Local Chefs Open Restaurant With Money Made From Investing Stimulus Checks in Tesla

One of the most exciting new restaurants in Sonoma County launched with a dream and two well-invested stimulus checks.

One of the most exciting new restaurants in Sonoma County launched with a dream and two well-invested stimulus checks.

Chef Stéphane Saint Louis, who has worked in some of the world’s top kitchens, said he and business partner Chef Steven Vargas invested their pandemic stimulus checks into electric car company Tesla as a last resort when they realized their SBA loans simply weren’t going to be available to them during difficult restaurant times.

A $2,400 investment turned into a $17,000 windfall that’s launched not only a forthcoming mobile kitchen but a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Petaluma. You might say Tesla put them on the road to success.

Table Culture Provisions started quietly, popping up a night or two a week at Petaluma’s Wishbone restaurant and serving fried chicken. It caught my attention in early September as a word-of-mouth recommendation from a few locals. Then the menus and the hours expanded and started getting really interesting — a Haitian feast, classic French dishes like cassoulet, dry-aged steaks, trout en croute and upscale brunch dishes including an insane Monte Cristo. Mentions of brioche, homemade pomegranate raspberry jam and delicate crosscut potato chips with onion dip made it even more impossible to resist.

And so it went, gaining steam as Saint Louis and Vargas tempted fans with their seductive Instagram feed, @tcprovisions. Fair warning, it’s not recommended on an empty stomach.

In early January, the duo purchased Wishbone, which owners Miriam Donaldson and Josh Norwitt put up for sale in 2019. What’s so special about the sale is the through-line of unfettered creativity, obsessive locality and a passion for of-the-moment ingredients that will continue at the Petaluma space Donaldson and Norwitt so carefully cultivated. Serendipity? Maybe.

Saint Louis, 34, and Vargas, 28, met at Della Fattoria, a launchpad for many restaurant careers, then later worked together as executive and sous chefs for a few years at the Shuckery, my favorite Petaluma seafood spot. Donaldson knew Saint Louis from Della, they reconnected late last summer and, voilà, the Table Culture Provisions pop-up was born as a way to make a little extra money for the long-term goal of buying a mobile kitchen.

A New York-born world traveler, Saint Louis speaks with a hint of a French accent after having lived in Haiti for 17 years. He moved to Northern California in his late teens, attended the California Culinary Academy, then worked at restaurants in Palm Springs, Miami, Petaluma and Sonoma. He moved to France to study at the Paul Bocuse Institute, parlaying that into stints in Shanghai and Copenhagen. Vargas is a Santa Rosa Junior College culinary graduate who Saint Louis recruited to work with him at Della Fattoria.

Table Culture Provisions is open Thursday through Sunday. The menu can change daily, depending on what’s in season and available locally. Visit the restaurant’s website to see what’s offered currently.

On a recent Sunday, Saint Louis sat down to talk about fried chicken, their vision for the future and a shared passion for world cuisine.

Why did you start the Table Culture Provisions pop-ups with your “famous” fried chicken?

Saint Louis: Fried chicken for us was strategic. We believe in our product and in the care and thought of how we source things. In the pandemic, we were asking, ‘What do people really like and can do at home but don’t want to because it’s too messy?’ Really, it was us playing it safe and getting our feet wet. We knew how to put that together.

How do you decide on your menus?

Saint Louis: We literally come up with the menu the day of, once I call and see what Green String Farms or our fish seller has in the inventory. Then we really go at it and put the menus together.

What’s your culinary point of view?

Saint Louis: Happy belly, happy mind. We know how crazy the world is and how fast it changes, and we always had this mentality that we didn’t want to settle or be part of the chaos of the world. So while everything was happening (during the pandemic), we still had to feed people and Petaluma has a refined palate. We wanted to be here and do comfort food, things we like to cook and eat with (the) best ingredients in a 25- to 50-mile radius from us.

It’s just about cooking for people, having fun and having visions and dreams of where our career can take us.

You are classically trained in the French tradition, but you have a lot of experience with other cuisines of the world. Do you plan to do more international menus?

Saint Louis: I have all this experience living in other countries, from Haiti to California to France and even in Shanghai. I went to Shanghai as a manager, overseeing 40 Chinese students and teaching them to cook the fundamentals of French cuisine. The trade-in there was learning about Asian cuisine. In Copenhagen, there was a lot happening with Noma and Geranium (restaurants). I was at a small one-Michelin star restaurant, but they did fundamental Danish cuisine. Also, my wife is Polish and my partner is Mexican, so we’re navigating through so many different cultures.

Tell me about your recent Haitian fundraising dinner.

Saint Louis: My mom and auntie live here, but they have a school in Haiti. It was in shambles after (the) earthquake (in 2010). They are making their dollars here and funding the school. For the longest time I wasn’t able to financially invest and help out, but as soon as I had this platform, I thought about showing appreciation for them having my back. In December we did a Haitian dinner with all proceeds going to the school.

Overall: This tiny pop-up punches far outside its weight class with passion, creativity and classic techniques, making it one of the best and brightest openings in Sonoma County.

841 Petaluma Blvd. S., Petaluma, 707-796-3375, tcprovision.com. Currently open for takeout only, Thursday through Sunday. Brunch from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., marketplace 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., dinner from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.