“The way I stay active, as I was taught long ago, is to read one new recipe every day,” says Chef Art Russell, owner of Your Place Farm-to-Table in Santa Cruz. “It gets the juices flowing. It’s part of my routine.”
Chef Art started working in restaurants when he was 12 years old in Toluca Lake, near LA. His hard-drinking father, a semi-professional boxer, left his mother, who was newly sober, with five children and little means of support. She was a dance teacher but her earnings would not house and feed the family.
“Art wasn’t the oldest, but he was the biggest at nearly six feet tall, and the only one willing to take on the responsibility,” says his business partner and life partner, Rachel Wisotsky.
In 1962, Art went to an old-school Italian restaurant in his neighborhood and told the owner, “I need a job.”
“They let me wash dishes,” Art recalls. During his three years there, he learned knife skills, prep skills, and from-scratch old world basics. At 15, he moved on to Bob’s Big Boy, where the scene was fun and youthful. They served breakfast, so he learned new skills, including how to flip eggs and cook on a grill.
Art always took on side jobs because he needed more income, until at age 18 he could afford one job when hired at the Woodland Hills Country Club. Back in the day it was the hangout for the Rat Pack, Bing Crosby, occasionally Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Don Rickles, Clark Gable, and others.
“Clark Gable would come in the kitchen to cook his own crab,” Art recounts. “We were always cracking crab for him. Don Rickles was always in the kitchen, too. Many stars came and left through the kitchen to get away from the crowd and the cameras.”
“The chef was French. He hit me with a spoon and used to pull me by the ear if I did something wrong,” Art said. He also learned the five mother sauces and many useful techniques, so it was worth the pain.
Art got his seafood education at Mel’s Landing in Northridge—how to clean fish, cut fish, and maintain freshness. He learned never to bread the sand dabs ahead of time, but only with each order, and he learned how to keep salmon moist.
“Keep the skin on the bottom,” chimes in Rachel, looking at Art to see if she is in trouble. “I just gave a secret.”
“There are no secrets,” Art said. “I learned that from Julia Child.” In fact, Art is happy to give tips, and he added, “Keep a nice slow heat on the salmon, don’t cook it too fast. Quickly cook both sides, then leave it to cook on the skin side.”
When a fire caused by a coffee pot destroyed Mel’s Landing, Art hooked up with some investors and was hired to opened Clancy’s Crab Boilers. Art opened five of them. He was in charge of the menu, managing food costs, ordering, and overseeing all five chefs—and he developed a reputation for being able to open restaurants.
“Never do business with your family,” Art advises. His next venture failed because “the money was spent before we had the money,” he says of The Great Texas Chicken Company in Huntington Beach. It was the 1970s and they featured rotisserie chicken, building their own rotisserie that held 120 chickens marinated in their popular garlic sauce made with paprika, parsley, and olive oil.
“One of the workers took my chicken recipe and opened up nearby. Their enterprise evolved into Pollo Loco,” Art says with a smile.
People began to seek Art out to open restaurants during a new era of high-concept eateries such as Fuddruckers. He opened one called California Pizza Cuisine, specializing in nontraditional recipes, that became the mega-success California Pizza Kitchen.
“I created the recipes, said Art. “It was my idea to put Alfredo sauce on a chicken pizza.” It was one of the many Forrest Gump moments that seemed to characterize Art’s career.
Art nursed his father in his final stages of life, and when he died, the family obligations were complete, and Art closed the Southern California chapter of his life. Art rode his motorcycle north to explore Santa Cruz, Monterey and Lake Tahoe.
He decided to try his fortunes at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. “It was a difficult interview,” Art says. “I was quizzed by the executive chef, assistant executive chef, and sous chef, then I had to prepare a dinner and do a cooking demonstration.”
Art was hired, and while he was chef, they received a Mobile Five Star, Five Diamond rating, one of only three in the nation, according to Art. Five years later Caesar’s, the casino next door, bought Harrah’s and lured Art over, where he spent another five years. Caesar’s accepted interns from top culinary schools and Art was charged with their instruction, in addition to his workload.
Each casino was a massive meal-producing machine, with more than a dozen restaurants each, hotel room service, banquet rooms holding up to 3,000 each, and dinner shows nightly. They served 10,000 to 20,000 meals each day!
“The fun part at Caesar’s, was that I got to open the Empress Court with Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook,” Arts says. “At Harrah’s I got to cook with Paul Prudhomme. Later, at Pebble, I cooked with Julia Child. Often with celebrity chefs, their entourage would come in ahead of time and do the prepping. Julia arrived early in the morning, prepped for hours with her team and me, and talked the whole time.”
