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Executive Chef Oliver Ridgeway came to Sacramento last year and began working for Grange, the restaurant in the ground floor of the Citizen Hotel at 10th and J streets, when former chef Michael Tuohy left.
The Sacramento Press met with Ridgeway, 35, last week to talk about his cooking experience, what he enjoys most and what his take on Sacramento is after spending much of his career in international cuisine.
Sacramento Press: How did you get your start in the business?
Oliver Ridgeway: My father had a restaurant in Sussex, England, where I was born. It’s near the coastal city of Brighton. My parents were divorced – always have been since I’ve known – and that meant weekends with my father working in the restaurant. I was always around, and it was just a natural progression, really. I’ve always enjoyed the environment and the buzz and the excitement around it.
It’s something I went to school for after high school, and I’m still doing it.
SP: When did you come to the United States?
OR: Originally in 2001 I did a short stint in New Orleans for six or seven months, and then I went over to Park City, Utah, in 2002 and did the Winter (Olympic) Games. I’d previously done the summer games in Australia.
It was mainly VIP sponsors for the performers in the opening ceremonies, like private dinner boxes, and that sort of thing.
SP: How did you become involved with the Olympics?
OR: I flew to Australia in 2000 and ended up seeing an old friend I’d worked with back in ’98 on the Queen Elizabeth II, and he had a gig at the stadium, and he got me some part-time work. They said, “Look, we’ve got the Olympics here in September, why don’t you come back?”
It was really top-notch equipment, and money was no object on the food. The luxury box holders were people like Rupert Murdoch and Deutsch Bank, and you never knew if they would be entertaining, so you could have people come in out of the blue.
SP: If you had to cook one dish that you think of as your absolute favorite, what would it be?
OR: I like to cook a good bouillabaisse, a good seafood dish. It’s a Provencal dish. I like the delicacy of the broth and how you’ve got different shellfish and seafood elements, and when they’re all cooked in harmony, you’ve got a really good dish. It comes across as like a peasant’s dish, but really, not really.
We don’t serve it here, but I definitely recognize some of the flavors in what we do.
SP: What do you enjoy about cooking in Sacramento?
OR: I enjoy cooking with seafood and a lot of vegetables. They’re really in abundance here.
SP: More common than in Sussex?
OR: Yeah, I think England produces a lot of vegetables, but I think the climate here in Northern California, you know we’ve got asparagus coming out the back door, and everything is in proximity.
If you go to a market on Sundays, it’s all grown here: strawberries, blueberries, cherries, summer squash is in now – green beans. It’s all from here. It’s not imported, and at Grange, that’s what it’s all about, but it’s really not hard to cook local because everything is from here.
SP: Since coming to Grange, how would you say your cooking has changed?
OR: We are a local sustainable farm-driven restaurant, and I think I have stayed true to that and brought some of my global flair. You use ingredients, but you make sure not to mask them. I definitely recognize things from the Mediterranean and my time in New Orleans and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
SP: What do you enjoy cooking most here?
OR: I really enjoy spring, after a long winter just seeing all the vibrant ingredients coming out, sort of the pan searing with olive oil and really lightening things up a bit.
SP: What is an aspect of your job that people don’t know about or aren’t familiar with?
OR: In today’s job, you’re the forefront of your kitchen, and you’re almost an ambassador for your business, so you come out and talk to the guests and let them speak to the chef and let them understand why we’re doing something we’re doing, and it goes a long way to really making sure they have a great evening. It kind of puts the icing on the cake.
SP: How has the advent of Yelp changed the business?
OR: Well, everybody’s a food critic, and like it or not, they all have their opinions. Sometimes you do have criticisms where they might have a valid point, but we’ve been really fortunate where we’ve hit some good home runs, but there’s no filter, and I think it is great to have an opinion. Love it or hate it, it’s not going to go away. We use it as an active tool, and we will respond to them and always look into something. You have to learn from it. You can’t have a negative attitude about it.
SP: Is there anything you look forward to with summer cooking?
OR: Tomatoes. I can’t wait to work with tomatoes, and we’ve got the stone fruits coming out – the peaches and nectarines – and I’ll probably be doing some raw preparations with fish, crudos and ceviches.
SP: What is your guilty pleasure food?
OR: If I’m going to be dirty, and I suppose it really doesn’t have to be dirty, but pizza is mine. I like a good wood-burning oven, Italian pizza, just a margherita with mozzarella and fresh basil, just a simple, delicious pizza.
SP: Where would you like to see Grange go from here?
OR: Just to really have it be a destination where people go when they visit Sacramento. I want it to be a must-go-to restaurant because we’re celebrating the foods of Sacramento, and everything we cook is from here. It’s innovative, it’s fun.
SP: What do you like most about Sacramento, from a livability aspect?
OR: I’m still discovering it. It’s got so many little pockets. My first impression was of downtown, and then you walk five minutes and you’re in Midtown and it’s cool and funky, and you’ve got those little cafes. I like the diversity of the city, and you’ve got so much to discover here. Then, as you go farther out, you’ve got Napa and Sonoma and Tahoe and Yosemite and San Francisco and all sorts of places like that.