Kitchen Confidential: Cafe Nouveau reopens in Ventura following fire
Dec 21, 2012 (Ventura County Star - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Tes Wolf and Carlos Acevez have video of what nearly was their lives going up in smoke.
Captured by a security camera, the black-and-white footage shows smoke turning to flames in a stove hood and then running up a nearby wall.
"It was after Saturday lunch. No one was here. Thank goodness for the neighbors," Wolf said of the Feb. 18 fire at Cafe Nouveau, the restaurant she and life partner Acevez have operated for a decade at Chrisman Avenue and Thompson Boulevard in midtown Ventura.
(Photo gallery: Cafe Nouveau
The blaze caused what initially was estimated to be $200,000 in damage to the 1920s-era building and its contents.
"We thought we'd fix things up and be open again in a couple of months," said Acevez.
Ten months later, the couple have unveiled a restaurant that is both old and new.
The plumbing, electrical, commercial gas lines and Captive Aire ventilation system are new. So is the wood floor in the dining rooms, installed by Acevez and members of the kitchen crew.
But the menu is the same, featuring brioche French toast served with house-made vanilla caramel syrup at breakfast and an array of burgers and salads for lunch, seven days a week. Dinner is served Wednesdays through Saturdays.
On the morning of Dec. 10, also known as reopening day, Acevez greeted the first customers through the door with tie-dye T-shirts like the ones he and the servers wear to work each day.
"Tes makes them. We used to have polo shirts, but these are cooler in summer," he said.
What happened between the fire and the restaurant's return is the story of local history running headlong into modern-day building codes, and of customers who wouldn't take "we don't know" for an answer when the question was: "When are you reopening "
"Food is a connective force," said Myrna Cambianica, who with husband Jim Cambianica operated another restaurant, Cucina d'Italia, at the same address starting in the late 1980s. "The atmosphere here is not contrived. It is like walking into someone's home."
The Cambianicas still own the building. An avid photographer, Myrna created a Facebook page for Cafe Nouveau so she could post pictures of the restaurant as it was remodeled.
The images include the kitchen's blackened interior stripped down to the framework and portraits of staff members who stayed on to help with everything from retiling the bathrooms to welding giant metal sunflowers for the garden patio.
"I have never been involved with a project where there was so much community interest, and so much community pressure to finish," said Kerry Miller of Kerry Miller Designer/Builder. The Ojai-based firm took over the project in July.
It seemed at times that each step forward resulted in two steps back, Miller said.
Take, for instance, the state-mandated installation of the grease interceptor.
The interceptor filters liquids flowing from the restaurant's many sinks, capturing fats and oils before they go into the waste water treatment system. A crane was used to lower the 6-by-8-foot, 750-gallon receptacle into the ground just outside the Cafe Nouveau kitchen, where it is now hidden under a brick and concrete patio that may eventually be used for additional tables.
Miller and his crew first had to make sure the plumbing lines matched up with the interceptor, which required taking up sections of the old floor, which led to ... the discovery that the original floor joists had simply been poked into holes in the brick walls, Miller said.
Long story short, the kitchen floor now rests on 30 concrete piers.
Or, as Wolf put it, "Everything was a challenge."
What is now known as Cafe Nouveau started as someone's house, built in the Spanish bungalow style of the 1920s.
The cafe sits at the edge of a neighborhood filled with similar houses. They tend to be small by contemporary standards, and often are separated by little more than a driveway intended to accommodate a Model A Ford.
Such closeness can be a blessing and a curse.
Neighbors were the first to report seeing smoke billowing from the cafe. But they also are the ones inconvenienced when cafe patrons park on residential Chrisman Avenue instead of along Thompson Boulevard, said Cambianica.
To help mitigate the problem, a sign posted in front of the cafe directs customers to a city-owned lot that offers free parking from 5:30 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends. Located in the 300 block of South Chrisman, it is linked to the cafe via a newly installed, solar-powered crosswalk at Thompson Boulevard.
The boulevard was known as the state highway in the early 1950s, when the Ventura phone directory began listing the house as both a home and a restaurant.
By 1957, the restaurant in question was El Charrito Mexican Food, owned and operated by live-in proprietors Lino and Nina Mora. The phone directory description reads, "Food to go, call and pick up, home-cooked tacos, tostadas, tamales, burritos, rellenos, tortillas, enchiladas, Bar-B-Qued chicken a la Mexicana. Tel Miller 8-9085."
Kerby Zozula, engineering manager for the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District, remembers eating there in 1978, not long after moving to Ventura.
"I was a white Polish kid from Pennsylvania. It was my first authentic Mexican meal. It was quite a spicy shock, but I washed it down with my first Coors," said Zozula.
The Moras owned the restaurant through 1986, when they sold it to Jim and Myrna Cambianica, passing along the keys with a set of stories.
"I recall Nina Mora talking about Leo's Spanish Kitchen. I heard that when Thompson was (the highway) that truckers used to be able to shower or bathe on the restaurant premises," said Myrna Cambianica.
Lino Mora died in 1998; Nina Mora died in 2009. Her obituary describes the restaurant as a place where the couple served "many customers that became lifelong friends."
The Cambianicas, who had owned the Italian restaurant La Trattoria in the early 1980s, turned El Charrito into Cucina d'Italia.
"We liked that the restaurant was in an old home. It suited our way of food -- everything from scratch," Cambianica said.
At the time, "The only room used for the restaurant was the main dining area," she added. "The room closest to Chrisman was used by both our kids when they worked for us and went to Ventura College." That room is now a dining room, with a window that looks onto a patio.
