The Firehouse’s new Executive Chef, Stephen Ashley, continues the storied tradition of bringing contemporary, refined, Farm-to-Fork American cuisine to the heart of the Sacramento Waterfront. (Interview conducted March 4th, 2020).
Chef Stephen has recently been promoted from Sous Chef to Executive Chef here at The Firehouse and we sat down with him recently to talk about his experiences, technique, and The Firehouse tradition of delivering outstanding dining and inventive cuisine through a modern interpretation of the classics.
He has most recently launched a Five-Course Chef’s Tasting Menu in honor of The Firehouse celebrating its 60th Anniversary this year, featuring dishes like a Mt. Lassen Rainbow Trout with bacon-braised chard, truffle-pea purée and wild mushroom paired with a 2015 Nickel & Nickel Suscol Ranch Merlot from Napa Valley.
His culinary forte is focused on using proper technique and high-quality ingredients to create fresh takes on classic cuisine.
Pan-seared Opah with Del Rio Botanical pea shoots and sunchoke chips, foraged yellow-foot mushrooms, asparagus, local pork belly and carnival cauliflower.
Q: When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
My grandfather was the VP of a Social Club in San Mateo and I was always interested in what was going on back there in the kitchen. When I was young, I got involved in the kitchen there, scooping ice cream and sorbet, cooking pasta -- you know, the basics. From there, my first job in the industry was in Pismo Beach at The Cracked Crab as a dishwasher. After that I moved to Sacramento and got a job at Scott’s Seafood as a cook, and then Crawdad’s on the River which was my first Sous Chef position. After that, I was at a few other places here in Sacramento before I moved to San Francisco where I was the Kitchen Manager at The Beach & Park Chalet in Ocean Beach. I was there for five years before I took a job as the Executive Chef at the Buena Vista Café – also in San Francisco. After that we moved back to Sacramento and that was when I started as Sous Chef at The Firehouse.
What changes do you plan to make to The Firehouse’s menu/cuisine?
This is an iconic restaurant that has been providing upscale New American food with seafood specials for six decades, so there’s a tradition and an expectation that I must deliver on. The food here still needs to have that “wow” factor and it needs to incorporate the best ingredients of this really robust agricultural region that we’re right in the center of. Produce from local farmers and line-caught fresh fish have always been on the menu at The Firehouse and always will be.
Q: Let’s talk “Farm to Fork.” What does it mean to you, what does it mean to this restaurant, how does The Firehouse embrace it?
Well, what I think is cool and a little funny is that if you go down to the room we call “Wine Cellar One,” you’ll see an actual copy of the Inaugural dinner menu that was served to Ronald and Nancy Reagan, along with their delegation in 1967. One of the menu items on that menu is “Sacramento Valley Asparagus Au Beurre.” It also has caviar on it that was harvested from the Russian River and “Manteca Chateau Briand Aux Forty Niner.” Obviously, this restaurant has been all about farm to fork since the day it opened in 1960 because this is where the farms are, this is where the ranches are, and that’s exactly what the whole movement is about. It’s been about educating people that the restaurant scene here deserves even more attention than it’s already getting. Because this isn’t a new trend; in fact it’s the opposite. I have three vegetable gardens at my house that I’m constantly turning over. I grow tomatoes, corn, peas... if you can name it, it’s probably growing in my backyard, because everything grows here.
Q: What is your favorite item to make, and why?
Fish entrées are probably my favorite. Being a die-hard fisherman, I fish as often as I can, and I love to cook and eat it just as much. I’ll be running over to Sunh Fish on Broadway and 13th as soon as we’re done talking to pick out today’s fish special. Fish and seafood really excite me, as do steaks. You bring me a nice Rib Eye cap and I’m going to butcher it down and cook it up real nice.
Filet of Beef with garlic mashed potatoes, French beans and green peppercorn sauce topped with "the world's best cheese."
