by Anneli Rufus
At Sacramento’s most-talked-about restaurant, The Kitchen, executive chef John Griffiths and chef-owner Randall Selland celebrated the seasonal and the local by adding walnuts to the menu — at the exact same time as walnuts were being harvested in orchards throughout neighboring San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Yolo counties.
“There’s no better time to cook than fall,” Griffiths announced, going on to praise the region’s fruits, vegetables, meats, fish — and nuts, whose rich earthiness he said was intrinsic to autumnal cuisine.
“We chefs don’t sleep much, so while lying awake at night we come up with dishes that are really labor-intensive,” he laughed, detailing a menu whose dozens of components included beet-juice-cured steelhead trout, nori brioche with sea urchin butter, Wagyu beef with Bourbon marshmallows, sheep’s-milk ricotta gnudi with matsutake mushrooms and walnut brown butter and, for dessert, maple meringue with fruit-nut tarts and caramelized walnut ice cream.
The Kitchen is famed for its lively “Demonstration Dinners,” which resemble celebrity-chef reality TV shows without the cameras as both chefs theatrically discuss ingredients, techniques and sourcing methods from a central staging area, then roam the aisles chatting with guests — most of whom made their highly sought-after reservations weeks in advance. During an “intermission” halfway through the meal — a multicourse prix-fixe that changes every month, so check with the restaurant for current offerings — small bites and special drinks are served at various stations throughout the restaurant, including the kitchen itself. Guests are encouraged to wander from station to station, sampling the fare at each and striking up conversations with strangers as if on a cruise ship or at a society wedding.
Among the guests that night was third-generation walnut grower Jack Mariani, who told me that in the 41 years since the Mariani Nut Company was founded in Yolo County, “walnuts have become trendy. They used to be bought almost entirely as baking ingredients, but now the majority are bought for snacking and to put on salads.”
Another big change, Mariani said, is that while walnuts were shunned forty years ago by many consumers who considered them fattening, these exact same unsaturated fats are now being promoted as beneficial, as are the antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber that make walnuts a key element of the heart-healthy Mediterranean Diet.
“In the time I’ve been in this business, walnuts have become a superfood,” Mariani said with a smile.
The next day, as a guest of the California Walnut Board, I watched the walnut harvest in action at Alpine Pacific Nut Company, about an hour’s drive from Sacramento. Mechanical “shakers” cruise up and down the rows, seizing heavy boughs in their massive “jaws” and jarring them to send nuts hailing earthward, clattering like an orchestra of castanets. Other machines sweep up the fallen nuts, collect them and carry them to other facilities where they are cleaned of debris and hulled — freed from the leathery green sheaths coating the hard beige shells we know so well — then dried to ensure a hearty shelf life.
And that’s how they end up traveling around the world as well as on restaurant menus — California walnuts account for 99 percent of the commercial US supply and three-fourths of the walnuts sold worldwide. At The Kitchen, Randall Selland told me that the dreamily satiny caramelized-walnut ice cream we were eating that night was the “lower-calorie version.” In the super-deluxe version, actual pats of fresh butter are folded right into the frozen mixture. Sounds like something we might like to try at home!
You can click on each photo to enlarge. All photos by Anneli Rufus.