Six months ago, Kevin O’Connor hit a wall. He had a good job in a good kitchen, but his body was exhausted and his passion was gone. So, at 24, he decided to step down as the chef of the now-shuttered Blackbird Kitchen & Bar and dig for a new plan.
“I had been cooking pretty much nonstop since I was 14,” O’Connor says. “It was time for a break. I needed time to play in the woods and get my hands dirty.”
So he and his girlfriend, Hillary Lyons, a baker, took a two-month sabbatical to clear their minds and determine the next step for their culinary careers. They spent time in Big Sur and Carmel before slowly working their way to Montana.
“While in Montana, we did a lot of cooking for friends. We mostly used wild game and a great deal of foraged ingredients,” he says. “It’s like a Mecca out there for foraging.”
O’Connor, who has for years been nosing around for ingredients along the American River, says in Montana he could easily gather 20 ingredients on a single hike. The harvest could include mushrooms, several types of wild greens, choke cherries, various currants and a variety of deeply colored berries.
“It was almost too much,” O’Connor says. “I was preparing dinners and felt bad because I wasn’t able to use everything I had collected.”
In October, O’Connor and Lyons returned to Sacramento with fresh dirt under their fingernails and the seeds for a new restaurant concept. If all goes well, their forage-focused restaurant will open as early as June. He says it’s too early to provide any details about partnerships, concepts and location, but in the meantime, they’re keeping their skills sharp by hosting pop-up-style private dinners using foraged ingredients at eclectic locations throughout Sacramento’s midtown and downtown, including spots on the riverfront, a number of warehouses and the basement of a photo studio.
The name of their nomadic eatery is Tree House, and the business model calls for the posting of events on brownpapertickets.com. Seats at these dinners (typically no more than 12 are available) are purchased through the website. And while the menu is generally outlined, the exact location is often not.
“I recently hosted a late-night cocktail party in a downtown alley,” O’Connor says. “We kind of flew under the radar on that one. We directed people to a nearby corner and then had someone with a lantern and a guest list come greet them.”
Much of the food is prepped ahead of time at area restaurants to which O’Connor has personal connections. The food, cookware, tables and linens are then packed into O’Connor’s Subaru and his brother’s van. The list of ingredients for any event is often not determined until the day before — if not the day of — the event.
“It really depends on what I’ve collected through foraging,” he says. “Depending on the season, I gather wild ingredients from the riverfront and near my parents’ property outside El Dorado Hills. I also do a lot of urban foraging here in Sacramento where I have access to a high amount of citrus trees in the winter.”
But don’t think of Tree House as a traveling roadhouse. O’Connor usually presents a 7-course meal. He incorporates his love for regionally procured ingredients with his formal training in modern French cuisine, a personal style he describes as “naturalist nouvelle.”
“I’ve modernized the approach by using all-natural ingredients,” O’Connor says. “Being French trained, I will do a cheese course, a vegetable course and then some fish. I really love raw fish dishes. I get all my fish locally from Michael Passmore of Passmore Ranch.”
Additionally, there is a traditional meat dish.
“In Sacramento, everybody wants their meat. The last generation of Sacramentans were big meat and potato eaters. That still carries through today,” he says. “I recently did a braised pork shoulder press. I cured pork shoulder overnight in pork fat aromatics, cut them up into perfect three-inch-by-three-inch cubes. I then dredged the cubes in chamomile breadcrumbs, fried the cubes and paired it with tea-infused butter cabbage.”
Lyons is often in charge of dessert because she has a knack for creatively using local produce.
“Lately, we’ve been doing a lot with beets,” he says. “If you roast them correctly they are just as sweet as strawberries.”
O’Connor plans to experiment with his naturalist nouvelle concept over the next few months in preparation for the opening of his new restaurant. He also plans to broaden his culinary horizons by stodging, or working for free, in some of the Bay Area and Napa’s finest restaurants.
“I want to learn from the best and still be able to add a natural twist to the final product through regional, foraged ingredients,” he says. “I can’t wait to take this approach to a bigger stage.”
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