A Family Affair
Mom is the secret to how allora’s garden grows
By Elena M. Macaluso
Sally Jeanne Luehrs was retired and living in Pennsylvania when her son called with a job offer.
Chef Deneb Williams asked his mom if she would be interested in tending the garden at Allora, his latest culinary venture with wife Elizabeth-Rose Mandalou. Allora opened last year on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento. The couple also owns Woodlake Tavern and Uptown Pizza on Del Paso Boulevard.
Luehrs accepted, moved to Sacramento and now spends two to three mornings a week working in the garden on Allora’s patio and in her own garden at home.
“I love to garden,” Luehrs says. “Pretty much every morning, whether I am coming here (to Allora) or at home, I make my lemon and honey tea and I go say ‘good morning’ to the plants and see how things are doing.”
What’s growing in the garden? Edible flowers—pansies, violas, marigolds, geraniums, nasturtium, impatiens—and herbs—sage, chives, oregano, mint—all to be used either to give flavor or flare to Williams’ creations. “Some plants are for herbs, others for garnish,” Luehrs says.
Although she’s been gardening for some 47 years, Luehrs is still seeing what works and what doesn’t. “It’s all a complete experiment,” she says. “I have a lot to learn about gardening here in California. The pests are different. The plants are different. The weather is different.”
She relies on the internet when encountering stumbling blocks and gleans information by listening to master gardener Fred Hoffman, also known as Farmer Fred, who hosts the radio programs “KFBK Garden Show,” “Get Growing” and “KSTE Farm Hour.”
Luehrs says she’s learned to accept her failures. “That is why I like gardening. You continue to learn, and you continue to fail. I’ve learned to be content with my successes and let go of the failures.”
Luehrs also is modest about her own skills, but her pride shines brightly when speaking about her son Williams, who spent several years as executive chef at The Firehouse before striking out on his own.
“I’m proud of him. He started in restaurants when he was 12 years old and learned and learned and learned. He’s become very talented and skilled.”
This is not the first time that mother and son have worked together. The two worked at The Cliff House at Pikes Peak in Colorado—Williams as chef, Luehrs as pastry chef. “The fancier Deneb got, the fancier I got,” she says of her creations.
Today age 70, Luehrs could be a poster child for living a healthy, vibrant life. She’s medication-free, hasn’t taken antibiotics in more than 30 years and is rarely sick. Her secret? In addition to starting each day with lemon and honey tea, Luehrs drinks celery juice and a heavy-metal detox smoothie daily, and she eats a primarily vegan diet consisting of fruits, veggies, pasta and occasionally fish. The latter, she says, is thanks in large part to living on islands in the ’70s and ’80s.
“I like to eat seasonally and food that is grown where I live,” she says. Though she spent years creating decadent desserts, Luehrs admits she is not a big sweets person and when she does indulge, she prefers “simpler homestyle desserts like pies, cake and cobblers.”
And while she’d like to start practicing yoga again, Luehrs still gets her exercise in the two gardens. “I am on my feet working pretty much all day.”
Will Luehrs expand her gardening skills to Williams’ other restaurants? Probably. “There has been some mumbling. ‘Sure could use Mom out here.’ Once I get this garden flowing smoothly and feel it is full enough, I will go out there and do some magic,” she says.
For this grandmother of 10, being coaxed out of retirement has been a good thing.
“It’s real easy when you are older to just slow down and isolate yourself,” says Luehrs, who lives close to Allora with Williams, Mandalou and her two granddaughters. “Part of aging is learning something new all the time. Keep learning. Keep moving.”
Elena M. Macaluso can be reached at email@example.com.