Along came the ’80s and Art joined a team at Pebble Beach, at the Clubhouse at Spanish Bay.
“It was a new idea to create a menu for healthy living,” says Art. He was in charge of the spa menu and introduced the new concept of juicing with fresh ingredients, and also got to play a lot of golf at Pebble, Spyglass, Spanish Bay, Poppy, and Monterey Peninsula.
But he wanted his own place. Eventually Art opened Monarch Cafe in an old building dating to 1919, and used organic ingredients at a time when it was hard to find product. He remembers picking up eggs in Carmel Valley from three different sources, and the opening in Pacific Grove of one of his suppliers, Sweet Earth, a company that went on to become a successful natural foods producer.
Art entered some of his desserts in the Monterey County Fair contest, where they had a professional baker division (Santa Cruz does not have one).
In his youth, Art’s grandmother, a Home Economics major from Saint Louis, Missouri was hired by General Electric when they introduced an electric oven. She tested many recipes and modified them for the dry oven (the moisture in a gas oven is higher). She taught Art her baking skills and secrets.
Art had reworked his favorite of his grandmother’s recipes back to baking in gas ovens, which were favored by chefs and used in professional kitchens.
“He was up against the bakers who owned bakeries and had professional training,” Rachel says, with pride.
He took Best of Show among all types of desserts for his carrot cake, his Chocolate Chocolate Cake, and his Very Cherry Pie, plus some First Place ribbons for all three of these within their categories. After a few years he stopped entering to make way for new winners.
Monarch Cafe was very popular for nine years until the landlord decided he wanted a Mexican restaurant. Art wasn’t interested and acquiesced, selling his operation.
This allowed Art to take a break for a few years, and he used the time to do some horseback riding with his son, and golf.
When he was only nine, Art began to muck stalls in exchange for the opportunity to ride horses. He rode Western and English, and learned “a little hunter-jumper, and some three-day day eventing.”
Art’s son took up riding and working with horses, and while Art never excelled at it, his son did. They bought a green half Shire, half Thoroughbred, broke him, and took him all the way to the Grand Prix level, showing at Pebble Beach and in Europe.
“What makes Art unusual,” says Rachel, “is that even from a young age, once he makes a decision, he commits with everything he has, and takes on the full weight of responsibility no matter how difficult.”
After that interlude, it was time to return to the indoor life, over a hot stove, where Art was most at home. He landed in Santa Cruz and worked at Gilbert’s on the Wharf for five or so years, met Rachel who was waiting tables there, and then following his usual pattern of stints of about five years, was ready for change yet again. MacArthur Park in Palo Alto brought him on as general manager. He hired Rachel to join him, because she was a valuable asset to any restaurant, and they remained colleagues, as were both married to others.
Fast forward to 2015, when Rachel and Art decided to open Your Place together. The impish Rachel imagined the confusion people would have with the name, a bit of Who’s-on-First sort of fun: “Shall we go to Your Place?” “My place?” “No, Your Place!”
“We both knew what we were getting into and we were crazy enough to say ‘yes’ because it was going to become something bigger than just a place to eat,” says Rachel. “And it has. People meet each other here, make friends, find a home away from home, and some regulars are beginning to rely on seeing one another.
“I was missing the Cooper House, and when the Crepe Place was downtown, when you could go to Capitola, broke, and manage to have fun. Now, I need five bucks to park. I wanted to bring back some of that past. I also feel that Your Place is finally Art’s reward.”
Serving up the bounty of local organic farmers is a commitment both share, and their garden at home yields a few items used at the restaurant, too. Some of the tomatoes served on salads are from their garden at home, and most of the eggs come from 24 chickens that run around their yard.
Birds are a thing with Rachel and Art. They rescue exotic birds and are up to, oh, sixty or so. Yellow-naped Amazons, love birds, parrotlets, parakeets, and more flap around their home and yard, rescued from owners who can’t handle them or are left behind by owners who pass away.
From one look at the restaurant’s interior, one might be tempted to think that a primary reason for opening Your Place was for Rachel to indulge in her hobby of collecting vintage salt and pepper shakers, cream and sugar sets, tea cups and dishes, china and colored glass. A corner for children is filled with quality toys (some made of real wood!) hand-selected by Rachel on her many antique hunting expeditions.
It’s the rare restaurant that is as infused with the owners’ personalities as the distinctive and homegrown Your Place, where you can taste for yourself why the judges awarded Art’s desserts all of those ribbons, and why one of the many kitchen teams he managed earned a Mobil Five Star, Five Diamond designation.
Your Place Farm to Table
1719 Mission Street, Santa Cruz | 831.426.3564 | yourplacesc.com