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Awake at the Whisk: Conscious Cooking Reignites Firehouse

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Conscious Cooking Reignites Firehouse

Everyone knows The Firehouse Restaurant as a Sacramento icon for its picturesque court yard, abundant wine cellar, and historic charm. Yet, on a recent sit-down with Executive Chef Deneb Williams, I was delighted to learn that The Firehouse is also surprisingly alive and modern. From its menu to food-sourcing practices to a unionized kitchen staff, Firehouse is innovative and inspiring.
First, there’s the menu. Chef Williams has done some traveling in his day, and his global tastes are reflected in a new bill of fare that is bright and playful. The Mahi Mahi Tacos blend the flavors of honey, cumin, cilantro, mango, cucumber, and avocado, and are served as you might find them on the streets of Mexico, rustically wrapped in paper.

Classic Dungeness Crab Cakes come alive with the pop of plump corn, fresh cilantro, and a light, sweet pepper coulis. Another classic, the caprese salad, becomes a modern day display of creativity in Chef Williams’ Heirloom Tomato Napoleon, which appears in a rounded stack looking deceptively like a large, whole tomato.

In fact, most of Williams’ dishes are immaculately displayed, and even more studiously planned months in advance. Churning out three new seasonal menus each year, with the addition of nightly specials and formal occasion dinners, (like Valentine’s Day), Williams will run through 38 different menus and 50 tastings to test them, in a single year.

This is a guy who needs to be fully awake at the whisk! And he is.

Raised in the San Juan Islands near Vancouver, Canada, Williams was brought up on a macrobiotic vegetarian diet. His mother raised goats and had a large garden. Her philosophy sticks with him to this day. He still doesn’t eat much red meat, and when he does, he says he can only eat about four ounces at a time. He shops regularly at Sacramento’s Sunday farmers’ market. He works with seasonal themes, local farmers, and an environmentally strong food philosophy.

“I won’t serve seafood that is overfished,” Williams says firmly. “I try to balance both wild and farm-raised fish. And I get all my Ahi from the big island in Hawaii. It’s only caught using long line, and they don’t harvest shark.”

Williams proceeds to rattle off several websites on sustainable fishing that I should be sure to read. When I ask him how he keeps up with all the information, he doesn’t hesitate, “I’m completely obsessed with what I do!”

He speaks passionately about the farms he has visited in pursuit of the perfect ingredients for The Firehouse menu. He describes his process for sourcing quality ingredients for a menu that must be planned 120 days in advance.

With the oddly cold start to our Sacramento summer, the tardy tomato season sent Williams to Southern California for heirloom tomatoes he would otherwise have purchased locally. This is a quandary that he clearly approaches thoughtfully.

“I have to react quickly,” he says. “I’ve got squash, basil, and onions coming in locally now. I’ll definitely run specials when our local tomatoes are finally ripe.”

Williams trains his chefs to respond quickly, too. He trains them to prepare every item on the menu to meet the dietary needs of Firehouse customers. “We can make anything on the menu vegetarian, vegan, etcetera,” he explains enthusiastically.

He speaks highly of the chefs he works with, all of whom are part of this union restaurant. “I’m only as good as my cooks,” he says with pride. “Most of my cooks could be executive chefs at other restaurants.”

This pride and passion aren’t immediately apparent when you step through the ancient doors of this historic, quiet, reserved restaurant. Yet, somewhere inside the kitchen, hidden from diners’ view, an explosion of creativity and zeal is taking place. If you eat there, rest assured, you will experience it: in your mouth.

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