These days, the best reservation in town might not be at a restaurant, but at a chef’s table — in the chef’s private home or yours. Congenial chefs are inviting clients to stir and chop to their heart’s content before sitting down to a meal.
Building off Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement, which highlights locally grown food, home–based dinner parties involve a chef directing the cooking while guests pitch in. These intimate gatherings are an outgrowth of culinary classes staged in more public venues. Fresh, local and sustainable might be the keywords, but an element of entertainment is what makes them fun.
PAULETTE BRUCE / GOOD EATS COOKING CLASSES
When neighbors complained about too many cars parked frequently around her Land Park home, Paulette Bruce relocated her residence-based cooking classes to a commercial kitchen inside a restaurant supply store on Richards Boulevard. Now, Good Eats Cooking Classes hosts sessions focused on everything from sweetheart dinners to comfort food. But it’s the monthly farm-to-fork dinners, for which participants prepare dishes such as sage-braised pork shoulder with herb späetzle or grilled Fuyu persimmons with frisée and orange brown-butter dressing, that fill up first.
“There’s been no publicity for these classes, so that tells me there’s strong interest,” Bruce says. “People are far more concerned now with knowing where their food is coming from and who’s growing it. It makes food more personal.”
More customized still are interactive dinner parties Bruce hosts at her home. Guests set the theme, bring their own wine and are served a set-price, multicourse meal that they are welcome to help prepare (or not) as the mood strikes. Regardless, laughs Bruce, “everyone ends up in the kitchen.”
“People who do this like good food, like to have fun and when they go out want to relax and do something different,” she says. “This is a way they can accomplish that without going to a restaurant.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with going to a restaurant,” she hastens to add. “But you can’t spend four hours in a restaurant. They’ll throw you out.”
Pat Stromberg, who owns a garden shop in Davis, brought a party of eight for a “kitchen dinner” at Bruce’s home last June.
She and her friends are still talking about it, she says: “It was a 6-course meal served in the garden, and it was fabulous. We were there from 6:30 until 10:00. I like to cook, and I like to entertain, but she did everything 10 times better than I could. It was a marvelous time.”
Mary Messick of Sacramento is so sold on the BYOB, no-stress dinner-party concept that she has gathered up to a dozen friends on multiple occasions for an interactive dinner party at Chez Bruce. “She makes it so fun and entertaining — if you burn something in the kitchen or put to much flour in, it’s OK; she can fix it,” Messick says. “She will teach you to cook, or you can just watch and have a good time; whatever environment you want.”
EMILY BAIME AND DARIN MICHAELS / COMMUNITY TAP & TABLE
“Look, we’re not lawyers; we’re beer bellies with a cooking problem,” begins the liability release that participants in Community Tap & Table Cooking Club are asked to sign upon arrival at Emily Baime and Darin Michael’s home in Sacramento’s Little Pocket neighborhood. The humorous introduction breaks the ice among the mostly 20- and 30-somethings who gather two to three nights a week around the butcher-block island in the couple’s recently remodeled kitchen. By styling their enterprise as a cooking club and donating a portion of proceeds to farm-to-fork projects and culinary training programs, Tap & Table avoids being perceived as a home-based restaurant.
Michaels, a beer distributor with a brewing background, is a pairing expert who can articulate the qualities of an obscure craft brew with as much verve as a tasting-room manager can explain a single-vineyard Cab. Baime, whose background is in catering and event management, has a similarly personable style to compliment her mastery in the kitchen.
Heavily influenced by the slow food movement, which emphasizes scratch cooking over processed alternatives, the couple purchases seasonal produce from local farmers to use in interactive classes focused on everything from pasta- and cheese-making to home-cured bacon. Once a month, participants tackle a 4-course, seasonally themed menu that is paired with various beers and shared among all.
“We’re always looking at, ‘What are the unique food experiences in our region, and how we can make food more tangible?’” says Baime. “People are looking for something where they’re not just going into a restaurant to see some untouchable chef on a stage and watch him chop. They’re looking for ways to live the Food Network. Events like ours tap people who romanticize becoming professional chefs in their own lives.”
While Tap & Table caters many private dinner parties (hosted at their house or the customer’s), a typical event brings together like-minded people who’ve never met. For a recent $65 pasta-making class, three couples and two single women gathered to make sweet-potato gnocchi, fresh fettuccini and squash lasagna baked in a rich white sauce. The group included a high-school teacher from Woodland, a pair of new attorneys from East Sacramento, a couple from Curtis Park, another couple from Davis.
“I’m here to make good on my New Year’s resolution to cut out processed food,” says Kelsey Whittaker of Vacaville, who graduated two years ago from UC Davis. “In school, I was living off of freezer burritos and Pop-Tarts. I feel a lot better with food I can make from scratch.”
TERESE HOLLANDER ESPERAS AND DIONISIO ESPERAS / A HEALTHY KITCHEN
When it comes to interactive cooking experiences, few Sacramento culinary pros are more visible than Terese Hollander Esperas and her husband, Dionisio Esperas. Terese is the program coordinator at Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op, where both have been staging cooking demonstrations and interactive classes for a decade. But that’s just a part of their business, A Healthy Kitchen, which seeks to foster what they see as a growing desire among consumers for quality, locally sourced ingredients, healthy meals and a take-away element that can be shared with family and friends.
To that end, they host private, farm-to-fork cooking parties — part demonstration, part interaction, part education — for gourmet groups, individuals celebrating special occasions and “anyone who wants to have a chef come in and prepare a meal at their home, as opposed to straight-up catering,” Terese says.
“A lot of times, people who want this experience want to be more in touch with their food as opposed to going to a restaurant,” she adds. “In Sacramento, there’s a huge selection of growers and produce, which makes what we do all the more fun.”
Renate Fry and Connie Zuercher, both of Davis, belong to separate, all-women cooking groups that have been hosting the Esperases once a month at members’ homes for years. “It’s entertaining, and at the same time we learn a lot,” Zuercher says. “Dio has a great sense of humor and is very knowledgeable about the history and sources for every dish. All of them are unique because he puts such a healthy spin on them.”
Fry’s group, the “Hot Hungry Hags,” relishes the camaraderie as much as the opportunity to develop menus and pick up new recipes and techniques. “We’re very chatty and social, and he has to quiet us down,” she says. “But most of us come back the next time and say, ‘I made this at home, and my family loved it.’”
The Esperases’ versatility goes beyond home cooking instruction. Donn Reiners of Carmichael has hired the couple on three occasions, once for a garden-club event at which the Esperases were asked to use geranium leaves as herbs in a variety of dishes. They also served as private chefs for Reiners’ 75th birthday celebration.
“One of my hobbies is wine, and I wanted to make sure I had the kind of food and wine pairings to die for,” he says. “It was just masterful. Our guests were culinary experts in their own right, and everyone was just amazed at how every single dish was spot-on.”
To this day I lament the closing of the California Café at Arden Fair Mall.
For years I would describe it as “my favorite restaurant that I never go to.” It had a great vibe, comfortable ambience, cool bar, eclectic wine list, intelligent bartender and a seasonal, farm-fresh menu long before that was trendy. I just couldn’t get over the fact that it was located in a shopping center. I take partial blame for its demise nearly a decade ago; I should have frequented it more often.
Great food capitals of the world: Can you name them? Florence. Paris. Tokyo. Barcelona. Istanbul. Singapore. What do these destinations of culinary delights offer?