chef's table

SPECTACULAR INTERACTIVE EXPERIENCE

The Kitchen, a local fine-dining favorite, makes guests feel at home.

WRITTEN BY CATHERINE ENFIELD
PHOTOS BY RACHEL VALLEY

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It’s rare to find restaurant guests walking through the kitchen or checking out the freezer. Such areas traditionally have been off limits for diners. But staff members at The Kitchen won’t shoo them away. Guests here are invited to roam freely and explore every nook and cranny, talk with any and all staff members, and even learn a new cooking technique if they would like. Combine that with a fabulous five-course meal and a memorable experience, and you have one of Sacramento’s most distinctive dining concepts.

The Kitchen’s uncommon approach has made it a favorite among Sacramento diners for more than 25 years. It’s often named on prestigious lists, including OpenTable’s Top 100 Restaurants in America and AAA Five-Diamond winners, an award which it has garnered for six years straight (2011 – 2017). Still, many Sacramentans are unfamiliar with it because no signage marks the building tucked away on Hurley Avenue where this special dining experience takes place.

Idea takes shape

The Kitchen was an unusual concept from the start. In the late ’80s, husband and wife Randall Selland and Nancy Zimmer had been working in catering and restaurants for several years when a wine distributor asked them to host a wine-pairing dinner. As event preparations progressed, Selland and Zimmer noted that the guests were paying more attention to and talking with them as they cooked than they were to the wine presentation.

Selland enjoyed interacting with his guests and creating an atmosphere that mimicked a dinner party at one’s home. This new dining concept fell right in with Selland and Zimmer’s philosophy of hospitality. Like any good hosts, they always have wanted guests to leave full of food and having had a great time, including enjoying seconds and thirds of any dish.

“It’s like going to somebody’s house for dinner. We just did what we wanted to do,” Selland says. “If you were at my home for dinner and you wanted another appetizer or more dessert, I’d give it to you.”

In 1991, the pair opened The Kitchen using this concept. During those first few years, diners enjoyed a four-course meal for $40 and could choose between two entreés. During the last 26 years, that’s evolved into a five-course, prix fixe dinner that also includes an intermission.

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Farm-to-fork leader

On any given farmers’ market day, you will probably see Selland or one of his chefs searching the market for ingredients. The chefs wander the market, select the freshest items, and then load up in the nearby Selland’s van to distribute them to one of the five Selland restaurants in Sacramento. From the outset, Selland Family Restaurants’ eateries all have been farm-to-fork champions.

It is Selland family members who led the movement for Sacramento to become America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. Zimmer’s son, Josh Nelson, approached the City of Sacramento in 2012 about the idea of showcasing the area’s rich agricultural background. The idea has blossomed to not only include the Farm-to-Fork Festival in September, but also year-round events and agriculture conferences that attract attendees from around the world.

This philosophy of course extends to The Kitchen, where ingredients are the best and freshest possible, usually selected that day, sourced locally, and always in season, making for an ever-changing menu that makes the most of farm-to-fork flavors.

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The experience

The Kitchen is ideal for special occasions. Every day, diners can be found here celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or engagements. It’s an evening of entertainment and socialization that happens to include great food.

Guests arrive and are invited to wander around the restaurant, have some drinks, and taste some passed bites. Once seated, executive chef Kelly McCown explains how it all works. McCown, a high-energy chef, also acts as master of ceremonies for the evening. He explains that guests can go anywhere they want in the restaurant and interact with the staff. Diners are welcome to go to the kitchen and prep areas and taste ingredients or try a cooking technique, such as flambé, with the chef.

The first two courses are served seated, and then there’s an intermission — an opportunity for guests to get up and stretch while visiting several chef stations scattered throughout the restaurant, kitchen, and patio; each station serves up treats such as sushi, charcuterie, and artisan cheeses.

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During the four-hour service McCown keeps things flowing and lively — cracking jokes, explaining the provenance of an ingredient, or sharing the science behind some of the cooking techniques. Meanwhile, staff members work with precision, quickly plating dishes for the 50 diners welcomed each night.

After the final three courses, guests may linger with coffee or tea service. It’s a long evening, but one filled with good times and happy memories.

Catherine Enfield has been writing about Sacramento’s food scene since 2007. She is a frequent contributor to edible Sacramento, Sacramento magazine, and Eater.com.

Resources

The Kitchen

2225 Hurley Way, Sacramento

916-568-7171 • Thekitchenrestaurant.com

Open 6:30 p.m. Wed. – Thurs., 7 p.m. Fri. – Sat., and 5 p.m. Sun.

Recipe

Room Temperature Tomato Soup

(courtesy of chef Randall Selland, owner, Selland Family Restaurants in Sacramento. Serves 4)

2½ pounds heirloom tomatoes (any variety)

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

¼ bunch cilantro

1 to 2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

½ shallot, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons salt

Salt and pepper, to taste

Core and chop tomatoes into 8 to 10 pieces each. Combine all ingredients in large bowl and gently mix together. Allow to sit 5 hours at room temperature for olive oil and salt to break down tomatoes and combine flavors. Run mixture through food mill or blender, then salt and pepper to taste. Serve soup chilled or at room temperature. Suggested accompaniments include burrata cheese and chives, crispy soft-shell crab, or Dungeness crab salad.

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