In recent years the explosion of Paso’s wine industry and the resulting onslaught of visiting enophiles and foodies have sparked competitive creativity among local chefs. This has culminated in the first Michelin star restaurant in San Luis Obispo County.
Six Test Kitchen is among the 22 new restaurants in California to receive the coveted one star awarded by Guide Michelin Guide in 2021. What began as a six-seat eatery in chef Rickey Odbert’s garage in Arroyo Grande in 2016 has evolved into an always fully-booked twelve-seater in Tin City, where the restaurant moved in 2019.
“To earn a Michelin star is such a justification of all that we do,” said the 34-year-old chef, when I met him at the restaurant on a cold December afternoon on one of his R&D (research and development) days. “It’s just a really awesome experience for me and the guys; we all work really hard.”
With a team of four including beverage director Matt Corella, the hard work comes in the form of a meticulously created multi-course menu assembled on a pristine stainless steel kitchen counter, each dish served as hand-crafted art. The restaurant is open for dinner only Wednesday through Saturday, with one seating nightly.
“This was our [original] restaurant” mused Odbert as he patted a gleaming stainless-steel counter, which in the new location anchors the restaurant as the cooking stage, with the dining counter around it. Neatly tied bundles of dried herbs and persimmons hanging from the ceiling add a simple decorative touch to the contemporary interior.
“I got an email in June from Guide Michelin saying that we were up for consideration for 2021,” Odbert recalled. He was asked to submit photos, and menus. “And fill out a questionnaire on why we were doing eco friendly food.” Two weeks later Odbert got a direct message on Instagram from the editor of Guide Michelin North America. “She congratulated me and sent me a link to join a video chat with two other chefs and share my ideas on California cuisine.”
The congratulatory call came within 30 minutes of his video chat with the other chefs. “It was really exciting, but a lot of it was a relief that the wild goose chase was over.”
The restaurant’s quiet elegance is livened by an ‘80s retro soundtrack as subtle yet intoxicating aromas fill the air. On my visit on a recent Saturday night, the multi-course dining experience began with a trio of chicken liver mousse seductively sweetened by quince gelatin, an oyster garnished with green apple and horseradish and a sliver of rockfish delicately wrapped in shiso leaf. A decadent spin on bacon and eggs was then served with Kaluga caviar. A 33-day aged Bluefin tuna from Morro Bay was served raw.
The palate’s textural journey continued with the Chawan Mushi, a silky custard-like tofu; black Cod with cauliflower and maitaki mushrooms; roasted duck with winter squash; and ended with dry-aged New York steak with caramelized onions. Each bite of each course exploded with seductive flavors that challenged your palate. What comes next?
A parade of three indulgent desserts came next. It started with white chocolate highlighted with an icy crunch of grapefruit granita. Then the delicious goodness of baked pear with pecan ice cream and persimmon garnished with tiny rosemary flowers. Finally, three bite-size delights of salted koji caramel, white sesame dark chocolate and peanut butter.
Along with the olfactory pleasure comes a visual spectacle for diners who take in the culinary ballet of the kitchen team meticulously arranging ingredients and delicately placing micro-flowers and herbs with the precision of a surgeon’s tools. Every dish is served in unique ceramic dinnerware handcrafted by Tres Feltman, a 70-year-old artist in San Luis Obispo.
“There’s no dishwasher,” explained Odbert of the prized dinnerware which is washed by hand. So, through the course of the evening, the restaurant team washes a total of 192 plates/bowls and 72 glasses.
The wine pairing changes nightly. Corella’s focus is on small producers and unique varieties from less explored regions. This might include nerello mascalese from Sicily’s Mt. Etna region or poulsard and trousseau from France’s Jura region as well as classic Burgundies, Barolos and Brunellos. As for Paso wines, Corella favors such hard-to-find labels as Royal Nonesuch Farm and older vintages from Tablas Creek Vineyard.
“When it comes to local, I like to pour wines that are not easily accessible as I understand most of our clientele is in Paso for the weekend and is out tasting wines,” Corella responded via email.
Surprisingly, Odbert didn’t grow up in a foodie family. “We sat down for family dinners, like fried chicken and lasagna. We weren’t eating food that would inspire me to cook.” But a Home Economics class in his 7th grade at Arroyo Grande’s Paulding Middle School fueled by a diet of Food Network’s cooking shows sealed his future as a chef.
After working at Rosa’s in Pismo Beach Odbert enrolled at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. Post graduation, he didn’t have much of a resume and his first job was at a place, he claims, he can’t remember. But fortunately, a chance meeting with a chef who worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio restaurant in San Francisco, led him to a job there that lasted two years.
After that he went to work at other noted Bay Area restaurants like Cortez, Masa’s, Spruce and Aziza, all of which had earned one Michelin star and the three-star-rated Meadowood in Napa Valley.
Armed with techniques and discipline learned from chefs at prestigious restaurants and fueled by his creativity, Odbert hoped to open a restaurant in San Francisco with a couple of partners. But that never happened.
The young chef decided to return home to Arroyo Grande. Despite his impressive portfolio, he couldn’t find the right fit along Central Coast.
That’s when the idea was hatched to build a small kitchen in the family garage to cater private parties. It was an easy fit since his father Garry Odbert was in the business of building kitchen equipment. As catering turned out to be time-consuming, the garage-turned-kitchen became a restaurant with seating for six and coined the restaurant’s name.
Operating a small 12-seater restaurant comes with its own set of challenges, such as finding vendors who will make deliveries. “Up until we got the Michelin star many people were not interested in working with us because we are so small,” commented Odbert.
Although that is starting to change, Odbert still makes his trips to source Morro Bay bounty. “They [the fish] are offloaded and we get them before they go to anyone else,” he said of his favorite catch of black cod and rockfish. Other favored vendors include Gather in Atascadero and BeeWench Farm in Paso.
For Odbert, like with many other Michelin-starred chefs, this is just the beginning of the coveted recognition. Anonymous restaurant reviewers make multiple visits throughout the year, explained Odbert. So, it’s just as easy to lose the coveted Michelin star as it is to gain another one.
“We have to keep the integrity going and strive for another star,” said the committed chef.
Guide Michelin was the brainchild of brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin, who founded their eponymous tire company in 1899 in central France. The guide they produced helped tourists not only with helpful travel hints but also restaurants and hotels. As the guide’s restaurant section grew the brothers recruited mystery inspectors to review restaurants anonymously. It wasn’t until 1926, that the one-to-three-star rating system was developed. The guide now rates over 30,000 restaurants in over 30 territories across three continents.