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Preston Vineyards

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Introducing...

Our food... on film!

We made a movie because we could, because someone around here asked us to (I think it was Chef), because the words ‘farm to table’ started appearing everywhere, which was good, until it wasn’t. Like the use of the words 'organic' and ‘artisan’, it's begun to feel a bit promiscuous. There are incredible people behind each and every plate of food we send out into the dining room and it’s a beautiful thing to know who they are. If it helps fill the restaurant, to keep us all employed doing what we love, that’s great. Reminding ourselves why we fell in love in the first place is even better.

We call the blog (and now the movie) Eat the View because no one really knows straight away what that means until we explain, pointing out the window. It is time well spent. But eating the view isn’t just about food. Everything we take in needs a bit of time to be properly digested ~ broken down into a nutritious soup that keeps the human engine humming.

These are the people and animals and plants which keep our engines humming. Enjoy. And if you are so inclined, pass it on.

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/43933864 w=500&h=281]

Written & Produced: Jil Hales Directed & Filmed: Drew Kelly

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Wednesday at the Barn Menu.....Dish of the Week: A Niçoise Worthy of Dufy.....

Dish of the Week

Seared Tuna Niçoise with Saffron Aioli

Before I tasted this dish on Sunday, the best Salade Niçoise outside of France I ever had was at Wolfgang Puck’s old Ma Maison on Melrose Avenue. It was a revelation, every wonderful Mediterranean flavor on the end of the fork: the sea, briny olives, crispy haricot vert, boiled potatoes glistening in virgin olive oil.

If you are a Niçoise fan like me you've probably suffered through innumerable misguided versions through the  years trying to get back to the one that made you fall in love with this dish in the first place: overcooked fish the consistency of cardboard, sodden haricot vert, heavily sauced greens, quartered (sometimes halved) hardboiled eggs so dry they made swallowing a chore. What seems a simple dish is anything but.

Wolfie came to prominence the same time as Alice Waters, one of the first chefs who really knew how to source, though he worked his end of that passion down in Southern California. Sourcing is crucial to the dish but you also need a deft hand: each and every one of the ingredients needs to be treated with summertime love.

It starts with the fish, which should have the texture of fine silk with a  color somewhere between an overripe plum and Dior Rouge Blossom (a great lipstick color, check it out). Whether you poach it or flash sear it (as we do), when you finally glide a fork through the center the fish should be the texture and glorious color it had when it first came out of the sea. Chef uses Yellowtail, sushi grade. That's half the secret, the other is a light hand with the oil. I have a friend who swears canned tuna packed in OO makes a great Niçoise because "it is all about the oil," but while it's a dish that calls for an oily fish, I disagree. A light olive oil based dressing (ours is made with sherry vinegar and fresh basil) pulls all the ingredients under the same umbrella but each stands out ~  new potatoes, confit garlic, blanched haricot, green olives, ripe tomatoes. Ryan likes to add a spoonful of finely diced mirepoix which adds a bit of earthiness to the mix.

All the ingredients are cooked separately, warmed together in olive oil at the last minute which sets off the fragrant magic of their particular compatibility. There's a reason this dish became the go to for 'ladies who lunch' as it manages to be both incredibly rich, yet healthy (their version of not fattening) ~ rumor says it was created for Balanchine one summer as he was knocking about by the seaside in Nice. Makes sense.

As for that egg, Chef is not interested in dumbing down the palate by either hard boiling then slicing or grating it so it disintegrates into mush- his serendipitous play on a Niçoise uses a single quail egg, lightly fried in OO. It's just big enough for the yolk, once broken, to give you a few creamy mouthfuls as it settles down into the acidic tang of the dressing without upstaging a sublime saffron aioli on which he mounts all the ingredients.

For the next few months we are serving this Niçoise as a warm first course on the dinner menu. The single Calabrian pepper that sits on top, whose heat triggers the delight of everything that follows, reminds me of a flag on one of the little fishing boats in a Dufy painting. You can't see the sea from the Barn, but like Dufy, Ryan's edible semaphore makes me smile.  Summer has arrived. Eat the View.

Coming Soon...

