LOCAL HERO AWARDS
HERO IN THE KITCHEN
STORY AND PHOTOS BY SARA CALVOSA
Chef Brett LaMott and his wife quite nearly didn’t end up in the sleepy little hamlet of Dunsmuir, in fact, they almost settled in Eureka twenty years ago upon leaving San Francisco for better economic climes. One thing is for sure, as a couple, they are leading a caravan of happy palates on the I-5 corridor. Chef LaMott looks a little like Santa Claus in the kitchen of Café Maddalena—he’s quiet, serious, and clearly a little mischievous with ingredients. He cooks and writes recipes, while his wife Nancy does all the front of the house, PR, and editing work for the restaurant. It’s a partnership in the true sense of the word.
Chef LaMott kicked off his career in San Francisco thirtyfive years ago when he took a job working for Taste Catering just to see if he might enjoy working with food. He felt the spark, knew he wanted to go further, and went to the California Culinary Academy to make the transition. After he’d graduated, he needed to find an apprenticeship, and at the time, the only chef that would do was Jacky Robert. “Once you’re in that circle, all doors are open to you,” says LaMott frankly.
Leases in San Francisco are expensive, and opening a restaurant seemed out of reach for the LaMotts. They began looking outside the area and were considering seaside Eureka in Humboldt County when Nancy suggested they look in the Shasta area before making a decision. It was home sweet foodie home. LaMott credits his wife for the area pairing; at the time she was the Development Director for Golden Gate National Parks Association (now the Parks Conservancy.) So they packed it up and opened the Trinity Café in Mt. Shasta. They ran the restaurant out of a house that was zoned for commercial use, sold it after five years, and bought Café Maddalena. They’ve been popping out delicious dishes at Maddalena for twelve years in April and let us all hope that those crispy gruyere cheese puffs keep coming for a lot longer.
The LaMotts love living in Dunsmuir and their relationships with their neighbors. Chef Brett speculates that 85% of his clientele is repeat business. The café attracts patrons from Redding, Ashland, Medford, Chico, and travelers along the I-5 corridor. When they purchased Café Maddalena it was an Italian/Sardinian restaurant. Chef Brett’s training was Southern French and Spanish with some Moroccan/North African and Italian influence. And his menu is clearly informed by these influences and the common ingredients that these countries share.
At Café Maddalena LaMott takes what is seasonally happening produce-wise, researches traditional Western Mediterranean recipes, and then recreates them as authentically as possible. The restaurant makes everything from scratch, in-house. “If you’re gonna do a Moroccan dish, it should taste the same way it would in Morocco,” muses LaMott, “and there are certain ingredients you cannot get anywhere else in the world. Spanish paprika is one, truffles, prosciutto de parma, we use all of those things to get an authentic taste.” Though he gets such specialty ingredients from way out of town, he very much values his local growers.
He was first approached by a local grower who asked if he’d be interested in buying some of his produce and that turned into, “What are you planning on growing next year?” says LaMott. He has five local growers regularly bringing in produce now. He reminisces about a woman who grows okra for him. “I play hell getting good okra! You can’t get good okra, and here she is. She kept me supplied for a month and a half.” That’s about the length of a food cycle at Café Maddalena. Between solstice and the equinox they develop two different menus timed to coincide with available produce. “Take asparagus for example. In the time that asparagus is coming out here, I will use it for all sorts of things, all kinds of different recipes for asparagus, and by the time I get done, people will be sick of asparagus!” laughs LaMott. “But that’s the thing with seasonal food, you want strawberries that are ripe right then, cherries that are ripe right then.” The combinations and styles of cooking that LaMott uses are traditional, authentic, and simple. He believes in using very few products and letting good products speak for themselves.
Another thing seems for sure, and that is that Dunsmuir is sporting some very well fed chickens. The staff at Café Maddalena separate all the restaurant waste and keep a “chicken bucket” full of scraps for feeding the community chickens. “We feed a bunch of chickens, but they take care of us too,” says LaMott.
But what’s a chef to do when he’s finished at the restaurant, smelling of gruyere balls, tired, and looking for a midnight snack? What does Chef Brett make for himself when he’s at home, his comfort food? He laughs, “In truth, I’m famous for going home and having toast with peanut butter, or cheese. I eat a lot of cheese. If I have a hot dog it’s fabulous; I love hot dogs. But good hot dogs, you know?! Nan eats at the restaurant for the most part but I try not to eat here. If I’m hungry for something while I’m writing a menu and I satisfy that craving for whatever it is, then I have a problem because now I can’t think of it anymore and it’s hard to execute it and keep it fresh. But if it’s something that I’m desiring at that time and I don’t fulfill that desire, then I’m always pushing.”
I know what he means because I’m currently desiring those gruyere balls.
Café Maddalena is open Thursday through Sunday, from 5 to 9 pm, at 5801 Sacramento Avenue in Dunsmuir. Menu is at cafemaddalena.com and reservations can be made at 530.235.2725.
Edible Shasta-Butte is the guide to local food, dining, and gardening in Northern California’s central valley from Butte County north to the Oregon border.