Annual fundraiser february 22

Chilli Bowl Express Heats Up Community Center

Story by Jonah Raskin

In the Valley of the Moon, the red hot mega event in February won’t be the Super Bowl, but rather the 11th annual Chili Bowl Express fundraiser. Family members, friends, and neighbors will turn out en masse, sit down together in the Community Center, and eat gourmet food prepared with love by two dozen Sonoma chefs and restaurants, such as John McReynolds from Edge and the Girl and the Fig, and using the best local ingredients. The slogan for this year’s event reads, “Still Bowling Sonoma after 11 years.”

Like the Super Bowl, the Chili Bowl, which takes place on Saturday, February 22, requires preparation months ahead of time. It also calls for the participation of loyal fans who join the annual “bowlathon” to make, by hand, hundreds of bowls which will be filled with chili and licked clean by kids, the hungry, and the young at heart. The chili comes with or without meat, and there’s plenty of cornbread, too. The bowls go home with the guests.

There are no referees and there is no tossing of a coin at the start of the Chili Bowl Express, but there is protocol: three separate seatings, the first at 11:30 a.m., the second at 1:30 p.m., and the third beginning with a cocktail hour at 5 p.m. The two lunchtime seatings are $30 per person. The dinner seating is $60 per person. The 5 p.m. package includes both cocktails and mocktails, and a handmade ceramic cup to keep. There is live music, raffles, and a silent auction or two with prizes. Also, for art lovers, there will be studio demonstrations and a gallery exhibition.

Last year, the Chili Bowl raised about $30,000. This year’s fundraiser will help support the artist-in-residence program, the classes for kids and the studio itself. It’s the fifth bowl in a row for Kala Stein, the director of arts and ceramics at the Sonoma Community Center, who has been working in clay nearly all her adult life. “I lead the bowl-making effort,” she tells me. “I’ll probably make 50 bowls myself, and I’ll also fire the kiln.” She pauses a moment, and adds, “Everything about the experience is authentic. It’s unique to Sonoma and it builds community. People look forward to it for weeks.”

This year’s artist-in-resident, Maxwell Mustardo, 27, is on loan, so to speak, from the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in Texas. A master of his craft, he has studied in Korea, Japan, and China, where he specialized in industrial design. He incorporates aspects of Asian art in his own pieces, which are brightly colored, tactile, and playful. They have to be seen up close to be truly understood, though viewers can begin to appreciate them at https://www.mustardom.com/

Like Kala Stein, Mustardo studied at the prestigious New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and, like her, he’s an innovative artist. “Maxwell’s stuff is far out,” Kala says. “He brings with him to the Sonoma Community Center a wealth of experience.” Sonoma won’t be totally new to him. In 2018, he was the artist-in-residence at the Mendocino Art Center in Mendocino.

In an artist’s statement, Mustardo says, “I explore orchestrations of elements of surface, form, materiality, and function. Many projects revolve around broad, reverential notions of the vessel, the body, and language.”

A red-hot chili pepper all on his own, Mustardo is giving a presentation that’s open to the public on January 30, 2020, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 East Napa Street. Suggested donation is $10. For more information about the Chili Bowl:

sonomacommunitycenter.org/chilibowl/or call 707-938-4626, ext. 1 to purchase tickets. 

Jonah Raskin will be found chowing down at the Chili Bowl Express.

Growing up with the club

Matt Sevenau is Boys & Girls Sweetheart

Story by David bolling | Photography by Steven Krause

Matt Sevenau can honestly say he grew up with the Boys & Girls Club, although at first there were no girls.

This is how he remembers it.

“At the time, I was going to Moon Valley, which was a little private school. There were maybe 25 kids there, in a church on West Spain Street at Second. I went to the club from the time I was 4 until I was 9, and at the time it was just the Boys Club, and it was in the basement of the Community Center.

“My mom (Catherine Sevenau) was a single, working mother, and she usually didn’t get off work until 5 or 6 o’clock, so from kindergarten to third grade I would walk over to the Boys Club (at the time) in the Community Center where we all just kind of hung out in the basement. That’s just the way it was in the ‘70s.