Speaking of Eat the View, we're just about to release our 4 minute video of the same name. Working with Drew Kelly as we traveled across Sonoma County to Preston Vineyards, Bellwether Farms, Mix Gardens, Earlybird's Place and Daniel's Flats has been one of the most memorable experiences of the past few years. Even knowing all I do about the quality of work our staff is capable of, watching the footage we shot in the kitchen was a revelation. There's something about seeing action on film that heightens the small gestures you take for granted, in this case isolating the grace and skill they expend with every dish. We may have a small kitchen at Barndiva but, boy, do we make big memorable food.

Crowds at the opening reception for Salon des Sens were blown away but we can't wait to hear what you think, dear reader.  Coming your way later this week!

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted.)

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Wednesday at the Barn Menu..... Farm to Table in 3 Minutes.... Salon de Sens....The Jazz Festival returns to Barndiva...

Yes, but what makes it art?

Like it or not, we are all defined to a large extent by the landscape we live in. If on a molecular level you are what you eat, on an emotional level you are what you look at every day.

A landscape does not have to be beautiful to feed you (though it helps) so long as you have a true relationship to it, and crucially, the people who live in it with you. Solitude is nice but only through an honest connection to community can we change our outlook, and, in effect, our lives as a whole. Sometimes in ways we never imagined.

Until we moved to Healdsburg 10 years ago I really only took note of the Sonoma countryside in passing. It was beautiful, of course, but then so were similarly stunning vistas I’d traveled through. Even in Italy and France, once you take out the castles and gorgeous old villages, after a while vineyards are vineyards are vineyards.

The truth of how differently I feel now, living in and from this foodshed for almost a decade, was brought home to me all last week as I crept from a warm bed to leave the barn before dawn and travel from one end of the county to the other capturing raw footage for a video I’m making with Drew Kelly. Farm to Table in 3 minutes will tell the story of one plate of food as the ingredients travel to reach the table here at Barndiva. Foraged and farmed, made from animals that share the view with us, the dish relies entirely upon products that were sourced from people who would not normally consider themselves artists. In my view they are, contributing to a final dish which on every compositional and sensory level form a complete, if transitory, work of art. Let me explain.

Drew and I have wanted to work together again ever since he documented A Taste of Place for us at the Studio two years ago. Laura Parker’s exhibit had fascinating aesthetic and interactive components to it ~ smelling the soil as you eat the food grown from it is pretty sensate stuff ~ but Salon des Sens, the upcoming group show where we will premiere FT3minute has a decidedly different MO. It’s SF curator, Maggie Spicer, while not denying that all food is political, is an art first girl whose distinct vision for the show is an exploration of the ways in which, in the right hands, food can be used to create an authentic aesthetic experience.  Towards this goal she has invited 15 Bay Area artists to participate, including four from Studio Barndiva. They work in a variety of media ~ photography, watercolor, acrylic, wire, compost and sod. Ryan, Drew and I have joined this group with the aforementioned video. Ryan will also be creating edible "works" which will be served on opening night.

We felt compelled to contribute to the show because while everything we do at Barndiva is made manifest by the fields and farms which surround us, even with the rise in popularity of the term Farm to Table very few people who come across a restaurant like ours for the first time have a real understanding of what it means. Lately, Ryan and I have even begun to wonder if  "farm to table" isn’t growing into just another misappropriated catchword hard on the heels of "artisan" and "handcrafted."

Drew gets this. He comes to the discussion from a perspective of someone who creates art to tell a story, a talented imagesmith who is also a passionate eater and crucially, a new father, trying to make sense of this very complicated subject.

And so it was that we found ourselves crouched in the old vines in front of Lou and Susan Preston’s house at 6:30 on Friday, just as the sun was coming up. The day before we had followed Alex Lapham, who manages the vegetable program for Mix Gardens, as he went on his rounds harvesting fennel, wild garlic, favas, rapini and chive flowers ~ all crucial ingredients in the dish that would be the star of our video. It had been cold, gray and wet, not remotely sensuous in the Maggie Spicer sense of the word. Farming is hard work, by turns sweaty, grueling, repetitive. As much as you can you rely on experience, knowing full well that weather and dumb luck will ultimately control the cards you play.