Q: What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m really proud of where I am now. I mean, we’re sitting here in the courtyard of a 60-year-old restaurant in a beautiful brick building on the Old Sacramento Waterfront and this my reality. That’s a blessing. It makes me think back to when I was seven or eight years old sitting in the back of my grandmother’s car and telling her I wanted to cook food for people. At the time I wasn’t sure what that meant and in reality, I might have thought it meant being a hamburger flipper at McDonald’s. Obviously, I’ve learned a thing or two since then and I really like this job.
Q: In addition to The Firehouse being a restaurant, it’s also a venue for special events with five different spaces that can be used for corporate lunches, dinners, weddings, etc. What specific challenges does that provide?
I love that we do so many special events here. It brings a uniqueness to the restaurant, to the point that it’s unlike anywhere else I’ve ever worked. In the middle of December when we have eight different parties going on and we’re completely all-hands-on-deck, it’s something to see. But whether there’s one event or eight events, we want to make sure everything is perfect. There are no limitations to what people might want, which is also fun. We have a kosher request for an event in the next couple of months. Learning, adapting and getting the job done is what makes it fun.
Q: What is the strangest request you’ve ever had?
I had a request for a puréed steak once. Like beyond ground up, he wanted it liquified. It was basically steak soup. Sometimes people bring in allergy cards. They have like a 5” x 8” allergy card that they show us and then ask us to cook them something. I see that as a fun challenge too. It's my duty to ensure our guests are safe, so I don’t really get annoyed by challenging requests.
Q: When you go out to eat, what do you look for in a restaurant?
Anything unusual and exotic. The other night we went out to a restaurant over off Watt Avenue and we had frog legs and gator bites. The stranger things are, and sometimes the less they’re described, the more intrigued I am.
My kids have picked up on my adventurous tastes as well which is pretty cool. My two-year old daughter was eating the frog legs at that restaurant saying, “more ribbit, more ribbit,” so obviously my fascination with strange stuff is something they’ve been exposed to and it’s fun to see that.
Q: What do you cook when you’re at home?
Similar items to what I make here, just simplified. I like to make a whole roasted fish like trout, and steak, I love steak. I do steak and fish at the same time frequently; the kids really like that. Anything that excites my kids excites me.
Like I said they’re pretty adventurous eaters so between them and my wife, it’s kind of like I have my own test kitchen at home. I’m writing the Easter Menu and the Mother’s Day Menu, and my family has already tried at least half of it to give me some feedback. We also have a tasting of food items with our management team here at the restaurant.
Chilean Sea Bass with H&K Farms smoked parsnip purée, braised Bloomsdale spinach from Riverdog Farm, Tokyo turnips, house-cured pork belly, and Full Belly Farm Nantes carrots.
Q: Do you create menu items with the intent of pairing with a specific beverage?
We have numerous sommeliers here, so I rely on them a lot for the beverage pairings especially with things like the Chef’s Tasting Menu. We basically do a panel pairing where they try the food and discuss what they think would be the best wine pairing with the dish. I also want to get our bar manager more involved to start doing some pairing recommendations for cocktails or beer where maybe my fish special at dinner goes really nicely with one of our specialty cocktails, as much fun stuff like that as we can do I’m always trying to incorporate.
Q: Do you personally have a favorite adult beverage?
I like a nice whiskey on the rocks for sure. As far as wine goes I like a Pinot Noir, a Cabernet, or a Barbera – sometimes a Cab Franc. We go all over the place around here to try wine too. Top spots in Napa, I’d say Benessere, Krug, and Alpha Omega. In Amador we go to Deaver, Karmere, and Vino Noceto. Locally, we go to Clarksburg and we also go down to Lodi frequently. Garth Cobb is one we really like.
Q: Who has had a profound influence in your career? Why?
Anthony Bourdain for sure. Thomas Keller is a great influence for anyone I think as well. We live in a pretty cool time if you’re a Chef because you can look at all of these great Chef’s Instagram accounts and take a little of this, and a little of that, make it your own, and make some really beautiful dishes. Kitchen Confidential is a staple for me. I can open the book, flip to a page, and just read any part of that book to either learn something new or remember something I might have forgotten.