“There weren’t that many of us, it was just kind of a free-for-all, a lot of pool, a lot of foosball, pinball, and we just kind of ran crazy. The only organized sport there was boxing. They actually had a ring and everything. So we boxed and literally traveled around to boxing tournaments. I started in the first grade.”

The boxing memories are still fresh. “I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I remember getting punched, and they were like, ‘Punch him back.’ But it didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t want to punch back. So I’d sit there and get punched and punched and not punch back.”

The Sevenau Family

Finally, inevitably, little Matt tired of the pounding and started punching back, but boxing at the Sonoma Club, although still a hallmark at numerous other Boys & Girls Clubs, did not survive two major changes. The club eventually outgrew its space at the Community Center and moved to the First Street West building now known as the “Sonoma Loft Apartments,” where there was room for more than boxing, including a full basketball court, gymnastics, and other sports activities. And the Boys Club underwent a revolutionary change by going co-ed.

Matt personally witnessed that epochal transition since he was growing up hand-in-hand with the club. It happened, says Matt, because a club board member, Casey Murphy, was upset that his daughter, Shannon, couldn’t join. Murphy, along with fellow board member and Sonoma icon David “Lumpy” Williams, helped spearhead the change.

Matt has a note from Murphy relating the story. “Lumpy agreed we should change the name,” writes Murphy. “We petitioned the head office, and then five or six months later, with a few phone calls and a couple of letters, got it approved, and ultimately changed the name to the Sonoma Boys & Girls Club. We were one of the first ever to do that.”

The entire Sevenau family grew up with the club. Matt’s wife, Brooke, took gymnastics at the club, remembering it as “one of the first places kids could do extracurricular activities in town.”

Both Sevenau siblings have deep Boys & Girls Club roots. Their son, Satchel, now a junior at Credo High School in Rohnert Park, has played basketball at the club, is now captain of the varsity basketball team at Credo, and has coached his sister Temple’s Boys & Girls Club basketball team. Temple, a sixth-grader at Woodland Star Charter School, also plays volleyball at the club.

The Sevenaus are a closely knit family, and the club is woven through the fabric of their collective life. At a time when Matt and Brooke were building three businesses in their living room and just surviving the sub-prime recession, the club was a godsend.

“That’s where the kids went,” says Brooke. “It helped us at a time when so many other options were unrealistic, unaffordable. Lots of things. Summer camps are affordable. And, from the athletics department, the way they mentor kids. They give teenagers a chance to coach and ref. It’s a beautiful way to mentor and pass it on.”

Adds Matt, “That’s right. And it did for Satchel what it did for me. It was a safe container.”

Engage in a full-family conversation with the Sevenaus, and everyone seems to learn something new. It turns out that Matt and Brooke went to school together through the fifth grade, both grew up in the Springs with single mothers, and Brooke had a secret crush on Matt which, until recently, was apparently news to Matt. And that’s about where their personal, sweetheart love story more or less begins.

Brooke explains, “My mom and her friend used to drive around in their convertible bug, and I would scream out of the car, ‘I love Matt Sevenau.’ I had a big crush on him in school.”

Did Matt know this?

“I don’t know if I knew. She was just so nice to me. You were just nice. I didn’t know you had a big crush on me.”

Brooke: “He liked my best friend better than me.”

Matt: “It didn’t work out.”

Brooke: “So we went to school together, all the way through Altimira (Middle School) and our freshman year of (Sonoma Valley) high school. And then I went to Ursuline (high school in Santa Rosa), and we sort of lost touch and went our separate ways for over a decade.”

Both Sevenaus say they were impatient to get out of Sonoma, and when Matt finished college he spent the better part of the next year literally traveling around the world, visiting 23 countries. “I really felt like it was an extension of my education, seeing everything, experiencing it, understanding cultures and history. I knew if I didn’t do it right after college, it wouldn’t happen if I waited. So I was gone a month after I graduated.”

Matt Sevenau
Young Matt Sevenau - boxing

Both Sevenaus left Sonoma, but Matt returned in 1998 to help run the family business——Rugworks——in Rohnert Park, with plans to open a new store in Sonoma.

