By John Q. Horn
One successful cancer battle is enough to render anyone grateful and humble, if not entirely spent and reinvented.
So when Sacramento’s James Williams relentlessly shook free after twice stiff-arming Hodgkin’s, his eyesight sharpened, especially his entrepreneurial vision.
And it started with, of all things, a picnic.
Williams and his wife of 20 years, Kate, were coming off a second bout with cancer when the two decided a park picnic was in order. While the two unwound around the picnic basket, Williams’ business model came into focus.
“We sat there for 2 ½ hours, completely relaxed,” he said. “It felt like a mini-vacation.”
It was that afternoon that Sacramento Picnic Company was born. The business is, as one would imagine, exactly as it sounds – a team of professionals dedicated to hand-crafting and renting fully loaded, high-quality picnic baskets stuffed with locally grown culinary delights. Many picnic basket menu items rival what one would find in the most discerning dining rooms.
“From there we got our ducks in a row, started sending friends on picnics and started doing test runs,” he said.
Williams has taken a brilliant concept – the simplistically wholesome, blissful tranquility of an outdoor picnic – rendering it easily accessible to picnic-goers, while supporting local farmers, growers and foodsmiths. Imagine yourself, spread out on the cool grass with your favorite person, open bottle of wine, noshing on everything from smoked trout to local meats and cheese, to fresh salads and decadent desserts. And you never had to lift a finger to make it happen.
James Williams, Owner of Sacramento Picnic Company
Following some positive feedback through the social network – mainly Twitter and Facebook – the Sacramento Picnic Company became whole.
A picnic is pleasant. It is an enjoyable event that typically includes nice weather, fresh air, great company and some delicious food, while relaxing in a state of leisure and dining al fresco. However, it doesn’t appear that the average picnic occurs as often as folks would like. Life gets in the way of such pampering. It’s not until we see two other people in the park enjoying a picnic lunch that we think, “Hey, we should do that.”
And it’s easy to see why the concept of picnicking easily goes from top-of-mind to “next time, maybe” with the swiftness. On paper, it sounds great. But the legwork can be daunting and time-consuming. First, dig up a basket. How many people have a legit picnic basket on their property? We guess that it’s not very many.
It’s then to the grocery store for food, wine and anything else that makes the meal complete. Between prepping, packing and finding a comfortably quiet locale, well, one can get burned out before spreading out that checkered blanket on the clover.
The Sacramento Picnic Company takes care of it – all of it. And it does so with a beautiful attention to detail, palate and community.
The Sacramento Picnic Company is definitely a niche business, providing a very specialized service. Communities strengthen with unified and diverse business landscapes, according to Peter Tateishi, president and CEO of the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce.
“Small businesses are a critical economic driver to our region’s growing economy and businesses like the Sacramento Picnic Company, that are unique to the region, help build upon the economic momentum we are seeing in Sacramento,” Tateishi said.
From farm to fork
For Williams, the operation is simple but comprehensive. Diners select between one of four themed baskets (more themes are forthcoming), which include real plates, silverware, sparkling water and food. The latter is a particular point of pride for Williams, as he maintains that all ingredients be as locally sourced as possible. Sacramento-area farmers, bakers and foodies all play a role in the from-the-farm-to-the-fork commitment.
“There are more and more people who want to get away from mass produced food,” Williams said. “Sacramento has a great farmers market. When you taste it, it’s so much better.”
And that is difficult against which to argue, as the basket options and menu therein are smartly curated with not just locally grown goods, but toothsome ones as well.
“We load up the baskets with four courses,” Williams said. “The absolute last thing I wanted to do was to put a sandwich and a bag of chips in them.”
Inspired by the progressive culinary atmosphere in and around Sacramento, as well as the proximity of popular wineries, Williams’ basket options are impressively well thought out. Theme baskets include:
- The Italia Basket – The company’s most popular, it includes prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, fresh caprese salad, cremini mushrooms with white truffle and cannoli.
- Summer Basket – Smoked trout with farro and summer vegetable salad, charcuterie and dark chocolate mousse.
- Wine Tour Basket – Smoked salmon and chipotle deviled eggs with California caviar, couscous and grilled vegetable salad, smoked grass-fed beef and chocolate-dipped strawberries. And,
- Southern Basket – Bread and butter pickles, baby potato salad with Applewood smoked lardons, muffaleta sandwich and banana pudding.
Basket costs range from $69 to $99. The baskets, custom-built with two handles and wicker by the Peterboro Basket Company in New Hampshire, stay with the customer for 24 hours before being returned to designated drop-off and pick-up locations, which for now include area wineries. Williams said a more comprehensive pick-up grid, including an online system, is presently in the works.
Baskets are available on Saturdays and Sundays only, with greater availability coming soon. For more information, visit the Sacramento Picnic Company on Facebook.
Sacramento Picnic Company
(Interior View of Home Bistro )
By GLENN GILBERT
Local Business News
Rose Morenz probably didn’t consider herself a trend-setter in 1989 when she made potato pancakes for her 6-year-old grandson Victor.
The recipe was a natural for woman of Hungarian descent. But while potato pancakes may not be as American as apple pie today, they aren’t necessarily thought of as ethnic dish either.
