Written by Logan Cooper
If you take the time to listen to Café Ella’s Django-Reinhardt-inspired theme song, you get the core of the idea: “Fresh food tastes good.” That in mind, Ella King wanted to bring her passion for fresh, local food to the people of Watsonville. Everything at Café Ella and its sister restaurant, Ella’s at the Airport – from soup stock to whipped cream – is made from scratch, with locally-grown, organic ingredients.
Of course, making everything from scratch with only local ingredients does come with its own challenges. The most basic of course, is price. It costs more to buy organic food and prepare it from scratch. However, King tries to keep the prices at her restaurants as low as she can, because she wants them to be local fixtures, not elite establishments where most locals can’t dine.
“We don’t turn around and necessarily bump up our prices to the extent that we probably even should because of where we are located,” she says. “We’re not in San Francisco; we’re not on Santana Row.”
One of the problems that haven’t arisen from buying local is ingredient availability. “We’re truly blessed in this area… everything is growing here.” When asked, King could only think of one time that she couldn’t find the right ingredients. She had wanted to make an English pea spread, but couldn’t find any English peas growing in the area. Even that wasn’t a big problem, though, because “not even five minutes later, someone walked in with a bag of black mission figs… and we got to see what came out, and it was awesome.”
Just about the only thing that the fresh-made requirement stops King from making in her restaurants is pasta, just because of the logistics that are required to make it fresh on a commercial scale. She says that the only way she could make pasta would be if she opened up a pasta-only restaurant – “that would be fun.”
Café Ella, King’s first restaurant, opened about ten years ago, after she got out of the mortgage business and finally went through with her longtime aspiration of opening a restaurant. Food was always important in King’s family, and that rubbed off on her. In her twenties, she would regularly invite people over for dinner just so she would have an excuse to cook something fancy, once even taking over cooking a salmon for Thanksgiving. “It had a good flavor, but it was a little undercooked,” she said about the experience. “You live and learn. It just makes you better the next time you make a salmon.”
That gradual improvement on old themes is a big part of what has made King’s two restaurants successes. She describes her method of making food from scratch as “remembering” how to cook from what her mother and grandmothers taught her, and she includes many old family recipes in what she serves. While she revealed that her grandmother’s bread pudding, her father’s cream sauce,
and her mom’s jalapenos and tomato chutney are on the menu, King says that her family’s recipes are “imbued into most of the dishes” even when she does new and interesting things with them.
The idea for Ella’s at the Airport first came about when Café Ella began to get a bit too popular for its size. Seeing an opportunity to try a new variation on her farm-to-table theme, King decided to expand, and just happened to find a location in the Watsonville airport. The opening was full of the normal worries about starting a new restaurant, but King was nonetheless sure in her business model, and confident that her roots in Watsonville would bring customers in the door, and she has been right.
Even though both restaurants serve similar types of food, they’re not a chain by any stretch of the word. King described them as sisters, but not twins. On the most basic level, they differ in that Café Ella is a breakfast and lunch kind of place; while Ella’s at the Airport is more of a dinner destination. King went on to illustrate the differences between the restaurants by describing how each place does soup.
While all of the soups are made in house, from the stock up, Ella’s at the Airport always has tomato
bisque on the menu, as well as another soup that is switched out every few days. Café Ella, by contrast, makes a different soup each day, and “when it’s gone; it’s gone.” King was especially proud of coming up with ten years’ worth of soups.
At the end of the day, Ella King wants her restaurants, in her words, to “embody what it means to eat well.” This is not to say that she wants her restaurant to be seen as decadent. Rather, she wants to provide a place where people can come together and enjoy fresh, wholesome food that tastes good.
If you liked what you just read about Ella King, go check out her website, and don’t forget to come hear her speak at Event Watsonville: The Business of Food on November 9th.