We left Zazu restaurant around 4:30 with Chef Duskie Estes, co-owner of Bovolo and Zazu Restaurants, at the wheel. As we drove through a back country road to get to the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena we talked about a variety of things such as her leaving the following morning for the Food & Wine weekend in Aspen and what it was like to coordinate the prep and supplies for all the chef’s demonstrations. “For the next few days, while I’m in Aspen I’ll get very little sleep,” said Duskie. She went on to explain that the coordination of all the prep and purveyors and changes in the chef’s menus made for a never ending job.
As we came out of the trek through the road into the valley I saw the majestic mountains that surround St Helena. It is truly a beautiful place, the quintessential Provence-like wine country scenery. The main road is dotted with farm houses, vineyards, and quaint old small towns, and the occasional Chateaux structures along the way.
We arrived at the winery around 5:30 and unloaded the SUV. John Stewart, Duskie’s husband, was already there with his crew setting up. The two-story building where the event would take place had the facade of an old mission style winery, yet the interior had a cold concrete lower floor. Climbing the concrete stairs to the second floor I was pleasantly surprised to find a wonderful spacious room with high beamed ceilings, wooden floor, and large windows on each of the 4 sides. Duskie and John were already upstairs with the other chefs for a photo op as I looked on. After the photos I went back downstairs to see if Duskie and John needed some help. John was in the process of putting the final touches on his salumi arrangement. He made a paté from duck liver and some of the nasty bits of the duck. He handed me a piece and it was like a melange of duck slowly melting around in my mouth.
The liver was predominent followed by a mix of herbs with a finish similar to the essence of duck confit. It was magnificent.
The hand-crafted salami slices were arranged on a large piece of wood together with an assortment of antipasti: pickled grapes, white bean salad, dry cured olives and marinated eggplant.
“Hey, they’re grilling a goat” I heard someone say, so I sauntered outside to witness a chef presiding over a wood-burning grill slowly roasting goat legs and heads. The meat slowly cooking and caramelizing as the sous chef gently brushes it with yet another application of olive oil using a brush made from rosemary. It was a divine sight. The aroma of grilling meat and smoke was wafting about the outdoor setting as a jazz combo was playing in the early evening sun. Appetizers were being passed and champagne and wine were being poured courtesy of our friends at Charles Krug.
After socializing a bit, I decided to go inside to see what was going on before the crowds started assembling. I made my way upstairs and start looking around the large cavernous room, devoid of guests, whose only occupants were the chefs and their crews preparing for the onslaught of people who would soon crowd around each table to taste the fine morsels the chefs had prepared to amuse the palate. In addition, at the ready stood the sommeliers and representatives from the wineries, glasses glistening on the tables ready to pour the appropriate pairing for each culinary creation.
As my eyes scanned the room I found myself attracted to a table full of champagne flutes with what looked like cherries in the bottom. The glasses made an interesting pattern. The table was staffed by two culinary students, Ana and Jada, with Scott Beattie overseeing at the rear. Ana offered me a drink. “Would you care for a Westside Bellini or a Bella Ruffina?” Having been drawn to the Bella Ruffina glasses, I opted for one of them. It was a wonderful drink composed of Braquetto d’Aqui, Carpano Antica Vermouth, and orange bitters, and garnished with Amarena cherries. The flavor had a nice blend of fruity sweetness with a hint of bitterness on the finish. It was a wonderful way to start the palate flowing for the evening.
I made my way back downstairs, where a stream of guests now populated the lower floor as the chefs busily served their tastings. I went over to see what Chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart were up to. The energy in the room was building. Black Pig Salumi Antipasti were being served as the chefs talked to the guests, describing their salumi selections and the duck paté. In addition, house-made raspberry gelato with its creamy texture was satisfying the sweeter palates including those of Duskie and John’s children.
I look over to see Chef Richard Haake’s table buzzing with people waiting to get a taste of the goat that he’d been grilling over a wood fire for most of the afternoon. The Long Ranch goat was served 2 ways, grilled and braised with Rancho Gordo Beans. The grilled goat legs were being served sliced. The meat was tender and had a slightly sweet taste with a hint of rosemary, leaving me wanting more. The rest of the goat had been braised and mixed with the Rancho Gordo white beans and salsa verde, giving it a bit of spice.
