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Granted, “Sacramentia” has a more contagious ring to it than Portlandia, but if there were a show that satirized what it means to live in Sacramento, there would definitely be a sketch about Grange Restaurant and Bar’s “Follow the Chef” experience. It’s one of the most Sacramento-y things you can do: follow Executive Chef Oliver Ridgeway around Wednesday’s Cesar Chavez Plaza Park farmers’ market and sit down to a three-course lunch afterwards. Farm-to-fork dining in its most pure form.
If the term “farm-to-fork” causes your skepticism meter to rise in response to its ubiquity, fear not. This is the real deal; seeing is believing. You are not following around some world-weary chef who barely makes time for you in some PR stunt. Rather than absent-mindedly pointing at a few things as you whiz by, you get to see authentic interactions with people Chef refers to by name, and you get to hear a running commentary of what looks fresh, how to prepare it, and how these farmers’ stories came to be. Time management:
- Arrive at 11:00am at Grange Restaurant (926 J St., at the bottom of The Citizen Hotel) where you meet the other tour-goers and get your Grange market tote
- The market tour takes about half an hour.
- Lunch lasts anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.
- You can go every other Wednesday now through October 2016
- The experience is capped at 12, so call (916) 492-4450 to make a reservation
- The tour and lunch costs $39 (truly one of the best steals around)
- Parking can be a bit problematic, as the perimeter spots around the park are all permit-only on Wednesdays to accommodate the market, so you can:
- pay to park in the City Hall Parking Garage ($1.50/half hour)
- pay to valet through The Citizen ($7)
- circle the block a couple (dozen) times, though most parking in the area limits out at an hour
- During the tour, the chef makes stops throughout where you can taste and buy produce, hear from the growers, and gain inspiration from Ridgeway’s notes. Chef Ridgeway’s charm doesn’t end at his English accent; he chats affably with farmers and tour guests alike, answering questions and narrating his observations about what looks good that day.
- Your lunch consists of a three-course meal that is served by and explained by the chef:
- a starter, such as a salad or soup
- an entrée
- a dessert
- a non-alcoholic mixed drink, a glass of wine, and coffee or tea to finish
Here’s what our lunch consisted of, with some commentary from Chef Ridgeway:a peach-apricot-vanilla spritzer“A little summer on the plate” salad comprised of compressed melon, early heirloom tomatoes, heirloom cucumbers, blistered shishito peppers, and feta, dressed with green olive oil and reduced balsamicA “super seasonal” entrée of Wild California King Salmon (currently sourced from Fort Bragg), “teenage” summer squash, no-cream creamed corn, and romesco sauce; “a vegan dish…with fish on it.”Pastry chef Rod Cuadra explained that “we’re strong in blueberries – and every berry for that matter – right now, so this is a very blueberry-forward dessert.” And blueberry-forward it was: blueberry sorbet, blueberry crumb, blueberry curd, white-chocolate milk, and pine-needle yogurt – all beautifully structural on the plate.
Some highlights about how to navigate the market and make the most of your haul:
- Take a lap around the market first to get a lay of the land, see what’s in abundance, and who’s selling what
- Don’t be afraid to sample. According to Chef Ridgeway, “That’s what’s great about farmers’ markets: It’s like driving a car without buying it; you get to taste before you buy.” One farm’s blackberry sample was better than another we’d tried earlier, and our dollars were better spent as a result.
- At the end of the tour, Ridgeway encouraged us to learn to pickle and preserve to address the fact that “there’s a connection to food that’s been lost over generations as a result of supermarket shopping and accessibility to produce year-round.” For example, because tomatoes aren’t in season in January, we should preserve tomatoes when they are in season so that we aren’t buying lower-quality, less flavorful, more expensive “tomatoes” in winter when they aren’t in peak season.
- Sometimes our eyes are bigger than our reusable market totes, so to bridge the gap between our refrigerator space and our (over) ambition, chef recommends that you get creative. No matter the season, there is always a profusion of a few particular crops. Ridgeway explains, “you want to help the farmers out by buying their produce, but you want to put it on the menu without being boring.” For example, throughout the tour, Ridgeway suggested that we could make BBQ sauce out of overripe peaches, or a pickled-peach mustard of under-ripe peaches, or “zoodle pasta” out of the bumper crop of zucchini. Also a champion of stretching produce, Ridgeway explained how to make the most out of corn season: use the flavorful corn cream found by scraping the cob with the back of a knife in a custard, and then save the cobs to smoke something with.
Going out to eat is always fun, and you can often learn a lot from the menu or your server – especially from a restaurant like Grange that gives itself a hundred-mile radius for its ingredients – but seeing the chef buy those ingredients first-hand, explain what he’s looking for, and what he’s planning to do with it is a pretty unique experience.
At what other market are you getting a tailored experience where you can learn when to use different types of olive oils*, how to pick out a quality melon**, how to care for strawberries***, and how to elevate Padrón peppers**** above their go-to sea-salt-and-olive-oil preparation?
*= Ridgeway has been using market olive oil purveyors Tahema Olive Oil, and Bariani Olive Oils for almost four years now, and suggests using the more green, peppery oils, for a light dressing or as a finisher over risotto, and more well-rounded, balanced olive oils for every-day cooking.
**= “Typically they’re going to taste how they smell; I can smell them from where I’m standing, so I would buy these melons for sure.” (see minute 1:30 in this Seinfeld clip)
***= “Take good care of them and they’ll take good care of you. I wash them only as I need them and keep them in an air-tight container.”
****= after roasting them, add some sautéed chorizo and feta and you’ve got yourself a sophisticated appetizer for your next dinner party…or Tuesday night.No need to mark your calendar for the third Tuesday of odd-numbered months ending in “y.” Just find your next available Wednesday (by October!), ask someone out on a date, schedule a long lunch from the office, or purchase the experience as a gift for someone else. You’ll be grange-ful you did.
Photos | Susan Yee
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