Selland’s success: Passion, perspiration … and the food’s pretty good, too
The latest chapter in the food history of El Dorado Hills is Sacramento Celebrity Chef Randall Selland’s Market-Café, opening in early January. The upscale deli takes over part of the first floor of Town Center’s long underutilized New Orleans Building, and will seat 100 indoors with another 40 outside.
Selland also owns and operates the multi-hour food performance known as The Kitchen Restaurant and the more formal Ella Dining Room, with lots of help from his wife, chef-restaurateur Nancy Zimmer, and the couple’s adult children, Tamera Baker and Josh Nelson.
At 4,200 square feet, the new place will be 900 square feet larger than its East Sacramento predecessor. The decor will be country-French bistro, anchored by large, salvaged wood community tables with cast metal chairs and a tin ceiling.
To order, customers line up before large glass cases stuffed with delectables.
“Social interaction is part of what we offer,” he said. “The Kitchen is built around that concept, and it extends to everything we do.”
For an advance peak at what’s in store, Village Life spent a lunch hour at the original Selland’s in East Sacramento, on 53rd and H streets, where locals line up for hot entrées such as meat loaf and carnitas, inventive cold salads and decadent desserts.
Nola Grannis lives in the neighborhood, and invited us to sit at her community table. Between bites of crab salad she said she comes to Selland’s Market-Café two or three times a week.
“Everything’s so fresh,” she said. “I’ve probably brought 50 different people here and every one has loved it.”
Her favorites include carnitas, pizza and the chicken breast sandwich with prosciutto and basil lemon mayo.
But beyond the food, Grannis said the café is comfortable. “The people are authentic and it’s full of nice things,” she said. “It makes you feel like your senses will be sated.”
Selland appeared for his interview and was immediately surrounded by adoring customers. His story is full of trial and error, more passion and perspiration than vision and inspiration.
In the 1980s he became a successful glass artist, sought after for large commission pieces. His wife an artist and a talented cook, started a catering business.
While on a business trip to Europe Selland realized he wanted to make food, not art for a living. With two teenage children to support, a friend landed him a job at Fat City Bar & Café in Old Sacramento and worried aloud that he’d hurt himself.
Two months later Selland still had all his fingers. Sacramento restaurateur Jean Luc Chassereau offered him a job at The Cookery, working for Kevin Nichols, who went on to become the chef at Serrano Country Club.
“Kevin taught me how to cook,” said Selland, who recalled starting at the bottom, doing “whatever I was yelled at to do.”
In 1991 the couple moved Zimmer’s catering business to a converted garage and cooking school which would later become The Kitchen.
Local wine merchant Marcus Graziano of Capitol Cellars encouraged the couple to host wine at appetizer parties. “He thought our setup would be a good way to sell some wine,” said Selland. “We just needed to whip up some appetizers.”
The cooking school setup turned out to be ideal for the demonstration dinners The Kitchen has become famous for. Selland’s over-the-top kitchen presentations turned out to be his calling.
The food he makes isn’t bad either. Selland recently learned that The Kitchen received a prestigious Triple-A Five Diamond award for 2012.
“People seemed to love interacting with Nancy and I while we cooked, and that’s what started it all,” he said. “People think it was this grand idea and planned out but it just happened.”
One reason it happened was “Nancy and I are both … I guess ‘determined’ would be a polite way to put it,” said Selland. “We’ve been doing this for 20 years and it’s still 24/7.”
The couple subsequently opened Ella Dining Room, a highly acclaimed fine dining restaurant. But in the early going, Ella was criticized as “not Sacramento,” he recalled.
Selland defended Ella’s sophisticated ambiance. “Everything we do is born of what you’d find in a larger city,” he explained, “and that extends to what we’re doing in the café.”
The same international architects that designed the voluptuous Ella are also behind the new café in El Dorado Hills. Selland can’t wait to see the finished product.
The first Market-Café also opened to sharp criticism, and was unprofitable for several years before hitting its stride, he said. “The bankers thought we were crazy, selling a lot of what is essentially everyday food at premium prices,” he said. “But our customers always loved it.”
Selland prides himself on never using prepared products, “not one,” he said. “Everything here is cooked today. People complain that we are out of stuff late at night, well that’s the price you pay for fresh food.”
Looking around his H Street café, Selland confessed, “We had no idea what we were doing when we built this. We were selling organic produce and meat in here, but we’re not grocers. The other two restaurants carried it until we figured out what people wanted.”
He credits the popular $25 “dinner for two with a bottle of wine” promotion for “putting us on the map.” he said. “It’s great food and very good wine.”
He makes it work by selling the wine at cost. “Because the wine is so good, a lot of people buy a bottle to take home, so it works out,” he explained.
The $25 dinners will also be available in El Dorado Hills.
The couple and their children all live in or near east Sacramento, so Selland didn’t take the decision to branch out to El Dorado Hills lightly.
“I don’t know what’s in the water up there, but everyone I met from El Dorado Hills, and there are a lot of them in Ella and The Kitchen, told us how excited they are that we’re coming.”
They ditched the original plan for a full bar in favor of a more family friendly approach.
“I love having a restaurant full of kids,” he said. “So you’ll always find stuff like pizza, cookies and mac and cheese in the café.”
The reason for his success? “We have a passion for this,” he said. “We give you everything we’ve got every day. I’ve always believed that if you do that good things will come.”