Chef Kurt Alldredge and his wife JoEllen describe The Chef’s Touch as a compendium of cuisine, cookware, and classes, a source of creative food that “inspires, excites, and fuels.” On the outside, it’s an unassuming little cafe with a thatched roof and red awnings set far off the street, but the interior space feels unusually open and accessible. There are no walls to come between the diner and the cook, and television monitors reveal what’s happening on the stove. It’s very much like eating in a big welcoming kitchen. The walls are lined with cookbooks, jars of homemade condiments and sauces, and culinary implements for sale. Many customers are locals, and a friendly first-name ambience prevails. It’s “gourmet” but completely unpretentious.
I discovered The Chef’s Touch about four years ago, not long after it opened, while wandering with a couple of my girlfriends in search of a leisurely lunch. We sat at an outdoor table beneath a red umbrella and were soon congratulating ourselves on our good fortune. My friend Cornelia chose the salad of Italian marinated octopus prepared with capers, red onion, avocado, and romaine hearts that has become her regular order-you don’t find a good octopus salad every day. Vickie decided on the turkey sandwich with white cheddar and apple-cranberry chutney, or maybe it was the fish tacos with homemade salsa Colorado, cabbage, lime, and pinto beans. Either way, she wouldn’t have gone wrong. As for me, I know for a fact that I ordered the Reuben; it became the standard by which I have measured all Reubens ever since, and I’m from Brooklyn. The pastrami was lean, the sauerkraut made from scratch, the bread freshly baked. You can tell a lot about a place by how it approaches a Reuben.
Every item on the menu at The Chef’s Touch reflects that kind of care. Alldredge refers to it as “passion-based” cuisine-for him, food cannot be separated from emotion and story, and every dish is a form of expression. A fourth-generation Californian, Alldredge brings 32 years of cooking experience to The Chef’s Touch, having reigned in the kitchens of grand hotels and distinguished independent restaurants in both California and Washington state. One of his mentors was Gernot Leitzinger, former chef to the Prince of Austria, with whom he worked side by side at the Old Europe Restaurant in Pacific Grove, but it’s fair to say that Alldredge’s grandmother and mother were major influences, too. Alldredge takes pride in using the freshest ingredients and in-season produce from area farms. “My goal is to expand people’s ideas about food,” he will tell you, “Every dish evokes memories, it has history, it has heart. I interpret people in my world through food. I relate through food.”
On Thursday through Saturday evenings, The Chef’s Touch becomes a bistro whose eclectic entrees might include barbecued Thai chicken in red curry coconut tomato sauce with toasted peanuts, mint, and jasmine rice, or grilled wild caught salmon on a stacked New Mexico enchilada, or paella made with handmade Spanish chorizo, chicken, piquillo peppers, saffron, onion, olives, and garlic. Textures, colors, and tastes vary with the season, and that’s what makes it art. Get started with the Roman artichokes if they’re on the menu-fried baby artichokes seasoned with garlic and parmesan cheese, or the wine lover’s plate of shaved prosciutto di Parma, finnochio salami, and gourmet cheeses with rustic bread. Speaking of wines, the list is impressive, with an emphasis on locals such as Palmina Dolcetto and Zaca Mesa Z Cuvee, served by the glass. For dessert, I’d go with crme br»lee, but I have resolved never to say no to crme br»lee. Frankly, it isn’t a bad idea to see what kind of cookies are on hand either. I happened to walk in on a plate of cookies made with almond paste and pignoli, exactly like the ones my father used to bring home from Little Italy when I was a child. I left sighing.
The Chef’s Touch also offers thematic cooking classes on Wednesday nights. Classes, between 10 and 20 people, fill up quickly. “These are hands-on,” Alldredge explained, “in which we cook, eat, drink, and commune. : My goal is that when you leave here you are better able to express yourself through cooking and feel less intimidated. I’m not so much a teacher as a facilitator, here to improve the relationship of your life around food.”
The man is on a mission. But it feels a lot like love.
Upcoming Cooking Classes
April 9: Arcadian Wines and the Food of Burgundy
(special class $85/person)
Explore wines of Burgundy with special guest Joe Davis, owner and winemaker for Arcadian Wines, and experience Burgundian snails, roast suckling pig, and apple tartan.
April 23: Cambodian Crush
Learn about Cambodian cuisine: crunchy pea salad and honeyed bacon, chicken-rice soup, and coconut rice crpes with pork.
May 7: Deli Delights
Learn how to create classic deli sandwiches, including homemade sauerkraut for an authentic Reuben, and a Louisiana muffaletta perfect for packing.
May 21: Lettuce Eat
Explore how to use the leafy green for more than just salad.
June 4: Mad About Saffron
Make a rich saffron broth and turn it into risotto, Milanese cakes, and Spanish paella.
All classes are Wednesdays, from 6-9 p.m., cost $75 per person, and include wine tasting and food.
The Chef’s Touch is located at 1555 Mission Dr. in Solvang. Call 686-1040.