Appetizers
December 12, 2011
Ella's chef heading back to wine country for new role

McCown.jpgKelly McCown, the chef who took the already popular Ella Dining Room & Bar to new heights, is leaving the elegant K Street restaurant for a new opportunity in wine country.

Outspoken and passionate about his craft, McCown was also known as something of a provocateur in the local restaurant game during the 2 ½ years he was in town. Online or in person, the chef tried to urge fellow chefs to think bigger and aim higher in order to elevate the city's dining scene beyond the "safe and secure cuisine" label that is sometimes all too fitting.

McCown, 44, will return to the site of the once-acclaimed (it earned a Michelin star) and now-shuttered Martini House in St. Helena. It was there, beginning in 2002 as chef de cuisine under executive chef and partner Todd Humphries, that McCown continued to expand his impressive repertoire. The new restaurant in that location has a working name of Goose & Gander, and the style of food is believed to be along the lines of a "gastro-pub," a term McCown doesn't necessarily like. He will be a partner in the new restaurant.

"I wasn't unhappy," he said when I asked why he was leaving. "My family, my girlfriend, my friends, my life has essentially been in Wine Country for the last 13 years. It has a real emotional pull for me.

"When this opportunity came around, the idea of continuing the legacy of Martini House -- the effort and the work that I put in and all the work that Todd put in - the idea of being able to continue that whole cycle was a little bit more than I could turn down."

McCown added that he admires the Selland family, which owns Ella (also Sellands Market and The Kitchen).

"They've treated me so well and have been amazingly gracious in our working relationship together," the chef said. "The chefs I've worked with in the area have been great. I was hoping the tree shaking or saber rattling was going to have a little more traction. I hope someone is going to be out there who is going to keep pushing."

When I asked McCown to assess Sacramento from a culinary perspective, he said part of the issue is geography - the metropolitan area is so spread out that it's difficult to have a cohesive dining scene that can be allowed to flourish. He isn't the first to say it, but downtown and midtown need more density if they want to thrive the way a Portland thrives. Driving 40 minutes in afternoon traffic to Elk Grove or Roseville doesn't exactly whet the appetite to freshen up and get back in the car to go out to eat. The simple pleasure of walking out your front door and taking a stroll or leisurely bike ride to dinner is something too many Americans may never experience, given the design of our suburbs.

McCown also said the economy has changed the face of dining in the past four or five years. Indeed, restaurants have often cut prices and created discounts to lure buyers, whether it's a lunch deal or an all-encompassing prix fixe dinner at an appealing price. A tough economy, however, can also spur innovation. Are there restaurants out there willing to be different and better in order to compete?

McCown also said something that surprised me - but makes sense in a way. The proximity of Sacramento to all kinds of farms growing world-class produce just might not be so great for restaurants. Food-lovers know they can get that produce at a farmers market and, unlike densely populated cities, they might be a little less likely to seek out a perfect heirloom tomato or beautiful asparagus by visiting a restaurant. Interesting idea, but I always thought it was the chef's obligation to do something with special with that tomato that almost compels us to visit the restaurant and try the food. In my view, too many chefs use the farm-to-table crutch - "I do as little as possible to the food" - as a way to avoid risk, and, possibly, expose weaknesses.

McCown also heaped praise on Billy Ngo, the owner and chef at Kru, the cutting-edge sushi joint, and the now-defunct Red Lotus (admired by everyone, supported by no one), which just might have been ahead of its time. Ngo and pal Aimel Formoli (Formoli's Bistro) just launched a cool and informal new venture in Natomas called Pork Belly Grub Shack. Stay tuned for a "First Impressions" piece in The Bee about the Grub Shack, which will include details about my first-ever pork belly French fries and a burger topped with a fried egg and - what else? - more of that amazing pork belly. Ngo is an innovator, a technician, an artist and a consummate host who just happened to choose food as his medium.

Says McCown, "Guys like Billy give me hope for the culinary scene in Sacramento."

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic.


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