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Back to basics

July/Aug. 2008 California Country magazine

Couple takes locally grown concept from ranch to restaurant.


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Couple takes locally grown concept from ranch to restaurant

Back to Basics
Terri and Ron Gilliland

Paris, Texas. No, not the city in the Lone Star State but two words that might describe the unique style of Roxy Restaurant & Bar, a place where the American Old West collides with the City of Light.

As unlikely as such a fusion may be, the popular Sacramento eatery is actually a throwback to the roots of owners Ron and Terri Gilliland, who wanted to blend the sophistication of Paris with a part of their past--the country life.

"When you go back to what is good about food and wine, it's the basics," said Terri Gilliland. "It's everything being fresh and natural and delicious."

Achieving this back-to-basics tenet means using as many locally grown and raised products as possible and sourcing them directly from local California farms.

But the Gillilands have taken that concept one step further: Their restaurant also serves meat from cattle that they personally raise on their Lucky Dog Ranch in Dixon in nearby Solano County.

In addition to being restaurateurs, the couple runs a 3,500-head commercial cattle operation on various ranches in Northern California, including Galt, Woodland and Rio Vista. The Dixon ranch, named after their dog Lucky, is their headquarters.

Unlike their commercial beef program where the cows are raised to a certain size and weight and then sold or taken to feedlots in the Midwest to be finished, cattle used for the Lucky Dog brand get special treatment.

"Our beef program for our restaurant is a select group of cows that we raised as calves," said Ron Gilliland. "We handpick the best calves to go into that program. Then they're tagged and numbered so we know who they are."

Raised on open pasture, Lucky Dog cattle are predominantly Black Angus breed and fed a diet consisting primarily of pasture alfalfa, molasses, brewer's grains and some corn to achieve the tenderness and marbling desired in prime cuts of meat.

The Gillilands are also picky about how their beef is handled and harvested. They toured five different processing plants and scrutinized everything from the plants' safety and sanitation to how the animals are treated. They ended up choosing a small-scale facility in Orland in Glenn County that caters to niche market beef.

"We spend a lot of time with these animals, taking care of them, feeding them. It's important to us that our animals are treated with respect and dignity and harvested in a humane fashion," Ron Gilliland said.

He said this approach to cattle ranching is going back to a more traditional way of producing natural beef, which is something that's catching on with consumers. There is also personal pride in hand selecting the best of their best animals to serve in their restaurant, he added.

"It's a quality issue, a health issue and a business issue," he said. "I want people enjoying our product and coming back for more."

Patrons don't necessarily have to dine at the restaurant to get a taste. Lucky Dog brand ground beef is also sold as one- and five-pound packages at Roxy and Lucca, the Gillilands' other restaurant in Sacramento, as well as at the city's downtown farmers market.

Terri Gilliland maintains that the buy-fresh, buy-local concept is a major driving force in the development of Roxy's menu, which she describes as "modern ranch cuisine but with a bit of Western twist, something besides pinto beans and chuck wagon barbecue grub." The decidedly European-American West influence reflects not only the couple's upbringing but also their love for fine food and wine.

They both grew up in similar settings but an ocean apart--he raising cattle in Ireland and she on a small horse ranch in Colorado. He got into the restaurant business after moving to the States at 18 and working with his cousins, who owned restaurants. She got her start waiting tables, her first job at 14.

"We're like two little country mice in the city, yet we both have studied food under some of this country's greatest chefs," Terri Gilliland said.

Some of their best training, she said, came working in the Napa Valley, "which is the most exquisite place to be, like going to a university for the restaurant business in terms of both the food and wine education." They also learned their trade through many years of dining out, taking notes and poring over cookbooks. They traveled Europe and fell in love with Paris and its many fine restaurants.

Terri Gilliland credits famed chef Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant, for championing cuisine based on locally grown, seasonal ingredients. It's a philosophy that's entrenched in many of the culinary creations on Roxy's menu, which makes a point to identify the purveyors, often in the title of the dishes, such as Del Rio Farms Butternut Squash Risotto, named after Yolo County's Del Rio Botanical, from which the restaurant sources its produce.

"Because I've eaten like that myself, going to food co-ops and Whole Foods (Market), you see how popular those places are," she said. "So we thought, there certainly is a market out there. People want to eat well and experience flavor and yet know that they're getting some nutritional value as well."

Being in California helps. She said the proximity of so many local farms and farmers markets makes it easy for Californians to take advantage of the array of locally grown produce in their area.

"We have so much here that we're so lucky," she said. "You see the abundance of really wonderful-quality, delicious fruits, vegetables and now cheeses, meats, olive oils, all of that. So why not? If it's so close and so available, it's not that difficult anymore."

Terry Branigan, owner of Yolo County-based Branigan's Turkey Farm, which supplies the restaurant with the main ingredient for its Branigan Farms Roasted Turkey Sandwich, said the Roxy account has worked out well for his small family farm.

"It's a great restaurant and it's great advertisement for us," said Branigan. "It's nice to get restaurants now like Roxy. They're more concerned about the quality. That's kind of the same way we've approached our business."

Del Rio Botanical, which for years has been supplying locally grown produce to restaurants from Lodi to Lake Tahoe, as well as consumers through Community Supported Agriculture boxes, also has benefited from the growing buy-local movement. Owner Suzanne Peabody Ashworth said she hopes the movement will sustain.

"It certainly conserves fuel and is good for the environment," she said. "It provides the consumer with a whole different kind of restaurant experience. It encourages chefs to be more creative in their menu. It helps reconnect people with what is in season. I hope people continue to care where their food comes from and we try to get a better handle on food that's local and appropriate."

Ching Lee is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or clee@cfbf.com.


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