Other than worrying about what to wear for the day, it’s easy in California to forget about the role of seasons in our lives. You can go to the supermarket and get practically anything you want at anytime: from strawberries in November to mandarins in June, the rise of a global food supply has almost rendered seasons irrelevant for most people.
But not for Jeff King, owner and chef of Grana Wood Fire Foods in Downtown Chico, CA.
“You’re not going to get tomatoes in December” at Grana, says King.
Instead, diners experience the freshest seasonal produce Butte County has to offer. Last year, 90% of what King spent on produce went to businesses with 50 miles of Chico, and most of the restaurant’s beef and pork is source from Chico-based Llano Seco.
“We made [a] commitment to do this,” says King of the farm-to-table food Grana serves. “I’m not going to take shortcuts.”
King doesn’t hide where he sources his produce. Reading Grana’s December 2019 menu reads like a Who’s Who of Butte County farmers: pork shoulder from Llano Seco; greens from Farmalot; cauliflower from GRUB CSA Farm; apples from Riparia. With his menu dependent on what’s seasonally available, those farmers aren’t just producers–they’re partners.
Partners that he’s grown with. When Grana opened on Christmas Eve 2011, he had limited supplies available to him from those local farms. Today, some farmers grow plots specifically for Grana because King buys so much.
“It’s been neat to see these farms grow and expand into different markets [outside of Butte County]. It’s been awesome to grow with the farmers,” says King. “It’s such a tremendous opportunity to build relationships with local farmers; not everyone can do this.”
King takes advantage of what he calls the “Cornucopia of Northern California” through his southern Italy-inspired menu, changing it monthly to reflect what’s available from his partners. For diners, it means a new experience every time they sit down for a meal and feeling good knowing where their food really comes from.
For King, it’s a return to his roots. He grew up in his grandparents’ restaurant, which served traditional Americana food in Groveland, a small unincorporated town in downstate Illinois. King’s grandparents cooked using seasonal ingredients because that’s what they had to do–fresh corn in the summer, canned corn in the winter when fresh was nowhere to be found.
“People eat this way out of necessity,” says King, pointing not only to his grandparents, but also to communities throughout other parts of the world. “But we should be doing this because it’s the right choice [and] because we really have this opportunity to source this food like this.”
“Why not use fresh, local food on a seasonal basis?”
“People eat this way out of necessity, but we should be doing this because it’s the right choice [and] because we really have this opportunity to source this food like this.”
That belief and commitment to using local, seasonal ingredients earned Grana recognition on the 2018 Good Food 100 Restaurants List, a group that celebrates “chefs and restaurants using their purchasing power to honor and support every link in the food chain, and change the food system for good.” California was well-represented with 17 restaurants honored, but Grana was the only one north of San Francisco to earn the recognition.
Despite the coveted recognition, King stays humble. You can feel that humility throughout Grana. Simple wooden tables adorn the old Grand Auto building the restaurant now occupies; diners are greeted with a bright red wall with “Grand” painted on it, an homage to its former occupant. Expansive windows line the main dining room walls, surrounded by trees that almost make you feel like you’re eating outside and a part of those seasonal changes that so influence the menu.
King walks outside to the dining patio and cuts sprigs of rosemary to garnish a meal. The plating feels simple but abundant, a hearty and humble offering that reflects the man behind the meal.
“Great ingredients don’t need much,” says King, placing the finishing herbs on the plate. “Let them speak for themselves.”