Now also used as a dining room, the space just off the kitchen once was equipped with an old refrigerator and a redwood picnic table on which salads and desserts were prepped -- sometimes under the watchful eyes of customers waiting for tables.
"I recall a Santa Barbara customer saying they loved Cucina d' Italia because the atmosphere was 'real'," said Cambianica.
The floors were covered with brick-pattern linoleum, the walls featured fake wood paneling and the then-unfashionable Formica tables were hidden under red-and-white checkered tablecloths, she added.
"We brought in interesting, eclectic antique stuff ... and always had fresh flower bouquets, all under 1960s fluorescent lighting," Cambianica said.
"I had one friend complain, 'They don't even garnish the plate with parsley.' Not a deal killer for us. The food tasted homemade and everything had umami -- savoriness," said Brooke Ashworth, who began going to Cucina d'Italia for its spaghetti carbonara made with red pepper flakes and pancetta in the late 1980s.
It was a dinner-only spot at the time and didn't take reservations, Ashworth said. Patrons instead were seated at whatever table became available when their name rose to the top of the waiting list.
On one busy Saturday night, Ashworth and her husband, Everard Ashworth, were a party of two seated at a table for four in the middle of the dining room. She recognized a famous actor among the people waiting for tables, but her husband had not.
Ashworth invited the actor and his companion, who turned out to be his son, to join them. After exchanging pleasantries, the two parties settled into their respective conversations, she said.
"About halfway through dinner, my husband put his hand to the side of his mouth and pointed, eyes wide. He silently mouthed to me, 'That's Gene Hackman!' "
The Oscar-winning star of "The French Connection" and "Unforgiven" finished first and thanked the couple for sharing the table.
"We didn't discover until we went to pay our bill that Hackman had done it for us. We never had a chance to thank him," Ashworth said.
The next generation
The Cambianicas sold Cucina d' Italia to Peter Ransom of Pete's Breakfast House fame in 1995. He later sold both restaurants and moved to Montana, where he and wife Laurie Ransom now run a small farm.
Cucina d'Italia passed through the mother-and-son ownership of Jacquelyn and Danny Smith before Acevez and Wolf bought the business in 2002.
Inspired by the Art Nouveau period and the word's connection to new beginnings, they changed the name to Cafe Nouveau and expanded the menu to include breakfast and lunch. They also jettisoned the checkered tablecloths, revealing the vintage Formica tables bequeathed to the location by the Moras.
"We felt like we struck gold when we saw all the colors under there," said Acevez.
They also gradually moved the main entrance to Thompson Boulevard, transforming the Chrisman Avenue patio into a walled garden for outdoor dining.
On reopening day, a full 12 minutes before the announced start time of 7 a.m., Lou Cunningham of Ventura tugged on the new gate that leads to the restaurant's front door at 1497 E. Thompson Blvd.
"I heard they were calling this the soft opening. I don't want it to be too soft," Cunningham said before ordering a stack of chocolate chip pancakes.
There has been talk of organizing a grand reopening. "But we've been too busy since we came back to do more than talk about it," Acevez said with a laugh.
Cafe Nouveau timeline
Cafe Nouveau was someone's home before and after it was turned into a restaurant in the 1940s. The following timeline was created using documents available at the Museum of Ventura County research library and other materials.
1928: The Sanborn Map Co. creates its first fire insurance map of Ventura. It shows a house at the corner of Chrisman Avenue (numerical address 295) and what is now known as Thompson Boulevard. The home's footprint is similar to that of the current structure.
1930: The Ventura County phone directory lists R.J. Withers, a surveyor, as the resident at 295 Chrisman Ave.
1939-40: Withers is still living in the house at 295 Chrisman Ave. On a side note: The phone directory lists Edward Olivas as the owner of a restaurant at 237 E. Main St.
1946: The phone directory identifies T.H. Wilkens as the occupant of 295 Chrisman Ave.
1948-49: The directory lists 295 Chrisman Ave. as the residence of Leo and Maria Olivas but doesn't mention a restaurant there, or at 1497 Thompson just around the corner. Meanwhile, the restaurant at 237 E. Main St. is identified as Rudy & Millie's Spanish Kitchen, operated by Rudolph Aguilar.
1951-52: The phone directory lists 1497 Thompson Blvd. as the home of Edward and Marie Olivas, and as the location of Leo's Spanish Kitchen restaurant.
1956: The next available phone directory on the library's shelves identifies 1497 Thompson Blvd. as the home of James and Constance Cook and the location of Cook's Spanish Kitchen.
1957: El Charrito Mexican Food has opened at 1497 E. Thompson Blvd. The address also is the home of proprietors Lino and Nina Mora, as denoted by the (h) printed next to the address.
1986: Jim and Myrna Cambianica, former owners of La Trattoria restaurant in Ventura, purchase El Charrito and the property on which it sits from the Moras. They rename the restaurant Cucina d' Italia.
1987: Cucina d' Italia is issued a license to sell beer and wine.
1995: Peter Ransom of Pete's Breakfast House in Ventura buys Cucina d' Italia from the Cambianicas and operates it using their recipes. He later sells both restaurants and moves to Montana.
2000-2002: Cucina d' Italia is operated by the mother-and-son duo of Jacquelyn and Danny Smith.
2002: Carlos Acevez and Tes Wolf take over, changing the restaurant's name to Cafe Nouveau.
Feb. 18, 2012: A fire reported at around 3:15 p.m. causes what is initially estimated to be $200,000 in damages to the Cafe Nouveau building and its contents. The restaurant closes for repairs.
Dec. 10, 2012: Cafe Nouveau reopens.
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