A Look At Reno's Evolving Culinary Scene

Jul 29, 2016

Careful hands tend to a plate at Chefs Al Fresco.
Credit Marcus Lavergne/Reno Public Radio

Reno’s transformation into a start-up hub and art-centric city has caught widespread attention. The spotlight’s on Downtown and Midtown, one reason being a revitalized food scene. Our reporter Marcus Lavergne recently took an in-depth look to figure out if Reno has what it takes to become the next culinary powerhouse:

As Jessica Shapiro, a catering chef from the Cheese Board, a Midtown bistro, sears symmetrical squares of pork belly over a portable stove, the sweet, smoky scent seems to blanket the whole patio at Campo, an Italian restaurant in downtown Reno.

It’s a warm, breezy evening during a competition called Chefs Al Fresco.

What will soon become a culinary masterpiece, is first subjected to a variety of spices, lots of heat and Shapiro’s careful hands. She’s already sautéed small cubes of potato, ground beef and the superfood, kohlrabi, a turnip-cabbage hybrid, for a hash that’ll accompany the pork.

Although the stage is unfamiliar, experimenting with food is something Shapiro’s done since early on in life.

“I decided I wanted our entire family to taste food and really, really explore food, you know, not just like what you make after you get home from work; it’s more of an experience than a chore.” 

Shapiro says the culinary scene in Reno is something that’s exploded in the past decade, and if people don’t pay attention, they’ll miss out.

“I mean its Reno, we’re in such a boom right now, [and] it’s awesome to be a part of it.”

Chefs Al Fresco wasn’t just a chance for pros to show off their talents; it also gave people the chance to see just what kind of culinary artists exist in Reno.

Sanjay Lillaney, who took over Campo Foods, Campo’s parent company, last December, says he moved here from the Bay Area with confidence in Reno’s thriving business community.

“Reno is growing with lots of businesses like a Switch, Tesla, all of which are bringing a lot of people who will want restaurants. There used to be a lot more restaurants in Reno, but with the downturn they closed down.”

As Reno bounces back from the recession, Lillaney says we can expect more restaurants to pop up.

“I don’t think we’re in a national position yet, because when you talk about food you talk about San Francisco, you talk about New York, LA to some extent, but absolutely regionally Reno is big because it’s also clubbed in with Lake Tahoe – Lake Tahoe being one of the premier destinations in the country and Reno absolutely being its gateway.”

Lillaney also points out the ease of gathering and eating locally grown, organic ingredients, in the area, an important factor in becoming a popular food city, but there’s also a greater fascination with Reno’s transforming dining experience as a whole.

Still, some say Reno has a long way to go.

Roger Scime retired from reviewing restaurants in Las Vegas about 15 years ago. Now, he lives in downtown Reno, and although he enjoys the food, he says pricing can be a large obstacle for restaurant growth.

“I think this might be the problem: they’re paying too much for rent, they’re paying too much for real estate and they have to price their meals in a way that’s not really appropriate to what they’re getting for it.”

Scime, who lived in Sin City for 20 years, says he sees Reno repeating a familiar pattern. 

“I saw some really nice, local restaurants that had some wonderful food just come and go because we had such a transient population there. Place would be hot for a couple of weeks and then it would die and nobody would go in there again. I see the same thing happening with Reno.”

That being said, Scime says he sees potential in some areas, mainly the rising prevalence of food trucks.

According to Clint Jolly, a traveling chef and winner of the popular Food Network competition, Chopped, food trucks, among various other dining options were a rare find in the city just 15 years ago. That’s changed fairly recently.

“Instead of having the option of which buffet or which steakhouse you want to go to, now we’ve got a little bit more ethnic cuisine being shown off and overall just a little bit more variety and better quality.”

For Jolly, a major factor in that change is the talent finding its way to the area, which was apparent at the competition.

“You can’t come out to something like this and put out some good food without some innate, some borne talent that you’ve honed over years in the kitchen.”

Although the city’s future as a foodie destination is uncertain, one thing seems clear: as long as excited, gifted chefs flow in, the art will remain alive and well in Reno.