If you haven’t heard the term “Farm-to-Fork” by now you probably don’t live in Sacramento.
In the off chance you haven’t been on Interstate 5 near the Cosumnes River Exit in the last half decade or so, there’s a big water tower there that says: “Welcome to Sacramento, America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” Said tower has been making this proud proclamation since 2017, but obviously the delta region – with its meandering tendrils of rivers, sloughs, and canals – has long been an agrarian epicenter known to have some of the nation’s best staple food industries such as wine grapes, corn, rice, and tomatoes – oh, and caviar, don’t forget about the caviar. Sacramento is in fact, the caviar capital of the United States.
Many believe the farm-to-fork "movement" (especially when it's written in eight-foot-tall letters) is just a marketing ploy. Candidly, we don't think they're totally wrong, but primarily because this is not a new phenomenon. You can see from the menu below which was served at The Firehouse for Ronald Reagan's pre-inaugural dinner in 1967 that there was a pretty strong focus on local ingredients...
While much of the food we serve at The Firehouse does indeed come from farms that are just down the road, things have changed a bit in the last 55 years (thank you refrigerated trucking) and it’s also up to us a culinary and management team here at the restaurant to find the absolute BEST ingredients we can.
Sometimes, those ingredients are caught in the ocean half-a-world away and sold to us by a local distributor. When it comes to terrestrial proteins though, the best ones usually come from a ranch that’s been run by a particular family (or group of families) for generations.
Our our rack of lamb for example is provided by a wholesaler who works with a network of small farms in New Zealand. Our pork belly and chops come most often from Rancho Llano Seco in Chico. And currently, both our UDSA Prime Ribeye and USDA Prime Filet Mignon come from Painted Hills Natural Beef in Central Oregon.
Earlier this year, Painted Hills won our business in a blind taste test that Chef Stephen prepared for restaurant management and ownership. We looked at unprepared, as well as prepared samples of numerous products marked simply with numbers 1 through 6. We then did blind taste-tests of both the Rib-Eyes and Filets, separately.
As noted, there were five other options and the beef from Painted Hills was most consistently voted the best for BOTH cuts. Impressive? Indeed, we thought so too. The most important part of course, is that our patrons have been exceedingly pleased by the new product and (knock on wood) we’ve not had a single bad review about a tough steak in months. Recently, we were happy to have a few hours with Dan and Kim Domenighini who run one of the founding partner ranches in Oregon that came together to form Painted Hills in 1997. They joined us for a morning meat-up [sic] in the courtyard so we could get to know them a little better and ask them some fun questions about where our food comes from.
Q: Where is your ranch located?
Dan: About an hour and a half east of Bend, Oregon. It's out there a bit, in the middle of the state, we have to drive over an hour from our house to any sort of civilization. We do have a mercantile in town, but for major grocery store we have to go to Bend.
Kim: We have plenty of meat in the freezer though so we don't have to make grocery trips too often.
Q: How big is your ranch?
Dan: Our deeded acreage is 8,700 acres, and then we have a private permit with the US Forrest Service that covers a little over 30,000 acres. We also have a couple small leases so we probably run cattle on about 40,000 acres.
Q: How many cattle did you start with?
Dan: When we first started Painted Hills in '97 we were processing about ten animals per week and even that was a little bit of a struggle. Really, getting the whole animal sold was the hardest part back then. It was always pretty easy to sell steaks when you have the cattle we have but the trimmings and the hamburger and all that is harder to sell but you have to sell it all, we don't waste meat. We've gotten better at that as we've grown but of course with the pandemic distribution got harder again due to labor shortages, and everyone knows how that's been over the last few years.
Q: How many cattle do you process now?
Dan: Now we process about 650 animals per week.
Q: Are all of your products fed naturally? Free Range?
Dan: We do have a grass-fed program as well but it's a very small portion of what we do. So yes, most of the time the cattle just eat what grows naturally on the ranch and then during the summer they go up into the Forrest Service land that neighbors our ranch. In the winter they go to a feedlot and we have three major feedlots we work with. During that time their diet does have some corn, grain, hay and so forth.
Question from Kim: Do you cook yourself Stephen or do you mostly oversee the kitchen?
Chef Stephen: I do a little of everything. I cook, I prep, I butcher, probably around 95% of the butchery.
Dan: How do you sharpen your knife?
Chef Stephen: I have a knife guy that comes once a month.
Dan: Ah, that's cheating.
Kim (laughing): He asks every chef that question - he's always trying to get better at sharpening his knife.
Dan: We do some butchering for ourselves and our friends there on the ranch so I'm always trying to improve!
Question from Kim: Do you guys do Morel mushrooms here?
Chef Stephen: Oh yeah.
Kim: We went foraging for them two weeks ago on our property and got a huge bag.
Chef Stephen: Actually, my mushroom guy has been harvesting them from where the Caldor Fire went through and some of them are just huge. We had them on our Spring menu on one of the halibut dishes.
Kim: Yeah we got good ones this year but pretty much none last year, it was just so dry. Sorry, I know we're supposed to be talking about beef but I just love Morel Mushrooms.
Q: Speaking of dry conditions and beef, has the drought affected your business?
Dan: Last year we had the driest conditions I've ever seen in Central Oregon and this year we were getting a little worried because January and February were pretty dry, but we've gotten a lot of rain in April, May, and even June of this year. It really hasn't affected the meat part of the business, yet. I think in time if the trend continues, we may see the number of cattle on a given amount of property go down because there's just not enough feed for them. It takes a lot of land to run cattle in our area because there's no irrigation really so you're mostly relying on what mother nature provides.
Kim: Last year mother nature was a little hard on us, but this year things look really good.