Meeting with Michael Hibbard - the Harley-Davidson riding culinary master who's Win-River Casino's first certified executive chef - was a bit like watching a magic act.
It was a quiet morning inside Elements Restaurant, hours before diners would begin arriving for lunch. Hibbard, 57, who moved his family to Redding from Palm Springs in January, said we had time to talk.
He began by describing the upcoming physical changes in store for Elements - well, at least that's the name the casino's restaurant goes by now.
Sometime this summer, "Elements" will be known as something else, Hibbard said.
Because nearly everything else will change, too, he said.
That's when Hibbard's magic began. His words and hands conjured up an impressive vision of the restaurant's future.
Certainly, he said, the restaurant's location will remain inside Win-River Casino at the Redding Rancheria. Well, at least until the new mega hotel complex is built. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
With a sweep of his white-as-rice chef-coat sleeve, he gestured around the room.
Imagine: New carpet, new chairs, new tables, and an outdoor dining patio that overlooks Clear Creek. New training composition sheets for kitchen staff, new training that addresses everything from consistency in plate presentation to top-notch table-side service that delivers hot food hot, and cold food cold.
"Basically, with a restaurant, you get one shot at getting it right," he said. "Customers are unforgiving. My goal is to take Elements to a new level. I'm going to turn this place around. Once the word's out, people will want to see what's happening at Elements."
With his credentials, it's a believable feat.
Hibbard, a member of the Colorado Chaines de Rottissier, has trained in France and Spain. He earned his executive chef certification through the American Culinary Federation. He has a combined four decades of experience in the hospitality industry. Most recently Hibbard was the executive chef with The Fountains at the Carlotta Resort in Palm Springs, and he's held executive chef positions at such Mobil four- and five-star-awarded properties as the Broadmoor Resort Hotel in Colorado, the Columbus Westin Hotel, Ohio, The Mission Inn in Riverside California, Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and Sky City Casino Hotel in New Mexico and was an executive chef instructor with the Pennsylvania Culinary Academy.
That experience helps explain why Hibbard can imagine the old Elements in a new way.
He spoke of fine dining, and beautiful table settings, and delicious, attractive food - professionally prepared and arranged on new china upon tables set with new linens. He plans a beefed-up Sunday brunch, jazzed-up drinks, redesigned dishes prepared from scratch, ordered from a pared-down, more manageable menu that includes an enhanced wine list and food served in a 98-percent "scratch" kitchen.
What's not from scratch?
Long pause, slight frown.
"Diced canned tomatoes," he finally said with a look of satisfaction.
Even the restaurant's current theme will be transformed when Hibbard changes Element's current restaurant/bar into a "chop house" that will feature "fusion" style cuisine, which, according to Hibbard, is Pacific Rim meets Southwest meets French nouveau meets California cuisine.
"I'm passionate about food," he said with a wide smile.
"But I'm a teacher, too, and I want that passion to rub off on the staff so they'll progress. I love to take a cook and turn them into a chef."
Hibbard acknowledged that he has his work cut out for him, but he's enthusiastic about it.
"I'm really excited," he said. "I'm the kind of guy who'll roll up my sleeves and not just cook, but teach. I know how to be a maître d', a host, a bartender, and I'm a darn good chef."
He said his management style is to not be a micro-manager, but to empower people to do a better job - even better than he can do.
As if on cue, one of Hibbard's kitchen staff appeared at our table, a bit out of breath. She said they were out of the potatoes Hibbard had prepared, but she didn't know how he did it. Hibbard turned to the woman, smiled and said, "OK, this is easy, listen. You can do this ..."
She listened, nodded - yes, yes - as Hibbard spoke quickly and precisely of potatoes and steaming and butter and parsley and a little garlic and salt and pepper. She rushed back to the kitchen.
Where were we?
Oh, yes, Hibbard also talked about new glass walls at the front of the restaurant that will extend up to the ceiling, an aesthetically pleasing choice with a practical side effect: block the casino's smoke.
His dream and prediction after the summer changes are fully implemented? Customers will notice the improvements. They'll appreciate the restaurant's quality food, made with fresh ingredients. That will bring them back. Again and again.
"I want the new customers, I want the regular customers and I want the customers who came to Elements once before - 'been there, done that' - and never came back," he said.
"I want them all. I guess I want the whole pie."
Note: Elements bar also features late-night after-dinner entertainment - such as the Chris Gardner Band, which will perform at Elements Friday and Saturday, April 2 and 3, from 9:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. In the spirit of full disclosure, my nephew, Aaron Shively, is a member of that band.
Independent online journalist Doni Greenberg founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Greenberg was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Northern California in the tiny town of Igo.