If the video is to be a success we knew we needed to connect the line that exists between the muck of a compost heap and a sculpted, beautiful vegetable presented on a gleaming white plate. Unlike any other artistic medium where raw product ~ a lump of clay or paint or steel ~ stays inert until the hand of the artist gets involved, everything about the final dishes we present on our plates, the way they look and taste and smell, starts in the field. This is our message: that everything about beautiful food ~ what it does to our senses when we take it in visually, breath it, open our mouths and suckle its taste ~ is inherent in the initial thrust of the shovel that starts the process to bring it along the food chain to us. In this regard, talent and vision and a steely focus come into play, marking the difference between grass fed beef and pink slime just the same as a lump of paint in different hands produces work as various as Vermeer to Kincaid. It is truly an art form where what you see at the end is set in place at the beginning. All the aesthetic components like shape, color and texture exist from the beginning in unadulterated form. The beauty of the process, what makes it art, relies on a partnership of artisans who alter and inform the material at every step as it winds its way to that last set of hands, waiting in the kitchen.

And the partners don’t just work together, mano a mano. They are also engaged in a profound partnership with the land and with the animals on it that fertilize, till and feed off it. There's magic in these relationships. If we do it right, FT3minute will cast a spell, the way only art can when it moves us. Alex bending in the soft gray light coaxing exquisite color from his vegetables, Liam reaching into a vat of steamy ricotta with the deft grace of a dancer, Lou’s maestro conducting of his sheep, Daniel moving up a forest road filling his basket with foraged nettles like a character out of a Thomas Hardy novel. Even Earl, talking to his hens, giving them a gentle push to get to their eggs, when viewed through the lens of our camera evokes a complicated Coen Brothers relationship to his brood that is pure visual joy.

Does it matter that our audience eats the art? According to the preeminent performance artist of our times, Marina Abramović, the answer is no. We are all participants in potential aesthetic experiences that masquerade as daily life, even if we don’t immediately recognize them as such. When you dine at Barndiva you buy a ticket to experience the talent of dozens of food artisans who would not exist, could not exist, without your patronage.

Or so I sat thinking, as the three of us waited in silence for the Preston sheep to come down the road. They would be lead by Giuseppe, the great white Maremma dog who lives with them from the day they are born. Following Lou’s instructions we were stationed off the road so as not to startle them. Nathan Cozzolino, our intrepid soundman who had traveled up from LA to work with Drew was to my left, crouching in the tall grass wearing serious looking headphones, his mic suspended on a tall pole. Drew, to my right, had set up a camera on a tripod directly across the road from the open gate to the olive field where the sheep would make their final pasture.

The grass grows high around the vines in Lou’s biodynamic vineyards, feeding the soil, creating an aerial meadow of insect sounds, more buzz than bite. When the wind picks up there is a sea swish that roils, softly, the pure definition of what it means to whisper. A cat, one of Susan’s half wild brood, jumped up on a vine to complain about something. Nathan, hearing everything in amplification, pointed up at the sky, where a curious Heron circled low.

And then we heard them coming. I’ve been in places where shepherds have the right of way on small country roads but this was different, a singular procession lead by a dog with all the dignity of a Catholic Priest leading a flock of keening mourners. Perhaps because art was on my mind, references abounded: the light on the landscape was Turneresque, the passion play had all the irony of Chaucer, the cacophony of bleating pure Philip Glass. Marina would have loved what I did with the moment.

But was it art?  While the cohesive parts that would make it whole were yet to come ~ Ryan breaking the animal down, the many hours of prep and cooking our staff would put into all the other ingredients before Ryan returned to arrange the elements on the plate in his inimitable style ~ yes, I’d argue that is was. What we filmed at dawn was as integral to the process of the finished piece as a composer picking up his pencil to jot down some notes long before the orchestra gets them, before the sound of a single virtuoso violin can wing its way through the air in some palace of fine arts.

