Think you have experience with farm-to-fork dining? Not like this, we’d wager: seated in the barn of a working farm, eating just-picked ingredients, expertly prepared by a celebrated local chef. It doesn’t get any more farm-to-fork than that.
By Thea Marie Rood
Photography courtesy of Mike Trombetta and Carr Long Real Estate
Driving to Sierra Valley Farms in Plumas County, the first thing you think is: It looks like Montana out here. And the second is: Dammit, was that the farm? So you pull a U-turn on the deserted two-lane highway and pull into the unprepossessing property. And then, unexpectedly, you fall completely in love: with the views, the rustic barn, the 1930s farmhouse, and—if it’s not a market day or dinner yet—Chloe the black Lab, who always has a stuffed toy in her mouth.
Owner Gary Romano, with silver hair and a laid-back manner, took a circuitous route to becoming a sought-after organic farmer, let alone throwing foodie dinner parties in the barn his Italian grandfather built. “They started out here in 1907 as dairy farmers with 3,000 acres,” says Romano, who spent summers as a boy on the farm, but mostly worked with his father in Morgan Hill: “We were cut flower growers there, had about 20 acres.” When it came time for college, however, Romano was certain of one thing: No Farming For Him. So he went away to Cal Poly and started a successful career, eventually landing as a Truckee Donner parks superintendent. “I had an office overlooking the lake; it was great,” he recalls. But then in 1996, he was offered what was left of the Romano family farm—which included 65 acres, the house, the barn and 50 years’ worth of manure-rich soil—and it occurred to him he didn’t really want to sit behind a desk anymore.
“I started dabbling with vegetables and native plants, and I got hold of Bob Habeger (who supplied produce to area restaurants), let him know what I was doing,” he says. “About the same time, Mark Estee, a new chef up there at Moody’s in Truckee, also approached Habeger, looking for a local farmer to work with. ‘Only one I know is Romano, out there in the middle of nowhere, trying to grow vegetables,’ Bob told him.” But the next thing Romano knew, Estee was at the farm with a catering van and a full staff—all in kitchen whites—preparing him, his wife Kim, and their toddler, Joey, a multicourse gourmet dinner. “You know what? Those native plants are going out the window,” he said to Kim after dinner. Organic vegetables were clearly the more lucrative choice.
And so began a close collaboration with Estee, supplying his restaurants and—in 2004—opening up the barn for dinner, originally for just a one-time fundraiser. “I power-washed it, we set up a temporary kitchen—and people loved it,” says Romano. “So we said: How about a summer series, a farm-to-fork event?” Each one instantly sold out and drew rave reviews, so it became an annual tradition.
Estee eventually moved onto other projects, like opening the highly regarded Campo and—more recently—Liberty Food & Wine Exchange in Reno. But his former Moody’s colleague, Mike Trombetta, got interested in the barn dinners. Trombetta is the owner and chef of Farm to Belly, an organic catering company, and so it was a natural fit. “When I started Farm to Belly, I knew that we would only cook one way, with the best ingredients available to us at all times,” Trombetta says. “It’s important to me to help people understand…where your food comes from: Knowing what the cows and chickens eat, and how they are treated; how your veggies are grown and if anything is sprayed on them.”
Fully embracing that philosophy, Trombetta co-hosts the summer dinners now with Romano and is the series’ executive chef. “We feature a guest chef for each event, who preps and serves a course, or half the menu—depending on what they are up for,” he says. “Typically, I’ll have them tell me a course they’re interested in serving, then I base the rest of the menu off that course so it all makes sense. We each prep our own courses, and help each other plate it to send to the guests. We come together for a really fun event.”
Romano concurs, adding everything is seasonal: vegetables and fruit from his farm, local meats and wild fish. Everything is also prepared and made on-site, such as fresh bread baked in the wood-fired oven (built a few years ago with earth from the farm) or a pig roasting on a spit all day. Guests are greeted with appetizers and wine, then taken on a chatty farm tour by Romano—in part to let the chefs finish dinner—after which food is brought out family style. “People just love it—I have to kick them out,” says Romano with a laugh. “They generally stay two or three hours, chatting and talking.”
And the location of course is idyllic, surrounded by Montana-esque mountain views and pastures, with golden shafts of sunlight coming through the slats of the barn. Or at least that’s usually the case. It is, after all, the unpredictable Sierra, where locals joke if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. “One night there was this hail storm,” Romano recalls. “It was pouring and hailing. First we put pop-ups over the outdoor tables, but then it got worse. Now everyone is in the barn, and we shut the doors, everyone is drinking wine, having a great time. The storm finally broke, and we peeked out again, but then there was a windstorm—the whole barn was shaking and rattling. People were wondering, ‘Is this thing going to hold together?’ But then it all stopped and there was a double rainbow with the sunset.”
Want To Go?
Where: Sierra Valley Farms
1329 County Road A23, Beckwourth, CA,
When: July 15 (guest chef Sean Conry), August 5 (guest chef Sean Conry), August 19 (guest chef Stephanie Teeter of Liberty Food & Wine Exchange), Sept. 9 (guest chefs Gina and Lila from Cuccia’s in Graeagle).
How: $130/per person, tickets online at sierravalleyfarms.com/dinner-in-the-barn.
Make It a Weekend
Sierra Valley Farms is only 40 miles from Truckee and 48 miles from Reno, so it’s more than possible to do it as a day trip. But bear in mind this part of the state is sometimes called “The Lost Sierra”—and getting in or out means Highway 89 (Truckee) or Highway 395 (Reno), not exactly the six-lane freeway-style driving city folks might be used to. Here, then, are some charming overnight options:
The Lodge at Nakoma, 348 Bear Run, Clio, CA, 530-897-2300, nakomaresort.com.
Chalet View Lodge, 72056 Highway 70, Graeagle, CA, 530-832-5528, chaletviewlodge.com.
Blackbird Inn, 276 Lower Main Street, Clio, CA, 530-836-7325, blackbirdinnclio.com.
Other Summer Farm Events
Farmers’ Markets—the only on-farm certified organic market in California, Fridays, June 2–Sept. 8, 10 a.m.–2 p.m.
Food, Blues & Views Concert Series:
Lydia Pense and Cold Blood, with special guest Johnny Vernazza, July 22, 6–8 p.m., $45 (includes free camping).
Len Rainey and the Midnight Players, with special guest Johnny Vernazza, Aug. 26, 6–8 p.m., $45 (includes free camping).
Guest Chef Spotlight: Sean Conry
Sean Conry loves food and loves Plumas County. He has worked elsewhere—and even now is planning a new project in Reno—but is happy being “home,” helping people he considers neighbors (and undeniably that means something different here, where 22,000 people are spread out over 2,600 miles). For example, he spent the spring overseeing the new beer pub at the Chalet View Lodge, where he now brews two beers; he is a chef instructor for Feather River College and the county’s jail release program; and he took 14 kids from the tiny local high school to a state cooking competition—which they won. But he always makes time for the Dinner in the Barn series, where he is a frequent guest chef.
“I usually do half the menu,” he says, and Mike Trombetta does the other half. “We’re inspired by what’s growing—we use Gary’s produce first, and then four or five other farms. One time we cooked a whole lamb—had a whole animal butchered— and then did different dishes with lamb.”
More than the experimentation with fresh ingredients, however, he appreciates the ambiance at the farm as much as the guests do. “I love it—I get to work with other chefs,” he says. “And I don’t see a lot of sunsets—I’m usually (indoors) in a kitchen at that hour. Eighty goes to 60 out there—and the sunsets are amazing.”