I sauntered over to him, plate in hand, and asked “So as a master sommellier you can tell the vintage, region, terroir, and maker of the wine just by tasting it?” “Well ,not exactly,” said Kruth, “ but close. We can usually give you the region and the varietal, sometimes the maker or chateau, the vintages that are notable and sometimes the terroir.” A master sommellier is the highest rank of sommellier you can achieve. There are only about 150 of them worldwide. On his table were several bottles of wine. “So what would you pair with the goat”? He took a look at his selections and chose a Sheldon syrah that he thought would go well with it. Taking a bite of the goat and sipping the syrah next created a perfect pairing. It’s the blend of the two, food and wine, when properly paired, that create a proper balance on the tongue. Each one complementing the other in a synergysim of flavors that create a complete experience for the senses.
Earlier in the evening I saw chef Christopher Kostow from The Restaurant at Meadowood, hawking his appetizers to eagerly awaiting guests who mingled before the opening of the event. His gregarious personality charmed them.
I recognized him from outside and sauntered over to his table to see what he was serving. There were few coming over so in his inimitable style he picked up the thin 4 foot long wooden tray lined with his poached poussin with summer vegetables and declared ‘If the customers won’t come to us, then we’ll take it to them.” He picked up the tray and began passing his creation to passersby. In the meantime his team was busily cutting and preparing more of the bouchées to be presented to the next round of guests. The sweet tender flavor of the poussin combined with the vegetables and delicate crunch of the poussin skin was an exquisite morsel to be savored.
Preparing fish is always a challenge. Overcook it and it gets tough and dry. If the skin isn’t dry then you get mushy chewy skin. So when I came across Chef John Toulze’s table and saw the Sautéed Maryland Wild Striped Bass, Ragout of Salsify, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Bloomsdale Spinach and Vin Blanc I had to try some.
The plating made my mouth water. I love mushrooms especially anything from the chantrelle family as are black trumpet mushrooms. They have a deep rich woody flavor that compliments the sweet butterieness of the salsify. The striped bass was cooked perfectly with the skin being nice and crunchy a perfect compliment to the spinach vin blanc which didn’t overpower the bass and allowed all the flavors of the dish to resonate on my palate.
Gnocchi are one of those foods that, when made properly, can be a heavenly experience. I was drawn in by 2 large pots of boiling water topped with gnocchi and had to check out the experience that might be waiting for me. Chef Nick Ritchie from Bottega has the magic touch. His Ricotta Gnocchi with salsa di pomodoro della Nonna and Pecorino tasted divine. Usually “light” and “gnocchi” are an oxymoron, but in this case they are synonomous.
The ovoid-shaped pillows took on the flavor of the salsa pomodoro beautifully with the ricotta and pecorino cheese lingering on the palate in the end.
Since things were a bit crowded downstairs it was time to mosey back to the upper level. Looking around I spied the sign with two of my favorite things -
chicken fried and sweet breads. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Chef Matt Spector from Jole Restaurant had combined them to make Chicken Fried Sweetbreads with wild mushroom and green bean casserole. Naturally, I had to try it. Imagine eating sweetbreads with the taste of fried chicken and a beet purée that had truffle essence in it. That’s what I call heaven on a plate. This in combination with the mushrooms green beans was mind-numbingly good. It’s that simple.
At the opposite end of the room I was wondering what Chef Phillip Tessier from Bouchon was up to. I had seen them earlier setting up their station, laying out elegant deep square bowls and forks in a manner befitting Thomas Keller.
A circulator on the back table indicated something a bit out of the ordinary. And the rest of the team were busily working on putting together the Warm Mushroom Salad with Pickled Sunchokes, Marcona Almonds, Upland Cress, and Sunchoke Glaçage on each plate. I watched the team assemble each element of the dish with care and precision, as is to be expected. Now it was time to taste the delicacy. It was a wonderful blend of flavors and temperatures between the light earthy flavor of the warm mushrooms and the earthy tang of the pickled sunchokes, complemented with the upland cress and the added crunch and butteriness of Marcona almonds, finishing the dish to perfection.