But then, I love to argue. So come see for yourself and you decide. Salon des Sens, a Food Art Show, opens on June 2. Our talented friends at St. George spirits will be collaborating with Rachel on exciting new cocktails; Copain Winery will be pouring their extraordinary wines.

Are cocktails like ours which are made from beautiful spirits considered artful? Is wine? Don’t get me started.

Salon des Sens is coming...click for details to the show and opening party!

The Jazz Festival returns to Barndiva

And Finally...

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (Susan Preston's hand, Drew Kelly).

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Dish of the Week.....In the Gallery.......

Dish of the Week

Sous Vide Pork Belly

I did not come to sous vide cooking as a fan, quite the opposite.  The idea of using a plastic pouch to cook ~ instead of relying on traditional methods that depend upon smell, touch, and taste ~ just seemed a bit of a cop out, little more than an upscale version of Uncle Ben’s ‘boil in a bag.’ Where's the magic?

But just as there’s science in alchemy, I’ve come to see that suspending food in plastic and setting it loose in a constant swirl of soft heat actually takes a page from some of the oldest culinary traditions in history which called for wrapping or burying foods and slowly cooking them for long periods, the better to capture the essence of their flavor.

Chef Ryan has always said that for him sous vide isn’t about convenience so much as consistency, that and the ability to control the outcome of a dish in a way that extends the potential of each ingredient. For a little light reading he gave me Thomas Keller’s “Sous Vide,” a trade manual Keller wrote for PolyScience a few years back which succinctly explains the complex way a precise control of pressure, temperature and time allows a chef to infuse flavor (which even with marinades is often lost to the braising liquid) and enhance texture (which over the course of cooking heat can easily destroy).

The temperatures used in sous vide are always kept below a simmer ~  but within that lower range they vary greatly depending on the type and cut of the protein, the cellular density of the vegetable, and what, if any, other cooking techniques you intend to use in the dish. With Pork Belly, where you have an inordinately high fat to meat ratio to begin with, the object is to use the fat primarily to flavor the meat, delivering a finished dish with a perfect crackling that beguiles the mouth when you bite through it to the soft fragrant depths below. Too fatty, too dry, not enough flavor, and it's game over.

For Dish of the Week, Chef cooked pork belly sous vide for 12 hours in a heady mix of shaved apple (Cox's Orange Pippin from the farm), white wine, garlic, leeks, rosemary and carrots.

Two things were notable when he finally lifted the pouch from the water: the first was the degree to which the long cooking process had allowed the meat and fat to take on the flavors of the marinade, all but melding them together.  The second was that by taking the pork from this nearly gelatinous state and immediately chilling it (above left), Chef was able to reduce the fat as he compressed the meat into perfect shape and portion sizes, essential for a dish which can easily become overly rich. He then refrigerated it again ~ cooling the pork before letting it hit the hot skillet which resulted in a perfectly crisp surface without pulling any moisture from the meat.

To accompany the Pork Belly, Andrew, Chef's entremetier, caramelized cauliflower florets in VOO before adding raisins, capers, herbs and shaved almonds.

The final component to this starter was a finishing ‘sauce,’ something which could cut through the richness of the belly but would not overwhelm the sweet, sharp and crunch of the cauliflower nest. For this Chef reduced Pinot Noir to the syrup stage, then broke it with Preston Olive Oil, producing a gorgeous, deep red vinaigrette.

Slow Cooked Pork Belly served on a whoosh of Cauliflower Purée with Caramelized Cauliflower Florets, Capers, Raisins, Almonds and Pinot Noir Vinaigrette….15 hours start to finish…done.  To perfection.

In the Gallery

There’s an old-fashioned capacity for heartfelt joy embedded in the DNA of Healdsburg which makes it the perfect place to get married. This is not news to those of us who live and work here. But thankful as we are for the visitors who keep our local economy humming all Summer and Fall, boy, do we look forward to the Holidays and Winter. That's when the homegrown parties begin, the ones which seem, more than any others, to refresh the spirit and invigorate the soul.

Saying thanks to co-workers, gathering family and friends together to eat and drink with joy, kick back, maybe even dance  ~ all used to be part of what we all did at the end of every year to celebrate the fact that we were still standing.  Resourceful and thankful. We still should be.

