When it comes to the necessary ingredients for a successful restaurant, talented chefs, inspired recipes, and a cheerful waitstaff come to mind. But Callista Wengler knows firsthand that it takes much more than that! Once just a young girl watching in awe as her mother created sugary masterpieces in the kitchen, Callista now serves as Marketing Director and creative mind for Paragary Restaurant Group, which is responsible for many thriving bars and eateries throughout California. Callista was kind enough to answer a handful of questions for us and offer some insight on what it really means to be a “foodie!”
You have your hand in a lot of things with Paragary Restaurant Group—you handle the marketing, assist in developing new brands, bring events from conception to execution, manage their website and social media accounts, and work with their blog, among many other responsibilities. At the end of the day, what is it that you love best about your job?
I EAT VERY, VERY WELL. What else is there to say? :)
But really, I started with Paragary Restaurant Group (PRG) when I was barely 25, so I’ve grown up with the company, personally and professionally. I’ve had the great privilege of learning the restaurant industry from three of the greatest restaurateurs in our city, and they recognize my creative aptitude and encourage me to incorporate that into my job. After all, the restaurant industry is all about being creative. It takes an army of talented and creative people to execute a successful restaurant.
Of all the creative tasks I handle on a daily basis, I would have to say one of my favorite jobs is food photography. When I first started with PRG I hired photographers, but it soon occurred to me that it would be much more efficient to take the photos myself—not to mention I felt I had an eye for it. So I asked one of my VERY talented photographer friends, Ryan Greenleaf, to help me pick out the right equipment and teach me the basics. The company bought me a great Canon camera and a couple of lenses, and I was off and running! Food photography has become a true passion of mine, and I love the fact that I have so many great chefs ready and willing to make beautiful plates of food on a daily basis! Of course, the hard part is not eating everything after photographing it…
How did your passion for food first ignite? Can you trace it back to a specific moment or meal?
Growing up, one of my favorite times of the year was Christmas, because my mom would go on a cookie-baking spree and I would play assistant. This involved Chocolate Cringles, Snickerdoodles, the ultimate chocolate chip cookies, and the pièce de résistance: a towering biscotti Christmas tree drizzled with icing from top to bottom. I have many other fond memories of watching my mom at work in the kitchen, but I would have to say that I truly discovered my passion for food when I started working for PRG. Being completely submerged in the culture, seeing the amount of hard work, dedication, and talent that goes into it, how could I not? The thing I love about food, and particularly the restaurant industry, is how it’s a full sensory experience. It reaches all the senses, and furthermore, it brings people together. Some of my most vivid memories involve a meal shared with family and friends.
According to your Twitter profile, you are a self-described “foodie.” How would you say this is reflected in your day-to-day life?
Besides the fact that I love to eat? Obviously, due to my job, I spend most of my days eating, talking about, and photographing food. But even when I’m not at work, I strive to seek out new and exciting food experiences. I love trying out new restaurants, going to farmers’ markets, reading food blogs and publications, attempting new recipes, and checking out interesting specialty markets. You can find some of the most interesting and unique ingredients, not to mention fantastic deals, at the ethnic markets. Being a foodie isn’t about eating at the most expensive restaurants or ordering the most decadent ingredients (although I certainly wouldn’t turn down foie gras!). It’s about being open to all different kinds of food and cuisines. I remember telling someone a while back about a really delicious tongue stew I had at a restaurant, which immediately elicited a response of disgust. But then I asked them, “Well, how is tongue any more disgusting than eating a pig’s butt?” Just saying.
The Paragary Restaurant Group operates more than 12 thriving stores throughout California. What makes the food scene in Northern California stand out in comparison to other parts of the country?
As you may have heard, the Sacramento region has a new brand: America’s Farm-to-Fork Capitol. Some people roll their eyes when they hear that, because it’s such a trendy term. But if you really dig into the details, you will find it to be true. The Sacramento region has what they call a Mediterranean climate, ideal for growing all kinds of fantastic produce. Our region is an amazing hub of thriving agriculture that allows most everyone to enjoy the highest quality ingredients, whether in a restaurant or in their own kitchens. And when I say agriculture, I mean produce, grains, livestock, fantastic wine, craft beer… you name it, we grow it. Here’s a fun fact: the Sacramento region supplies 100% of the sushi rice to the nation and 80% of the world’s almonds. We also produce and process more tomatoes than Italy!
So what makes the food scene in Northern California stand out? Take what I just mentioned, and add in fantastic seafood, a world-renowned wine region, and a bevy of unique artisanal goods made by small and large producers alike. What else can I say? We truly have it all. And because of that, the chefs in this region have an arsenal of outstanding ingredients to create fresh, delicious, innovative cuisine.
Another thing worth mentioning is that we are home to UC Davis, which is world-renowned for their strides in agricultural education and innovation. Much of the technology used by farms all over the world was invented right here in Northern California. And now they have partnered with SARTA, the Sacramento Regional Technology Alliance, to create an AgTech Innovation Center, a program that will help accelerate entrepreneurial thinking among farmers, ranchers, and agricultural researchers through funding and networking. Pretty cool stuff!
PRG has given life to 10 different restaurants and bars, so they’re clearly doing something right! When it comes to dining out, what do you find to be the defining characteristic of a truly memorable meal?
I think a great dining experience comes from a combination of amazing food, atmosphere, and service… not to mention good company! But to deliver a truly memorable meal, the restaurant has to make a connection with the guest. It has to convey genuine passion and dedication in every bite, sip, and interaction. At Paragary’s Bar and Oven, we have servers that have been with the company for over 25 years. Their passion and knowledge is the reason we have such a loyal base of customers. It’s why the restaurant is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year—a feat that few restaurants can claim.
Much of what you do for PRG revolves around a computer—whether you’re managing their blog, handling their Facebook and Twitter accounts, or maintaining the company’s website. How do you think the development of the Internet has impacted the culture of cuisine over the years?
The Washington Post recently published an article titled “Are foodies quietly killing rock-and-roll?” That may be a little far-fetched, but the gist of the article is that the “foodie” class is growing at an unprecedented rate and becoming the new “cool” standard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent consumer expenditure survey, the amount of annual income that Americans younger than 25 spent dining out increased nearly 26 percent between 2000 and 2011. For ages 25 to 34, the increase was nearly 20 percent.
I’m no expert, but I think it’s safe to say that the Internet spurred this increase. The reasons why are innumerable, but I think the general reason is that the Internet has made food culture more accessible to everyone. It gives restaurants the ability to market to a mass audience and, in turn, gives customers the ability to provide feedback. It empowers chefs, most importantly home chefs, to share their recipes and experiences. It provides a wealth of information on food from all cuisines and cultures. The list goes on and on!
The point is that all this accessibility has led to a cultural change in how we dine, cook, and share our food experiences. Now, we have celebrity chefs (and bloggers!), a wealth of food photo-sharing sites, all sorts of cooking shows and contests, huge food festivals, etc. The increased food knowledge of the everyday consumer has encouraged restaurants to provide better food, to push the envelope, and to do it in a way that is approachable and affordable. In short, it’s a great time to be alive (and eating!).
Photos by Ryan Greenleaf Photography
Graphics created by Meredith Carty