Brooke came back temporarily——she thought——in 2001, following a trip to Africa. She had been working at UC Berkeley helping run the first billion- dollar fundraising campaign in the history of public universities and planned to take a new job in New York.

“I was really itching to get back to New York City. I had a job offer and a boyfriend in New York. Then all of that fell through, and I was up here buying my grandmother a birthday cake.

We were in the parking lot of Sonoma Market, I was going to Scandia, and here was Matt Sevenau. I hadn’t seen him in years, and we bumped into each other. And I said, ‘Hey, let’s get together.’ I wanted to catch up, get all the gossip. And it turned into our first date.”

Matt’s version: “Well, I thought it was a date. She let me know afterward that it wasn’t a date.”

Brooke: “I wasn’t asking him out. I would never ask a guy out. I was too shy.”

Matt: “I was like, ‘This is cool. She just asked me out. She’s coming over to my house.’ Unbeknownst to me, it apparently was not a date.”

Brooke: “It ended up a date that first night … .” And her voice trails off.

The boyfriend in New York “was a dud,” Brooke says, and she decided not to take the job offer.

As the story unfolds, the kids are paying rapt attention. When it’s over, Temple offers the conclusion, “And they got married.”

There’s another chapter in the story that further defines their lives. The recession that hit in 2008 rocked the Rugworks world and the Sevenaus looked around for a place where the economy wasn’t so rocky. Matt saw two options: Dubai or Vancouver. Dubai seemed too far afield, so Matt went up to British Columbia, which was preparing for the 2010 Winter Olympics and seemed to be a hotbed of construction, with towering cranes everywhere. All the signs looked good, so the Sevenaus planted themselves in Canada. Matt had a contractor’s license so he got sponsored into the workforce immediately and was quickly employed. But just then, the fourth largest investment house in the U.S.——Lehman Brothers——collapsed, and money stopped flowing into Vancouver.

The Sevenaus returned to Sonoma in 2010 to rebuild their lives, and Matt felt the need to become more involved in the community, and the Boys & Girls Club was an obvious place to make a contribution.

“Because it had done so much for us and me and my childhood, I knew I wanted to somehow give back. So I met with the Dave Pier (then executive director), he’s a good friend of mine, and we went on a walk and just talked about what does the club need and what can I do to help? Pier asked, “What do you like to do?” and Matt said, “Well, I love to garden, so I started helping out with the gardening program.”

From there, Matt “ended up” on a couple of B&G committees, and a couple years later he “ended up” on the board, where he spent five years.

And now he is the Sweetheart of the Year. How does that feel?

“It’s just such an honor,” says Matt. “I was shocked that they asked me to do it. I didn’t expect it at all. I don’t really like the spotlight. But I’m so grateful for everything the club gave me, and if I can share that story, then I think it’s good for the club.”

To be perfectly obvious, Matt would rather be out riding his bike (he covered 5,000 miles in 2019——about 100 miles a week——competed in 6 races on road and mountain bikes, and gets an equal measure of pleasure gazing out his picture window at the profile of Sonoma Mountain.

There is deep feeling in his voice when he says, “I love Sonoma more and more every year, and I think we’re so lucky to have grown up here, and now we get to raise our kids here. And honestly, I was seriously looking for those greener pastures, and I never found it. I’m very passionate about the mountain. The Native Americans call it the “Mountain That Weeps.” There’s just so much water up there. It’s awesome. We’re just grateful to be here.” 

Sharing success by giving back

Sam and Carol Morphy Named Coummunity Center Muses

Story by Laura Zimmerman | Photography by Steven Krause

For almost all of their 30 years in Sonoma Valley, Carol and Sam Morphy have lived just a short walk down the block or around the bend from the Sonoma Valley Community Center. Long before their lives were infused with the delicious smell of Red Grape pizza dough rising in the searing hot ovens at their landmark restaurant, it was all about the kids, and that meant daily trips to the elegant, historic structure nestled at the outside edge of Sonoma Plaza and Sonoma’s east-side neighborhood. Those are days Sam remembers well.

