I can show him how [well] I’ve done.”
Don Hamilton, executive director of food and beverage at the Peppermill, said Riggio has done an excellent job as an executive chef. Even his contemporaries have praised his work.
“People that he worked with at La Strada, when they come here and eat his food, they say, ‘Oh, Massimo, you’ve really flowered. This is really awesome.’ And I know that makes him feel good,” Hamilton said.
Riggio said that he has picked up a lot from Hamilton, who oversees all the restaurants in the hotel. He said he has learned about the different culinary regions of America and has shared his knowledge of Italian cooking with Hamilton, a veteran chef who has worked all over the country and has served meals to five U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. (For the record, Hamilton said that Reagan ate very small portions, while Clinton ate very healthful meals, despite his reputation as a fast-food addict).
Riggio said his professional goal right now is to continue Romanza’s high standards of food and service. He said communication and teamwork are important between people who work the front and the back of the house, adding that there is good rapport among himself, his staff and the Romanza’s maitre d'.
As for his personal goals, Riggio plans to marry his girlfriend Sept. 22.