There’s a particular magic to the fêtes we throw here in the Studio we’d love for you to experience. Doesn't matter if you come for a night of cocktails and hors d'ouvres or sit down to one of Chef Ryan's incomparable menus. We're especially proud of our staff, as committed as we are to supporting this food shed and all those who work within it. An art gallery is a great place to spend an evening. And this space sings.

To throw a party in the Studio this Winter all you need to do to start the ball rolling is give us a call.  If budget's a concern just let us know and we will figure out a way to make it work.

707.431-7404 info@barndiva.com

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales(unless otherwise noted)

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Dish of the Week.....Local Harvest Festivals.........

Dish of the Week

Saffron Pasta

I’ve never been fond of flavored pastas. Fresh tomatoes are never bitter when you chop them up and add them to a sauce, and you'd be hard-pressed to use too much fresh basil in an Italian dish. But for some reason when the same ingredients are solidified into flour and water more often than not they taste off to me; resinous herbs like rosemary or thyme end up with a slightly medicinal edge.

Saffron is different. All it adds to the taste of fresh pasta is a slight floral note, but more importantly it brings back the glorious color of the egg yolks ~ always doomed to be lost in the white blur of flour, salt and milk. Saffron brings that yellow back to the front, where it belongs. It's also the color of the sun, which makes me think of wheat in a field.

Everything about Italian food references the simple beauties of nature; it is the earthiest cuisine, the most able to satisfy the base comfort I look for in food. I admire French presentation and technique, I crave Indian and Thai, but it's Italian I return to when I've had a bad day or just need that little bit of mama in my soul. To get that splendid color, saffron threads are added to white wine which has been brought almost to a boil, a process called 'blooming'. As the saffron dissolves you cool it over ice water, leaving some threads intact, then add to the egg yolks. We use a classic old machine Geoff rebuilt for us to cut our dough, but we always start by mixing and kneading our pastas by hand which demands time and patience, a good practice in a kitchen like ours where speed under pressure is constantly required. There's also a sound technical reason for making pasta by hand rather than dumping all the ingredients into a big machine. Pasta is all about texture. You need to feel it as you go; to learn to trust your fingers when they tell you more, or tell you stop. Which, in a round about way, brings me back to my comment about nurture and comfort. To have an abundance of both in life, you need to be hands on.

Paul Bertolli, a friend from the early Barndiva days, wrote what I still consider a benchmark Italian cookbook no kitchen should be without called, appropriately enough, Cooking by Hand. Written in essay form with chapters like Twelve Ways to Look at a Tomato,  it's not a book you pick up when you need a quickie recipe, but one you linger over in bed before you fall asleep.  With any luck you may find yourself in a dream where you have miraculously found the time to work the dough, cut the tomatoes, rip the basil, crush the oregano, taste the wine.  Only a few chef-writers capture the magic of why we cook ~ MFK Fisher comes to mind ~ by managing to tap into our culinary soul. Paul finds the magic.

Chef served Rabbit with the Saffron Fettuccine this week:  kidneys, loin, and rack, beautifully butchered then flash seared in butter and garlic and thyme. Wish I could say  “just like the mama used to make,” but with no disrespect to my mother,  I grew up thinking rabbits were girly pets, pasta only came in boxes, tomato sauce only came in cans.  I’ve since learned that it’s usually the time it takes to do things simply that matters most when it comes to food.   Happily, the joy of Italian food is that when you use great ingredients and put your heart into it,  wherever you started on your food journey  you can end up making your own delicious traditions.

Local Events

As it happened I attended two Harvest Festivals this week. The Mendocino County Fair, held in the Boonville Fairgrounds ten miles from our farm, has been going strong for 87 years (we’ve been attending, on and off, for the past 30).  The National Heirloom Expo, held amidst great fanfare (and high expectations) at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa is brand spanking new.