Sam and Carol Morphy - Red Grape

“We helped start Presentation School, that first year, and our kids got to school there, and went right into it. That was the first experience with the Community Center. We lived just down the block, and the kids were young and everything was focused around school.”

Later, their three children moved on in school, but the Community Center remained in the Morphy family orbit. With Sam commuting to San Francisco, Carol was holding down the home front, which included frequent treks to the Community Center for ballet classes, art classes, and plays. As an East Coast native, the building always resonated in a special way for Carol.

“It reminded me of my childhood, and that’s why I loved it so much. You’d go in, there was the cloakroom, and tall ceilings … it was just so grand, and so beautiful.”

Then there was that now-famous Morphy family sojourn to the ‘other coast’ for a full year. They explored a possible move back east, but instead, found their true hearts’ desire——New Haven-style thin-crust pizza. A plan started to rise just like the yummy pizza dough. Could they somehow combine the best of both worlds and bring the pizza to the Plaza? Carol vividly recalls the moment they made one of the biggest decisions of their lives: “We were sitting at this little restaurant in Connecticut, and we had to make a decision, because Sam had come back to Sonoma and the space was open. Should we do it? Should we not do it? What should we do? Megan was going to be a junior in high school. Sitting in that one little place, it was that one moment, that one day and we just said, ‘Do it!’”

Red Grape - Sonoma

As fate would have it, their return to Sonoma meant a return to their beloved Community Center hub. Sam had somehow managed to squeeze in a Rotary membership during the move back, so, while he and Carol were building out the interior of the Red Grape restaurant, designing menus, and concocting the now famous and nearly addictive Red Grape pizza, salad and entrée and appetizer options, Sam was all in with Rotary’s work at the Community Center:

“When I first joined Rotary, they had just announced that they were going to donate $50,000 over two years to renovate the kitchen. Next, we helped with the renovations of Andrews Hall, which was a big thing.” 

Thus, in the way phases of life so often collide, the Morphys supported the transformation of the Community Center and simultaneously launched a whole new chapter of life for their family. They started the restaurant construction in 2001, just two weeks before 9/11, and opened the doors to the Red Grape Restaurant in January 2002. Not exactly an easy time, but that is when the meaning of community truly hit home, according to Sam. “We were lucky the first couple of years, we were supported by the locals almost entirely. That was unique. We made our first-year numbers and the growth continued.”

For Carol, it was the people, that unique Sonoma vibe, that carried them through the long days and nights of working at “the Grape,” juggling family and the economic twists and turns. “It’s the sense of community here, and no matter where you go you know someone from the many parts of your life. People here seem to be very flexible and kind. I don’t remember anyone ever being judgemental or mean. There is just a good group of people. I especially love the longtime residents who often come in and talk about back in the day, when a real feed store was located in our building.”

Eighteen years in, both Sam and Carol relish the soft side of owning a business and are dedicated to sharing the success of the Red Grape by giving back to their community. They regularly donate to auctions and events for local nonprofits, and they’ve provided years of support to the Red & White Ball for the public schools. The Red Grape is also well-known for providing meals for those in need, especially and most generously to the first responders during the 2017 firestorm, for whom they baked hundreds of free pizzas. As Sam sees it, that’s the point of being a local business owner.“We’ve always tried,” he says, “to be as much a part of the community as we could.”

If they talk about the restaurant, they will always share their appreciation for the many longtime employees, including all the local teenagers who have entered the working world at the Red Grape and, according to Sam, often stay connected to their Red Grape community. “The kids come back at Easter and Christmas and want to put in a couple of shifts. We love that.”

So, as their life forms a perfect pizza-style circle with the announcement of their selection as the 2020 Muse(s) for Sonoma Valley Community Center,

Sam and Carol respond with their characteristic humility.

“I told them there must be about a thousand people who are more qualified,” says Sam, and Carol agrees adding, “We really prefer to fly under the radar.”

The acknowledgment of Sam and Carol Morphy’s contributions to Sonoma will be celebrated at a special Muse event at the Community Center in early August. For more information call the Center at 707.938.4626 or go online at sonomacommunitycenter.org.