October 18, 2012
Catching up with chef Charlie Harrison about gig in Chicago

I recently caught up by telephone with Charlie Harrison, an excellent and innovative chef who worked at several restaurants in the Sacramento area and was perhaps best known for his modern, eclectic cuisine at the short-lived Tre on Howe Avenue.

Harrison is now in Chicago, reunited with his roommate Homaro Cantu from their days at Portland's Western Culinary Institute. Cantu is the mastermind behind Michelin one star Moto restaurant, known for "interactive post-modern cuisine," and next door, the new iNG restaurant. Harrison is working at iNG. Cantu once won an Iron Chef going head to head with Morimoto. The restaurants are nestled in a trendy/industrial area of Chicago amid the loading docks and 19th century warehouses of Fulton Market. Grant Achatz's martini bar, Aviary, and his new restaurant Next, are nearby.

"I'm helping Homaro out. I can't tell you too much information yet, but I can say it's going to revolutionize brewing. If you know anything about Homaro, he's very outside the box. When it comes to creativity, he's off the chain. Things that come out of his kitchen are insane. Working for him is an education. You're learning something new every day." Harrison says the brewing concept should be unveiled in the next few months.

Cantu is also a big proponent of social media as a way of spreading the word about what is going on at his restaurants. "He bought all 60 employees iPhone 5s so we couuld blast our restaurants all day," Harrison told me.

So, Harrison is really reaching for new heights in the Windy City. At Tre, he received much acclaim, especially for the edgier food he did at the chef's table in the kitchen, where guests could enjoy tasting menus of five to 20 courses. In my 2009 review of Tre, I described his food this way, "The menu is all over the place, but in a way I enjoyed. Creative, consistent, serious, playful, well-organized. Asian, Cajun, Southern, Italian. From gourmet corn dogs and cotton candy to herb-crusted lamb tenderloin and duck confit ravioli."

I asked Harrison what he thinks of Sacramento as a culinary city and he had nothing but good things to say.

"For me, Sacramento was great. It allowed me to be creative and push the envelope," he said. "Sacramento has come a long way since I got there. I think there is a market for thinking outside the box. Size-wise, it's more like Portland, but I don't think the eaters are as adventurous. There's a smaller market for that way of eating in Sacramento - enough to sustain a few restaurants. The Kitchen (Restaurant) could easily get a Michelin Star. What they do is incredible."

But? Is Sacramento's food scene growing fast enough to keep chefs who want to challenge themselves?

"It wasn't growing fast enough for me," Harrison said.

That may be changing. Keep an eye on what's happening at Enotria, where Pajo Bruich, Edward Martinez and Stan Moore, among others, seem primed to really push the envelope. Blackbird is taking plenty of risks and pulling off some excellent dishes unlike anything else being served locally. Michael Thiemann returned to Sacramento (from San Francisco) and is taking Ella to new heights. Aimal Formoli has begun writing custom menus at his Formoli's Bistro based on the bio-dynamic produce he picks during twice-weekly trips to the Napa Valley. Feeding Crane Farms has burst upon the scene, catering specifically to restaurants - and it recently bought a commercial kitchen to launch a line of ready-for-market food products, the city has a burgeoning craft beer scene, a handful of urban wineries, and Taste Restaurant in Plymouth was just invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City (I'll have more on that by Friday).

Best of luck to Harrison in his new gig. Sacramento will really be hitting its stride when chefs like Harrison follow chefs like Thiemann and move back here. The population of adventurous eaters is growing.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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