Besides the fact that both the Fair and the Expo are at heart celebrations of all things grown and living, from inception to delivery they were radically different events. The Mendocino County Fair opens with a rodeo and ends with a parade down Hwy 128 with people and horses in fancy dress; it boasts an impressive collection of award winning animals, rides, cotton candy and hot dogs on a stick. No one cares where the hot dogs come from. It’s simply a fair all about fun, and the folks that put it on, from the 4H and FFA kids who raise the animals to the women who bake the pies from the (fast disappearing) apple orchards of Anderson Valley work hard all year long to make it happen. The fair celebrates their labors and their lives ~ it's not about thinking deeply about farming methods or where the seed they use to grow their food and feed their animals comes from. It's about taking three days off in September to stand back and go, phew, can you believe we made it through another year? Pass the popcorn.

There were no rides at the National Heirloom Expo. There was a mind boggling array of open pollinated fruits and vegetables, food vendors clearly vetted for where they sourced ingredients (not a hot dog on a stick in sight), a giant tower of squash (by the same folks who built the squash tower in Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden) and an entire hall filled with non-profit (read: optimistically struggling) seed people. While there was country music and a convivial air in the crowds milling around the fresh produce stalls outside the halls, it was clear from the moment you pushed through the turnstile that unlike the Mendocino County Fair there was a decidedly political bent to this event.

On Tuesday Ryan gave a cooking demo at the Expo in the Hall of Flowers with Alex Lapham of MIX Garden. The bromance these two extremely talented big guys have going, sustained by the superlative produce one grows and the other cooks, is something to behold. They did a reprise of their heirloom tomato and melon salad, bantering non-stop back and forth while I sat snapping away in the first row with Geoff and Chef’s beautiful wife Rebekah.  Mick Kopetsky and Bryan Hohnstein, the other two parts of MIX Garden’s phenomenal success, stood at the back of the crowd grinning madly.

It’s great when you can walk around a fair and connect with people whose livelihood is integral to your own: old friend Kristee Rosendahl was there with her exciting Smart Gardener website, new friends Belle Starr and Bill McDorman of Native Seed/SEARCH were there with their special varieties of Southwest seeds which they'd also brought to Barndiva for us to cook with. On Thursday night we returned to the fairgrounds to hear Dr. Vandana Shiva speak. Dr. Shiva is one of those rare human beings who can deliver a message that is dire, yet manage to take you to a place where you know you are up to the challenge.   If you don’t know who she is, I urge you to go online and find out.

On Sunday we arrived at the Boonville Fairgrounds a half hour before the sheep dog trials began. Sheep Dog trials are my all time favorite spectator sport ~  if you have children trust me on this one, sheepdog trials hold a paradigm for your life. The trials this year delivered big time with great dogs and wonderful handlers (all but one of whom were women). After the trials we toured the animal tents and spoke to some of the kids who raised them, falling in love with a breed of pig we hope to raise at the farm.

What I didn’t do this year in Boonville ~ that I’ve always done in the past ~ was visit the Apple Hall to see the stands filled with boxes of apples in competition. The Mendocino Apple Fair is a cherished part of my life’s traditions (Knowing More and More, about Less and Less) but it’s increasingly hard for me to reconcile the absence of awareness at this event. The organizers in Boonville ~ and 4H and FFA at the national level ~ could use a good dose of fire in the belly that drove the organizers and participants of the Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa. This is one case where if worlds could collide we'd all be the better for it.

87 years ago almost all the apples polished to a shine at the Mendocino Fair were grown from diverse varieties, many brought to the valley with the immigrants that came over to work the forests before they settled down to farming and raising sheep. These days less than 10% of all the apples grown in the US are heirlooms, much less open pollinated, thanks to nefarious inroads made by Monsanto to control and limit seed varieties (for their own profit) which ultimately will imperil the world’s ability to feed itself. Much as I’d like to go to the Fair in Boonville and forget for a day about GM, forget about the 'legal' patenting of seeds, forget the damage chemical dependence is doing to our soil, forget about CAFO’s, I can’t get away from the feeling that mindlessness, even for a day, is no longer an option. For those of us whose lives depend upon the soil and the animals reared on it, hell,  for anyone who eats, we do so at our peril, and at risk of losing everything we hold dear.

