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Sacramento Stakes Claim as America's Farm-to-Fork Capital

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Farm to Fork 2013 Gala Dinner Night PicmonkeyOver-the-water dinner setting

by Dan Clarke

Sacramento has declared itself the leader in a category which has no universal definition, no absolute standards. However, a persuasive case can be made that this city in the most agriculturally productive state in the U.S. deserves the title “America's Farm-to-Fork Capital.” Sacramento is surrounded by farmland. Chefs in Sacramento have ready access to raw ingredients that their brethren in bigger and more glamorous locations could only dream about.

In the past Sacramento suffered the reputation of being a cultural and culinary backwater. Local radio personalities called the city “Sacra-Tomato” (and this was not meant as a compliment). Chain restaurants predominated and residents looking for a good meal would often drive to San Francisco, rather than patronize local options.

Times change, though. As Sacramento shed its inferiority complex, it began to realize that things weren't really so bad. In fact, for those who enjoyed their food, things were pretty special.

Josh Nelson at Sellands Mkt PicmonkeyJosh Nelson got it started“Josh Nelson approached us in late summer of 2012, announcing that we should be 'the Farm to Fork Capital of America',” recalled Mike Testa, who's in charge of business development for the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau. In a matter of hours the Mayor had been contacted and soon agreement had been reached to promote the concept with “four really special events” to involve the community. Confessing to some apprehension, Testa remembers thinking, “If the locals don't buy in, then the rest of the world won't.”

Nelson is proud of his home town and is a good spokesman for it. He's part of a team that operates two fine dining restaurants in Sacramento, The Kitchen and Ella, and two wine market and deli operations. While he's quick to point out that his father, Randall Selland, is the chef in the family, Nelson has grown up in the restaurant business. “We always shopped small family farms for The Kitchen,” he recalled. “Since 1991 we've done this—not to be a 'locavore,' but to source the best product. We have a bounty of local crops. We have great product in the area.”Farm-to-Fork Festival 2013 Capitol Mall PicmonkeyEvent on Mall drew 25,000

Years ago Los Angeles Laker coach Phil Jackson dismissed Sacramento as “a cow town.” The city puckishly embraced that identity last September with a cattle drive up Capitol Mall, the first of their four Farm-to-Fork Week events. Ostensibly celebrating the availability of high quality proteins in the area, it was a natural made-for-media opportunity and created national news.

A second occasion, a tasting on the Capitol lawn dubbed “Legends of Wine,” honored Darrell Corti and David Berkeley, locals with international reputations. The Convention and Visitor's Bureau considers itself a regional marketer and, especially for the purposes of defining itself as the Farm-to-Fork Capital, includes much of the surrounding area as parts of the whole. Yolo County, just across the Sacramento River to the west, is home to the UC Davis College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences and lots of farm acreage.

In another gathering that was both symbolic and attention grabbing, authorities closed the Tower Bridge for a gala dinner with diners seated on the span that links the City of Sacramento and all that land to the west providing so much goodness for the table. Six hundred tickets to the $175 a plate meal went on sale in July of 2013 and sold out in a matter of hours.

The fourth and final event was the Festival on Capitol Mall and it surely was proof that locals were intrigued. The event was free and open to the public, who could meet growers, see cooking demonstrations and buy food if they liked. “We'd hoped for 10,000 people,” explained Mike Testa. “We got 25,000. The crowd was educated, engaged and eager to celebrate the Farm-to-Fork concept.”

Jim Mills in Produce Express Whse PicmonkeyJim MillsAs a former chef, Produce Express' Sales Manager Jim Mills has close ties to the area's restaurant community. “We have over 1200 accounts in the Sacramento Valley,” he commented. “These range from taquerias to the area's finest restaurants.” Mills has been pivotal in creating a liaison between specialty growers and an appreciative corps of area chefs.

One of those chefs is Patrick Mulvaney, whose Mulvaney's B&L has been in the forefront of Sacramento restaurants sourcing high-quality ingredients from nearby farms. A native of Long Island, Mulvaney worked as waiter in New York restaurants after taking a degree in English at Union College. Realizing that if he were to reach his goal of owning a restaurant, he'd need to understand how a kitchen worked, Patrick headed off to Ireland. There he apprenticed to a man who'd been Executive Chef for the P & O Cruise Line. On his return to the States, Mulvaney gained experience in the kitchens of several New York restaurants before working his way west. Eventually Mulvaney achieved a second degree in Food Science and Technology at UC Davis and later worked in the Napa Valley with the famed teaching chef, Madeleine Kammen. By this time, says Mulvaney, he had fallen in love with California and with the access to the fresh ingredients he found there. The menu at his midtown Sacramento restaurant changes daily and the chef is acutely aware of the ever-developing bounty available to him. “I moved here in 1994. It's now 2014,” he commented. “Has the percentage of iceberg lettuce to mixed baby salad greens changed in that time?”Patrick Mulvaney late May 2014 PicmonkeyPatrick Mulvaney champions local products

Earlier this year Mulvaney was invited to create a dinner for the Beard House in New York City. Named for the late chef and cookbook author, the James Beard Foundation operates a restaurant that features notable chefs who bring their own culinary styles for one-night appearances. On March 13th, he and his Mulvaney's B&L kitchen crew presented a dinner there billed as A Promise of Spring: Savoring Sacramento. “It was a seven course meal,” explained Mulvaney. “Everything but the water, bread and Irish whiskey (served with dessert) came from California and most of that from within 50 miles of Sacramento. On a cold, rainy night in New York we were giving them food they wouldn't see for months—things like green garlic, asparagus from the delta and fava beans grown at Sac High's garden. It was a proud day for California, a proud day for Sacramento.”

Special events such as cattle drives and dinners on bridges capture public attention for a while, but the goal is to create an ongoing reputation for Sacramento as America's Farm-to-Fork Capital. “The model we looked at for success was Austin, Texas, which bills itself as “The Live Music Capitol of the World,” said Mike Testa. “This year we'll spend over half-a-million dollars on this issue, though some of that we hope will be offset (by participating businesses). Year two must be more than just the four special events,” he stressed. To that end, the Convention and Visitors Bureau has hired two full-time employees, Nicole Rogers and Kari Miskit, to develop the concept. “Nicole's job is to find the next steps to move this forward. Kari's is to make sure the story's being told,” said Testa.

This September, Farm-to-Fork Week will actually expand to two weeks. No cattle will be seen on downtown streets this year, but the Capitol Mall will again be the site of an expanded food festival open to the public (Latest updates on this September's events can be found at farmtofork.com).

Farm-to-Fork is undoubtedly a clever marketing concept, but underlying the hoopla of Sacramento's branding campaign there's plenty of substance. Jim Mills of Produce Express admits there's “a little bit of smoke and mirrors,” but emphasizes there is also “a whole lot of sincerity.” Patrick Mulvaney says “My goal is just to promote the wonderful work of the farmers. In an earlier era, the rock-stars were the chefs. Now we think that in the future the stars will be the farmers. As we begin to embrace our agricultural heritage and interact with the farmers, it lifts the spirit of the whole region.”

Editor's note: If you're planning on visiting this part of California's heartland, check out the Central Valley listings in Taste California Travel's Resource Directory. There you will find links to the websites of hundreds of Lodging and Dining options, as well as links to area craft beer purveyors and to nearby wineries.

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