Cool-Season Comfort

Five Sacramento area chefs, from top left: Ravin Patel, Dennis Sydnor, Chris Barnum-Dann, Brett Bohlmann and Tokiko Sawada. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Sacramento area chefs, from top left: Ravin Patel, Dennis Sydnor, Chris Barnum-Dann, Brett Bohlmann and Tokiko Sawada. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

What Sacramento area chefs cook for their own winter tables.

The winter season inspires for many of us a sense of connection and togetherness, drawing loved ones near, often around a shared meal. Given the two winters of the pandemic where travel and gatherings were limited, this time around is especially precious. For chefs, the question of what meal to serve is ever more important during this busy season of reunion. “In the restaurant business, people say they thrive on chaos,” notes chef Allyson Harvie, who started a catering enterprise during the pandemic.

“I want peace, harmony, calmness.”

Chef Harvie

And some comfort food.

In a demanding business relentlessly focused on pleasing others, chefs also need to take time out to care for themselves. So what do they crave as days turn cold? “Any wintertime root vegetables are always so delicious,” says Localis chef and co-owner Chris Barnum-Dann, a parsnip fan. “Citrus is another favorite; there are so many fun things to cook with citrus. Winter mushrooms are fantastic. And leafy greens; I love beautiful sweet lettuce in wintertime.”

We asked these local food superstars to share their personal picks for holiday recipes. These dishes are what they look forward to cooking — and eating — this winter season.

Allyson Harvie, Notre Ferme

Chef Allyson Harvie, Notre Ferme in Sacramento, stands with her plates of food. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati
Allyson Harvie, chef and owner, Notre Ferme, Sacramento. Photo by Jyotsna Bhamidipati

Grinding cranberries is a winter tradition for chef Allyson Harvie. “People have a unique relationship to cranberries,” notes Harvie, who has earned raves for her work at The Kitchen and Ella’s Dining Room. “You don’t like (them) or you’ve only had them canned or they’re tied to a bad experience during the holidays.”

But for Harvie, cranberries are red nuggets of joy, tied to memories of her late mother. “I lost my mom about four years ago, and my wants and needs shifted,” says Harvie. When restaurants closed during the pandemic, Harvie started her own company, Notre Ferme (Our Farm), as an ode to her mother. 

Chef Harvie smiles with her late mother.
Chef Harvie smiles with her late mother.

Now a private chef, she creates meals for special occasions and affluent clientele. “It’s been the best experience of my life,” she says, noting the positive effects of the work on her mental health. “I’m starting to know what happiness feels like.” Her family recipe for cranberry salad always makes her smile. “Cranberries are the fruit of winter,” Harvie explains. “We make a lot of [cranberry salad], so we have it for quite some time. I have it on sandwiches or cottage cheese.”

Brett Bohlmann, Boulevard Bistro

Chef Brett Bohlmann, Boulevard Bistro in Elk Grove. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Brett Bohlmann, chef and owner,Boulevard Bistro, Elk Grove. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

The winter months put chef Brett Bohlmann of Elk Grove’s Boulevard Bistro in the mood for duck confit. “As a kid growing up here, I hunted duck and pheasant,” he says. “But at age 14, I didn’t know how to cook that much. Then I went to culinary school and discovered French duck confit. It was the best thing ever!”

Chef Brett Bohlmann isn't afraid to take on challenging ingredients. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Chef Brett Bohlmann isn’t afraid to take on challenging ingredients. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Traditionally, this technique was used to preserve meat in winter. “You put the duck in salt and brine, and keep it in the wine cellar covered in fat for six weeks. It comes out extremely tender. With wild duck, it’s unbelievable.” Bohlmann’s own technique takes considerably less time — two or three days instead of weeks. 

“People are intimidated by duck. You use legs and thighs for confit, and they can be tough; ducks swim a lot, they use their leg muscles. Confit makes them tender. I love it. I have 54 legs in the fridge right now.” Bohlmann serves his duck confit with another winter favorite: white bean cassoulet. “That’s French for casserole,” he adds. “With the duck, it’s so good!”

Recipe: Duck Confit

Chris Barnum-Dann, Localis

Chris Barnum-Dann, Chef and Co-owner of Localis, Sacramento. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Chris Barnum-Dann, Chef and Co-owner of Localis, Sacramento. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

How does one capture the sweet-tart taste of tomatillos in winter chile verde while keeping the dish locally sourced, farm fresh, and green? If you ask chef Chris Barnum-Dann of Localis in Midtown Sacramento, the solution is a surprising tomatillo substitute: kiwi. “What is a tomatillo but a more acidic tomato with sweetness?” he asks. “A kiwi is exactly that; high acid, high sweetness. And it’s green! Honestly, I like it better now than traditional chile verde. It’s really fun to make in winter.”

And this winter is all about changeups for Localis owners Barnum-Dann and wife Jessica Shelton-Dann, who have had a memorable 2022. Wine Enthusiast named Localis one of the Top 50 restaurants in America, and the couple recently welcomed their fourth child, a daughter they named Willow.

Chef Barnum-Dann with daughter, Willow.
Chef Barnum-Dann with daughter, Willow.