“There was something about them,” Victor Morenz said. “She diced all of the potatoes by hand. She had very finely diced onions. Simple seasoning. They were the best potato pancakes I’ve ever had.”
While not originating in the United States, many recipes have been so altered from what they were originally that it is often hard to think of them as ethnic.
“We’ve all grown up eating all kind of ethnic food, which basically has become American food,” Morenz said. “Tacos at this point are essentially an American food. There are probably as many taco places in America as there are in Mexico.”
Morenz, now 31 years old, and his wife, Emily Gilbert, also 31, have purchased a restaurant in Chicago that has established a reputation for what is called New American fare.
Home Bistro restaurant owners Victor Morenz and Emily Gilbert near Lake Michigan in Chicago
Home Bistro, or HB as it is more popularly known, became a destination spot when it was owned by the Hearty Boys, Chicago caterers Dan Smith and Steve McDonagh. They at one time hosted a Food Network show. They called their restaurant in the Boystown section of Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood HB, a Hearty Boys Spot.
Their executive chef, Joncarl Lachman, took a New American approach but with a Dutch emphasis. He purchased the restaurant himself in 2007. Lachman owned two restaurants when he helped judge the 2010 San Pellegrino Almost Famous Chef Competition, a contest featuring 16 chefs from eight participating culinary schools, including Le Cordon Bleu School of Culinary Arts, from which Morenz graduated.
Morenz prepared a pork tenderloin roulade stuffed with cranberries, candied walnuts and sage, served with fried mashed potato pancakes and trotter and cranberry demi glace for the competition. His dish also featured frizzled parsnips and braised red cabbage. Morenz’s entry finished second in the competition.
Lachman recruited Morenz to serve as a line cook at another restaurant he owned, Vincent, in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. Shortly after, in January 2011, Lachman named Morenz sous (second) chef at Home Bistro, and Morenz became HB’s executive chef in January 2013.
Morenz explained how his New American approach applies to a white anchovy pinxto appetizer on Home Bistro’s menu. It includes a French canapé, with pickled peppers as a Spanish item. The anchovy is skewered with a cucumber base and piece of fried hallumi cheese, which is Middle Eastern.
Executive Chef Victor Morenz with White Anchovy Pinxto appetizer
What’s American about it? “The fact that I’m American,” Morenz said. “I’m not using any ethnic preparation of anything. I’m doing it my way, which is with French technique.” For instance, in the white anchovy pinxto, “I take a pinxto from the Basque region in Spain, but put Turkish cheese on it along with the traditional ingredients of white anchovy, pickled peppers, and tomato viaigrette on a baguette slice.”
“It’s a melting pot of cuisine with familiar foods,” Emily Gilbert said of HB ‘s menu. They wouldn’t be mixed together in an ethnic approach. Wikipedia defines New American cuisine as a trend originating in the United States in the 1980s.
“New American cuisine is generally a type of fusion cuisine that assimilates flavors from the melting pot traditional American cooking techniques mixed with foreign … components,” Wikipedia said.
“New American cuisine makes innovative use of seasoning and sauces. Originally based on French Nouvelle and United States cuisine, New American has since progressed to include elements of Asian, Latin American, Mediterranean and other cuisines.”
Morenz and Gilbert plan basic aesthetic changes in the building, which features classic Chicago architecture. The structure has been owned by the Weinberger family — now David Weinberger — since the 1920s. It has about 1,800 square feet, including the kitchen, and a seating capacity of 40.
There are no expansion options at HB and restaurants in Chicago can’t have liquor licenses unless they have more than one restroom. With one restroom they can opt for a bring-your-own-bottle approach and charge a corkage fee. Home Bistro has no such fee, which makes BYOB a popular option exercised by virtually all of its customers.
Executive Chef Victor Morenz, left, and Sous Chef Corey Bowers
Morenz and Gilbert, who is a program assistant in gender and sexuality studies at Northwestern University, describe HB’s atmosphere as rustic, cozy, intimate, romantic and candle-lit. Morenz said HB, which has a 4.4 rating from Yelp, is a neighborhood restaurant with a lot of destination diners.
Morenz said he started cooking for fun in high school. He sought to master chicken marsala, preparing it for his family. He said running a restaurant in Chicago is a tough business., involving long hours and a lot of hard work. “But it’s easily the most satisfying work I’ve ever had,” Morenz said. “There is instant gratification every day because you get to see people really appreciating what you spent all day working on.”
HB’s staff includes Corey Bowers as sous (second) chef, who attended culinary school with Morenz, and David Devore as front-of-the-house manager, who has worked at HB since it was affiliated with the Hearty Boys. An artist who also was with the Hearty Boys, Matthew Lew, is creating some pieces for the restaurant that feature Morenz and Gilbert’s dog, Elvis.
Front-of-the-House Manager David Devore, left, and Executive Chef Victor Morenz
Home Bistro is open from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, from 5 to 10:30 Friday through Saturday, for brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, and dinner Sunday from 5 to 9 o’clock.
The restaurant is available to be rented out for private events on Mondays. Groups also can rent out the dining room, with a family-style option offered for $40 (plus tax and tip) for a four-course meal.
The restaurant is located at 3404 N. Halsted St., about a mile from Wrigley Field. The phone number is (773) 661-0299.