Going Au Natural at Café Tommy's
Something's Cookin'June 2015
By Jordan Venema
Photos: Josiah Alter
It might not be Main Street, but don’t let the warehouse fool you. Café Tommy, the latest brainchild of chef Tommy Chavez, offers gourmet food in a laid-back atmosphere. “It’s just casual, man, but you’re getting downtown food,” he says.
Café Tommy is Visalia’s newest restaurant, but has long been in the works. Chavez started cooking young, learning from his grandmother who catered Mexican food at weddings.
His hobby turned profession nearly by chance. Chavez worked at a grocery store, where he had a regular customer “always buying different produce,” says Chavez, “and I would ask her questions. Turns out she was a culinary instructor.”
That customer was Laura Bullene, and Chavez credits her with jump starting his career. He enrolled in her courses, then worked at her restaurant, Bullene’s.
After Bullene’s, Chavez worked as a chef in Tulare and then Fresno, but even at the age of 22, he didn’t feel challenged. “I stopped learning,” says Chavez.
“So I was watching a show called Great Chefs, and Emeril Lagasse was on and I thought, I want to work for him… I went to Vegas and applied (at Emeril’s) just for the hell of it.” Within a week Chavez got a call back. He worked at Emeril’s the next four years.
At Emeril’s, Chavez developed a new food philosophy. “You learn more there than you do at culinary school,” says Chavez – nothing compares to experience. “We made our own ketchup, our own Worcestershire sauce, our own bread. Nothing came out of a can, nothing was frozen.”
Au natural – that the philosophy Chavez applies to his café. “We grind our own meat, use fresh potatoes for hash browns,” he says. “If you call yourself a chef, you should practice what you preach.”
Chavez moved back to the Valley after Emeril’s. He worked as a sous chef at Tachi Palace, and “three months later, I became the executive chef and opened seven restaurants there.”
After Tachi, he worked at Harris Ranch, opened Tommy’s Restaurant in Visalia, and ultimately became the regional chef at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
“But I missed cooking a lot. I was pretty much walking around with a pencil and paper. It just wasn’t me,” Chavez says. So he and fiancé Vanessa Romo opened a catering business to get back to cooking.
They found a warehouse in northwest Visalia, the industrial neighborhood around Goshen and Shirk. They had planned mostly to cater, but included a small café. It was a downgrade, so to speak, from running a staff of approximately 150 bussers, servers, dishwashers and cooks. Chavez expected that Café Tommy would be run by him and Romo, maybe a server.
“But from day one it’s been so much busier than I thought it would be. We’re not doing too bad for a warehouse,” says Chavez, who immediately corrected himself. “You know what? We’re not a warehouse.”
So what is Café Tommy? A laid-back restaurant serving modern American meals that is quickly outgrowing its 60-person capacity. Chavez attributes their early success to his opening crew, which also helped him open Tommy’s Restaurant. But don’t be confused. There’s no relation between the two. Why open another restaurant under the same name? “Well, that’s my name,” Chavez says matter-of-factly.
Chavez says by using his name, he creates transparency, reliability, and freedom. “That’s why we went with Café Tommy, so I could do whatever I want.”
“But go to any of the big chain restaurants and you’re not going to know who’s cooking,” he adds. “To feel welcome, like you know (the cook), that’s part of being in the community.”
“What’s on the menu is there because I love to cook it…. And we’re a kickback café, but also more than a café because we have fish and steak. There’s not the full-blown fancy stuff I’m used to doing, but we’re having fun.”
Customers can expect “good American cooking, and nowadays American is everything.” That means fish and chips, steaks, patty melts and hand-formed burgers with hatch peppers from New Mexico. “But my main focus is quality. You’ve got to start there,” adds Chavez.
Chavez also plans to change the menu three times a year “so guests don’t get bored,” he explains. Chavez also expects his cooks to create daily pastas as well as other daily specials, which they share on their Facebook page.
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” says Chavez. “We also sell a lot of bread pudding,” based on a recipe from his grandmother’s French toast.
They’ve been busy since they opened in February, and if the pace continues, they might have to find a new space, maybe even downtown. Chavez says that’s a possibility.
But rest assured, Café Tommy isn’t going anywhere, no matter how busy it gets. “I’m here every day, my name is on the building… Our goal is just to continue doing what we’re doing.”
Café Tommy • 6836 W Pershing Ave, Visalia • (559) 749-0711 • Find them on Facebook
Monday-Friday: 7:30-10 am; 11 am-3 pm • Sunday: 10 am-2 pm