Rachel Valley

Breaking Bread with Chef Michael Tuohy

Sacramento is lucky enough to be cradled alongside what is often referred to as the nation’s breadbasket, the San Joaquin Valley. What better way to celebrate this doughy moniker than stuffing it with house-made sausage, or layering on cured meats and artisanal cheeses?

I recently sat down with Michael Tuohy, a man who is making just such a dream possible.

Joining the team as LowBrau and Block Butcher Bar’s Executive Chef in September, 2013, Tuohy was brought on to “help define and bring into focus” the menu at Block as it prepared to open, and to bring his ingredient-driven signature to the LowBrau menu.

Walking around the new location for the Saturday Midtown Farmers Market – conveniently in front of the MARRS building – I overheard Tuohy thanking a local farm for growing their strawberries organically. I thought, Now this chef really walks the walk. The Block walk, if you will.

As further proof that Chef Tuohy’s advocacy for the local food scene is more than just mustard-smeared lip-service, after this interview, he dashed out to Soil Born Farms to help decide on a spot for this week’s Autumn Equinox Celebration. Given his keen Scouting abilities – of both the ingredient and locale variety, apparently – we thought it was high time for City Scout to check in with this champion of all things local – including TBD Fest.

Do you mind if we do some quick word association to start? Say whatever first comes to mind…

Farm-to-Fork: Local

Nose-to-tail: Yes!

Yelp: An interesting tool; [laughs] a necessary evil

Sacramento: Awesome

Vegans: Vegans are people too

Executive Chef: A cook at heart; a chef & a businessman

How has the transition been from the sit-down, fine-dining environment at Grange, to the more casual, albeit stylish, eatery scenes at Lowbrau and Block Butch Bar?

It’s awesome. Great food is great food. There are many different levels of restaurants in terms of, you know, where they fit in the spectrum of the industry, but I think this is a very approachable, communal place, and I find that really fun and engaging.

It seems to suit you.

Yeah, it’s got a lot of pluses to it.

How would you describe your cooking voice?

Very ingredient-focused, flavor-forward. I appreciate the movement of some of these new chefs, but cultures and traditions are my compass North, you know? I’m not a total purist, though; I’m definitely not afraid to try new ideas. I mean, compared to Darrell Corti, I’m a tweener [laughs] Mainly, for me, it’s about fresh, local, seasonal – the Alice Waters mantra, you know? To me, that is California cuisine.

What is the best seat in the house in each restaurant?

I like…hmm…that’s a tough one. At Block, table 6, actually, the table that’s in that back corner. That’s kind of my office during the daytime. That way I can see the operation, and I can also see the butcher room and everything else. That’s my favorite spot. Over here [at Lowbrau]? You know, the patio is so compelling. The patio is an amazing place, and I also like the whole communal feel. The big table right when you walk in is a real good spot too.

You inherited the menu for Lowbrau. What kind of changes did you make to the menu when you took over?

I started to shift the menu from where it was to really figure out how to integrate the two operations, because they are integrated. So now, we’re making the sausages for Lowbrau, we’re pickling the vegetables, we’re making our own sauerkraut, we’ve added some salads. You know, there are a lot of things that weren’t here.

This is a very simple concept, you know? It’s sausage and beer. That’s it. And I said to people who were asking, “What are you going to do with the menu? What are you going to change?” I told them, “I’m not going to chef it up. Trust me.” We just want to make it as good as it can be, and improve where we need to, and broaden the scope a little bit.

We’ve got a tiny little kitchen back there; we have one stove, one oven, one grill, and one little fryer and a prep table. How much can we do? And how much do we want to attempt to do? Why screw up a something that actually works pretty good, given the fact that it was branded beautifully?

The idea of sausage and beer is a no-brainer for Sacramento. It works. But now we’ve improved it by making our own. We’re doing a lot more fresh product. We’ve added a couple of salads to the menu. We have a lot of vegans who eat here, you know, and vegetarians. A lot of people come here to eat lunch, and how many times a week are you going to eat a sausage and drink beer? I mean, once or twice, maybe. A young lady – she might still be sitting out front there – I walked by and asked, “Oh, how’s your salad?” and she goes, “Oh, this is so good. I come here just for this.” And she’s eating a kale salad at a sausage place. And that’s cool.