In winter, Barnum-Dann craves spicy things, noting, “That’s what you want when it’s cold outside, and chile verde has heat to it.” In one dish, kiwi chile verde — made with kiwis grown in Placer County — represents his fresh, seasonal, and local ethos.

“It’s a very Localis thing. I always like working with something different and fun, and kiwis are a very strange fruit.”

Chef Barnum-Dann's kiwi chile verde adds zest and freshness to the meat in this dish. Photo courtesy of Chef Chris Barnum-Dann

Recipe: Kiwi Chili Verde

According to Chris Barnum-Dann, “You can use kiwi chile verde for a lasagna filling with lime pasta, Oaxaca cheese and pomegranate or in a quesadilla!! Or maybe just on its own with some fresh asparagus!”

Dennis Sydnor, Renegade Dining

Chef Dennis Sydnor of Cafe Federico and Renegade Dining. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Dennis Sydnor, chef and owner, Renegade Dining, Sacramento. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

A first introduction to food preparation for chef Dennis Sydnor was helping his father. As an eight year old, the future chef would watch his father knead batch after batch of Parker House rolls for the Sydnors’ large extended family. The rolls, characterized by their oval shape and buttery, flaky, and slightly sweet composition, were a family favorite. 

Before Thanksgiving or Christmas, bowls of dough occupied the top of the refrigerator and counter space. “I fell in love with the scent of yeast,” recalls Sydnor, owner of Renegade Dining. “Parker House rolls always remind me of family and my (late) father. We’d stay up late and make dozens and dozens of them. They’re something not a lot of people make, which makes these kind of unique. During the holidays, people tend to buy Parker House rolls. These are better. They’re buttery and delicious.”  

Chef Dennis Sydnor's siblings, mother and late father dining out at their family restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio.
Chef Dennis Sydnor’s siblings, mother and late father dining out at their family restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio.

Smoked ribs were another dad specialty. This chef now cooks smoked St. Louis ribs as a special treat for family, friends, and patrons at Café Federico in Natomas. His secret is pearwood (from Hemly Cider in Courtland) for the smoker and his own blackened spice mix for the rub.

“My ribs are definitely different (than dad’s).”

Smoked St. Louis Pork Ribs

Recipe: Smoked St. Louis Ribs

“I like to use a combination of a blackening spice I make with added brown sugar,” says chef Sydnor. “I use paprika, granulated onion, dehydrated garlic, thyme, dry mustard, celery seed, black pepper, kosher salt, and brown sugar.”

Ravin Patel, The 7th Street Standard

Chef Ravin Patel, chef at The 7th Street Standard in Sacramento. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Ravin Patel, chef, The 7th Street Standard, Sacramento. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Green bean casserole is a holiday staple, and chef Ravin Patel of The 7th Street Standard admits that’s one of his favorite winter recipes, though we’re not talking the one made with canned green beans and soup.

“My wife Ashlee is from the Midwest,” he explains. “When we first had holidays together, she would make green bean casserole, but she doesn’t make the traditional version out of a can.” Patel started tinkering with the recipe to further elevate the dish. “It’s super American but with a twist; we do everything with French technique,” he says. “It’s kind of become our thing for holiday meals. It takes a few more steps, but it’s really good.”

Chef Ravin Patel and his wife, Ashlee.
Chef Ravin Patel and his wife, Ashlee.

During the winter, Patel often makes biryani rice, a hearty baked rice dish filled with warm, Indian flavors. “It’s a universal rice dish,” he says.

“I’ve put it alongside roast turkey and gravy at Thanksgiving or at Christmas with prime rib. Or you can eat it just by itself. I like it personally because I can eat it with anything.”

Biryani Rice

Recipe: Biryani Rice

Tokiko Sawada, Binchoyaki

Tokiko Sawada, Binchoyaki — Izakaya Dining, Sacramento. Photo by Debbie Cunningham
Tokiko Sawada, owner and general manager, Binchoyaki — Izakaya Dining, Sacramento. Photo by Debbie Cunningham

Chef Tokiko Sawada and husband Craig Takehara have four children: three boys, ages two, four, and eight, and a six-year-old restaurant, Sacramento’s Binchoyaki — Izakaya Dining. “We’re trying to do all of it together,” says Sawada. “My husband and I work together and trade off on child care.” That makes for a busy, active family kitchen, too. “During the winter, we eat a lot of hot pots,” she explains.

A hot pot is what Chef Sawada turns to during the cold months.
A hot pot is what Chef Sawada turns to during the cold months.

Besides its warming qualities, hot pots are very flexible, just like their schedules. “A hot pot can be small for a single person or big for a whole family,” Sawada says. “It can have any ingredient — chicken, tofu, fish, vegetables, mushrooms. You add some starch such as udon or ramen noodles. Everything cooks in one pot.” This makes for easier clean-up, too.

Sawada makes her own dipping sauce to go with the hot pot. It doubles as another ingredient. “You can pour the dipping sauce into the pot along with the ramen.” It’s the ultimate winter comfort food, she adds. “It gets you very warm from the inside, and it’s very healthy, too.”

Recipe: Yu-Tofu

Yu-Tofu means “tofu in boiling water,” but this flavorful, flexible hot pot goes way beyond basic tofu.