The Farm-to-Fork Movement Meets the NBA
Some traditions are made to be broken. One of them is the godawful quality of food in sports arenas. Accordingly, the following items will not, repeat not, be on the bill of fare in the Golden 1 Center: tasteless hot dogs in soggy white buns, greasy fries sitting in pools of oil at the bottom of paper trays, gummy hamburger buns concealing a squashed grey pattie and nachos drowning in a viscous yellow liquid that dares call itself cheese.
No worries: the Golden 1 Center will have far better things to eat. Pizzas from Café Bernardo and Paragary’s Bar, spicy Vietnamese-style ban-li sandwiches from Star Ginger, artisan sandwiches from Sellands, and plump peppery sausages in natural casings from Lowbrau Bierhaus. All these savories are to be made entirely from locally sourced food, nearly all of it organic, and all of it under the direction of former Lowbrau chef and farm-to-fork champion Michael Tuohy, now executive chef and manager of the Golden 1 Center.
A number of local restaurants, including the above-mentioned five, will each be represented by its own concession stand inside the arena. Food will be served on everything from push carts to luxury suites with seating for 100 people.
“The food in the suites will be more elaborate, but the ingredients will be the same throughout the arena,” says Tuohy.
The idea of making the arena a showcase of Sacramento cuisine actually started with the Kings ownership, according to Tuohy. “The owners at the top said, very astutely, that one of the things that makes Sacramento great is our food,” says the bearded chef. “We’re the breadbasket of the country and we’re very rich in the availability of fresh food.”
Tuohy, who was chef at Lowbrau before joining Legends Hospitality — a national firm that manages concessions for sports and entertainment venues — has been an outspoken champion of local sourcing and organic foods and a leader of the local farm-to-fork movement. When first approached by Legends executives, he admits he was surprised to find himself being approached for a management position in a national organization, with offices in New York and Dallas.
“I first said, ‘wow, I’ve never been a chef for an arena before’,” recalls Tuohy. “I’ve never woken up and said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’” After all, “in the past the food has not been very good.”
Legends execs were apparently unfazed by Tuohy’s candor. “The first thing they said was, ‘it’s actually a good thing that you haven’t been a chef for as an arena so you can approach the job without preconceptions.’” The execs also offered to give Tuohy a free hand to run the food service according to his own standards. “Here’s an opportunity to deliver great food and this is one place where you can work with in local products,’” he recalls them saying.
And with a location in the middle of downtown, he sees the arena as a place where the local food culture can find expression, and provides a way for the arena to identify itself with Sacramento. “The company is embracing all things local,” says the arena chef.
In his position as chef of the Golden 1 Center, Tuohy says he plans to exercise strict control over all operations. “We buy the food, we do the hiring,” he says. Although the concession stands will carry the brands of various Sacramento restaurants, it’s Tuohy’s operation from top to bottom: He runs the kitchens, hires the staff and determines the final menu for each concession (currently a work in progress). Rather than running their own concessions directly, the participating restaurant groups are licensing their brands and menus to Golden 1.
Currently, Tuohy is working on an official “sourcing statement” for the Golden 1 Center. All food is to be sourced within a 150-mile radius, which conforms to the standards set up by sourcing purists. At least 90 percent of the produce is to be organic. All food is to be seasonal. “You won’t see a white tomato on a hamburger in December,” he says, “although we could work with dried tomatoes.”
In a sense, Tuohy is more or less recreating the cuisine found in the neighborhood surrounding the downtown arena. “Everything you find on the grid, you can find in the arena,” says Lowbrau owner Michael Hargis. (The grid refers to the original Sutter Grid, the 19th Century street plan that defines Midtown and Downtown.)
Authenticity in food is key to people who live and spend time on the grid. People in the older, hipper parts of the city take food seriously. “People in Midtown and Downtown don’t respond to chain restaurants,” says Ernesto Delgado, proprietor of Mayahuel restaurant on K Street, about seven blocks from the arena.
“Some (chains) have come in here and gone out again,” he adds. “People here want more of a unique, boutique kind of place.”
“We’re like country people here,” Hargis adds wryly. “We can smell bulls**t a mile away.”
The city’s evolving food tradition reflects one of the most diverse communities in the nation, including Chinese, South Asian, Vietnamese, Russians, Ukrainians, Latinos, Iraqis, Persians and a sprinkling of nearly everything else. As a result, many of the best places to eat in the city are family owned, “ethnic” restaurants.
As a result, Sacramento diners have developed a taste for restaurants with a strong cultural identity, including some with hipster attitude. The common threads among all these restaurants are robust flavors, adventurous menus and the opportunities for diners to discover new kinds of food.
Familiar things are also important, including the traditional fare of the American sports fan. “We’re going to have hot dogs and burgers, too, but they’re going to be good,” Tuohy says. The nearby NB Ranch, an organic provider, will “source” the franks for Golden 1.
Tuohy, the fresh-food purist, does not even despise the common nacho. He admits they’re usually awful. “It’s the lowest common denominator,” he says.
At the same time, “if you use good ingredients, they can be really good.”