The idea of sausage and beer is a no-brainer for Sacramento. It works. But now we’ve improved it by making our own.

Those kinds of things, I think, have helped us to have an impact. Lunch is up 25%, maybe 30%, and without losing the identity of Lowbrau, or having it become a chef-fy type restaurant. I really don’t want that. I want it to be good, and for people to enjoy it for what it is.Tell us about some of the products you make in-house:

We make our own pickles and sausages; we have our own sauerkraut. And contrary to local belief, we make our own cheese sauce. It was out of a can before. Now, we’ve sourced four different cheeses from Petaluma Creamery. So again, like I said, I’m not complicating anything. I’m keeping it simple [laughs] Kidding. Now when I look back at it, I think Jeez, we really have complicated it a lot.

What are some of the products you are most proud to be able to carry and offer Sacramentans?

Our house-made sausages are insane. I think they’re really good. And my right-hand man, Brock MacDonald, is responsible for that, day in, day out. We’re introducing a house-made salumi program [smiles] It’s a good thing.

With these house-made salumi hanging in plain view here in the case, when can people expect to stop salivating and start eating?

In about three weeks, I’m thinking. Soon.

Having done some research on the reception of Lowbrau & Block, reviewers (both professional and not) have described the vibe of the spaces as surprising, in that they didn’t think Sacramento could achieve that sort of relevancy. How do you interpret these types of comments?

I guess that’s a compliment. This is Sacramento and it should feel that way. We’re on a progressive model – where we have a slight evolution without losing our identity. For example, at Block, we’re not a deli. We don’t have piles and piles of cold cuts. We’ve got the butcher part, the cocktail/eatery part, and the retail part. We’re interactive, unstructured, fun. We’re not a dining restaurant. We’re an eating and drinking place.

How would you describe the Sacramento food scene today versus when you first began cooking here?

Now since the proclamation [as Farm-to-Fork Capital], you know, people are getting more and more notoriety, and the media’s behind it, everybody’s talking about it, and a lot more restaurants jumped into the game, which is a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. We wanted that to happen.

What kind of space/concept/cuisine do you think is missing in midtown?

Hmmm… well, there are some holes. But I don’t want to say them because I might want to follow through on one or two of them first [laughs] No, but there are definitely still some opportunities.

You’ll be facing off against seventeen other beloved Sacramento chefs in what’s been dubbed the “Friendly Fire” chef competition in “The Pit” at TBD Fest. How would you characterize the relationship amongst chefs here in the city?

It’s awesome. We have a really good community here. Pretty open. Fun. [We] embrace a Sacramento style – really ingredient-focused.

Do you have any sense of how the competition will work? A cornucopia of ingredients a la The Hunger Games and a fight to the death-by-food?

Well, there’ll be pairings of two chefs who’ll face off against each other. Each chef will have three hours, where they have to make 350 bites of one dish for the crowd — and they have to use local ingredients. I’ll be competing in the opening round, so we’ll see. In terms of the specifics, a set of rules should be made public in the next week or two.

And lastly, at this week’s Dig It! Secrets of the Farm-to-Fork Movement event at The California Museum, you posed a question to the panelists: “The recent proclamation of Farm-to-Fork speaks true to who we are and what Sacramento is about, but I wonder if it’s becoming more of a cliché than a lifestyle?”

Could you weigh in on where you were going with that?

I tried to be respectful of the time allotted. I knew there were other people who had questions, so I didn’t want to stand up there and soapbox, but I wanted to get a reaction from the panel. It’s been a bit of a concern. You know, the proclamation was made and that’s all great but now there are way too many people out there trying to monetize it, and that’s just diluted it. It is a lifestyle. And you’re here. You don’t have to stand up on a box and say “We’re Farm-to-Fork.” Do the right thing. People know.


You, too, can do the right thing by spending your hard-earned cheese on what Tuohy describes as “hands down the best cheese and salumi program in town – in a restaurant.” Whether you eat your sausage with a Fork or not, the farm-to-communal-table movement is alive and well at both Lowbrau, and Block Butcher Bar.

In addition to talking the trendy talk, get out there and embrace these and all of our city’s “eating and drinking places,” as Chef put it – not only during Farm-to-Fork Week, but during the other 51 too.


Photos | Rachel Valley