You’ve tasted bottled water, and for the most part it’s all the same… wrong. “Nordaq Fresh water is a pure and fresh water which enhances the taste sensation and is considerate of the environment.” says their literature. So I pony up to the water bar to see what it’s all about.
The gentleman explains that it is a unique water purification system that is completely green, Instead of using bottled water you use their purification system, which has 2 taps one for still and the other for sparkling. He told me that it actually enhances the taste of food and wine. He proceeded to demonstrate. He presented me with a glass of “Fresh” water, which had a very clean taste, as close to neutral or air as I have ever tasted. I didn’t know it was possible to taste “neutral,” but I have been proven wrong. Next he presented me with a glass of cabernet sauvignon, which tasted pretty good. Then I was given an unopened bottle of some brand-name water and I practically had to spit it out, it was so bad. So now back to the Cab that I had tasted earlier and the cab I enjoyed before now tasted awful. I was amazed that the water could make such a difference. It reminds me of the Reidle glass taste test I did a couple of years ago where the shape of the glass made a huge difference in the taste of the wine. Had you told me before I would never have believed it. Once again I have been amazed at the sensitivity of the palate to external supossedly neutral flavors.
The room was bustling with people as I tasted some good wines from Buena Vista, Charles Krug, Geyser Peak, and Nicholas Feuillatte. The Limited release X Clones 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon was the most memorable wine of the evening for me. It had a wonderful balance with wild berry notes and a slight peppery finish. A great drinking wine with or without food.
I went back downstairs to see what was going on with Duskie and John. We were talking about the event and Duskie said, “You gotta try the fish tacos”. It just happened that Duncan Gott’s table was right next to the Duskie and John’s. Duncan Gott and his brother Joel own Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, in St. Helena, CA, a burger joint using locally sourced fresh ingredients to make their offerings. So, I went over there to get one of their Mahi Mahi Fish tacos with mexican slaw and jalapeño-cilantro sour cream.
What a generous portion and full of flavor. The fish was light and moist, the slaw added the crunch and the jalapeño-cilantro sour cream added the spice without burning out my mouth. Add the Leffe blonde ale that was paired with it and it was a wonderful combination.
I tried to sample everything but unfortunately I missed out on a few. That being said all the chefs put together great looking food which enchanted the guests.
With that it was time for the awards. Everyone assembled upstairs to bear witness to the awards that were to be handed out by Antoinette Bruno, the master of ceremonies. The awards were as follows:
Rising Star Chefs –
Jeremy Fox - Ubuntu
Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson – Restaurant Eloise
Christopher Kostow – The Restaurant at Meadowood
Nick Ritchie – Bottega
Matt Spector – Jole
Phillip Tessier - Bouchon
Hotel Chef –
Jesse Mallgren – Madrona Manor
John Toulze – The Girl & The Fig, Fig Café, Estate
Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes – Bovolo and Zazu Restaurant and Farm
Restaurant Concept –
Duncan Gott - Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
Chef Deanie Hickox-Fox – Ubuntu
Yoon Ha – La Toque
Geoff Kruth - The Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant
Scott Beattie – Author Artisanal cocktails
Host Chef –
Richard Haake – Winery Chefs
Once the awards had been given, it was time to pack up and go to the after party. The after party was held at Bottega in Yountville, CA. It was a nice outdoor event where drinks were served and conversation was abundant. The highlight of the evening was an impromptu speech given by chef Michael Chiarello. He talked about the industry and the state it is in today. He thanked all the participants and chefs and talked about the passion and the uniqueness of the industry. To paraphrase, it is the only industry that will welcome you with open arms regardless of your background. If you have problems or even when you get out of jail you can still get a job. It’s about hard work and commitment on the job, which will bring you the rewards that you seek.
It made me think about my experiences in the business. For me the business fine food is where you will find many colorful characters– some merely passing through, some happy to be getting a regular paycheck, and others who are passionate about what they do and are always looking for the next challenge to their skills.
It was a wonderful speech, which was a great way to end the evening.