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted)

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Charlie Palmer's Pigs & Pinot ~ A Healdsburg Favorite

OK, so Dish of the Week was actually Bite of the Week ~ a Proustian breakfast moment Chef served to 300 Friday night at Pigs & Pinot, Charlie Palmer’s sold-out signature food event that takes over Healdsburg in mid-March. For those of you who grew up in the age of Top Chef ad infinitum and innumerable  foodzines and foodblogs, it may be hard to believe that once upon a time the cult of the celebrity chef didn’t exist. Charlie Palmer didn’t invent the concept, but he was one of the first American chefs to draw crowds to his restaurant Aureole in NYC by sheer virtue of his talent alone.  Back then (no, I wasn't going to say "in the good old days”) reputations could only be built by reviews and word of mouth. Palmer generated a great deal of both. In the years since he has built a mini-empire of restaurants and hotels that rivals Nobu’s in size if not influence. What Nobu is to black cod (basically on the back of one recipe), Charlie is to pork (significantly, the entire animal).

I like Pigs & Pinot. It supports a number of worthy charities while functioning as it was primarily intended ~ a two day publicity venture for Palmer and Co. What I like best about it is the classy way it goes about making the connection between food and wine while strengthening a good swath of the local economy. Even as he burnishes his own brand, Palmer manages to advance a quality driven definition of the word sustainable in an age where even the best restaurants are struggling with the temptation to fudge standards in order to survive. Any week of the year around here you can throw a stick and hit a food or wine event; few of them put the whole animal in focus to the extent Pigs & Pinot does. This is a message not lost on the 500 ticket holders that flooded the Hotel Healdsburg 1 & 2 this past weekend, with reportedly double that number on a wait list every year.  The remarkable world-class selection of Pinots guests get to taste are the sizzle, but make no mistake, the meat of this event ~ literally and figuratively ~ is the whole hog.

Most of the press Palmer generates focuses on Saturday, when “celebrity” Chefs from all over the country land in Healdsburg to flex their culinary muscle. But if you live here the real fun is watching the local talent go head to head on Friday night. Though every one of these participating local Chefs will tell you it's not a competition, that they are just ‘doing their thing,’ with few exceptions each secretly hopes theirs is the best pork mouthful of the night. And why shouldn’t they?  Our Chefs are a remarkably convivial group, but the fun at these events is upping your game as you coolly hang out in the hood with guys you compete with on a daily basis. The fact that there is an abundance of talent to go with a healthy dose of competition is what makes Healdsburg a dining Mecca. That nobody cops to being competitive is just part of the charm of living in the country.

In this respect Ryan is no exception, except to the extent that his competitive drive comes more from pride, than ego. He always defers when appreciative diners  ask him to come out and meet them, and while he's forthcoming with the press he never goes in search of them either. Quite the contrary.  Yet he’ll cook a dish over and over again to get it spot on, then think about it some more before Pancho and the team are put through their paces so it's served consistently the same way, every time, for each and every diner. As chuffed as he was when he won the Top Chef competition at Taste of Sonoma two years ago, he couldn’t wait to get out of there the minute it was over. I  suspect that when (though no fault of his own) he couldn’t defend his title this year, his worry wasn’t what people would think when he didn’t show so much as missing an opportunity to go head to head again with another talented Sonoma County Chef.

Americans have a funny relationship with what is, culturally, our inherently competitive nature. Because we always seem to equate success with money (or its corollary, fame) we are congenitally guilty of making the mistake that whoever has the most marbles when the bell rings has “won.”  I’d go as far as to say that our obsession with money and fame ~ no matter how many ‘unhappy’ rich and famous people are paraded before us ~ borders on being a national illness. The mistake here, to my mind, isn’t so much that we haven’t learned money and fame can’t engender happiness (which deep down we probably know) it’s overrating the ephemeral entity of happiness in the first place. Between happiness and true satisfaction I'll take satisfaction any day of the week. Happiness is a beautiful vagrant, its perfume a scent in the air, music that lifts your heart, the touch of someone you love. All good, but for it even to exist it needs someone to blend the perfume, write the music, become the person you love. True accomplishment, whether building character or just a better mousetrap, is complex, and while luck can play a role it's not a sustaining ingredient the way a combination of passion and patience is. The satisfaction that comes from accomplishment ~ whether it brings you happiness or not ~ resides in the way something is made,  how long you spend refining an idea, how many times you paint over a figure before its heart ~ of joy or darkness ~ appears.

Until six years ago when I took on my latest career incarnation as “restaurateur,” I managed to fashion my life in such a way that whether I succeeded or failed (and I did a lot of both) it was always on my own terms.  Even as my game changed over the years, from academia to photography and journalism, ultimately to design, I mostly avoided the world’s judgment in a way that allowed me to work on the quality of what I was producing without fear an audience of strangers wouldn’t like it. Many people don’t see a problem basing their success on something that’s been copied or stolen from its original source. Maybe that's why the world is filled with such derivative crap.

But food doesn’t wait for that certain someone who understands your aesthetic to fall in love and take it home. What takes years to learn and untold hours to source and cook is consumed in the span of a few minutes. Wham, Bam, the verdict is in.  In the past if someone did not like what I created I could console myself that it "just wasn’t to their taste”, or take the time to improve it. With food every dish and every meal must suit a diners taste each and every time…. because with food the customer is always right. That Ryan knows this and works at making our food ‘right’ for every customer, yet does so in a way where he is consistently challenging himself, pushing his own creative boundaries, is remarkable to me.

As for who actually produced the best pork inspired dish last Friday, while I did not taste everything (an understatement considering how much incredible food was being offered) Dino Bugica’s (Diavolo) black sausage was about the best I’ve ever eaten. This man’s talent in all things charcuterie is a wonder.  Ari Rosen (Scopa) had the most beautifully roasted whole baby pig which, in his inimitable style, he served simply. Cyrus’ Chinese bun was perfect respite just at the moment I was suffering from serious pork fatigue. I did not taste Charlie’s dish ~ his lines were moving at a snail’s pace ~ but the burnished pork bellies turning on the spit behind him in the central courtyard looked utterly mouth-watering.

It was not until I returned to our station that I fully registered how our contribution was going over. Until that moment I hadn't put Barndiva into the competitive mix I had running in my brain, which made it all the more delightful when I saw the faces on the crowds inundating our station. This was a different set of folks than we’d had during the first hour of the evening, when everyone was moving through the rooms tasting things for the first time. While many had returned hoping for another taste, most were new faces, that all opened with the same heartwarming gambit: “I heard from everyone this was the best thing here tonight.”

Very cool, right? But the most enjoyable moment of the night was still to come. As I stood watching I was approached by a couple from San Francisco who had returned to our station for “the final bite of the night.”  I had never met them before and they had never eaten at Barndiva, though the woman  ~ dark haired, very pretty ~ said she read the journal. They were extremely knowledgeable about food ~ off to Chicago in a few weeks “just to eat ” ~ but it wasn’t their erudition on all things culinary that struck me as the conversation moved swiftly from our favorite SF haunts through greatest meals ever, to a surprisingly honest appraisal of why eating out had come to comprise “some of the best moments” of their lives.  Though they were obviously passionate about food, they weren’t precious about what they ate. While the room and the ambiance of a restaurant mattered, connecting with informed but not overbearing servers mattered a great deal more.   Though they weren’t in the business they had, through their travels, begun to understand how hard good restaurants had to work to get it right, especially when it came to sourcing. They were, in short, critical but sympathetic. Standing there in the beautiful din of Charlie’s world the possibility suddenly occurred to me that along with the age of the celebrity chef we may be entering the age of the enlightened diner, people who see their patronage as team support, as crucial to the game as the crowds in a grandstand. Dining out is a collaborative experience; diners should be honestly invested in its outcome. Because it's true, progressive diners ~ like the best fans ~ are  the first ones to tell you when you make a bad play (or dish) but it's their cheers, when they come, that are the ones you most long to hear.

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In the Fields with Friends

Barrel tasting weekends are a mixed blessing for those of us that depend upon the food and wine that has made Sonoma County a gold standard in destination travel. On the one hand we are thankful for the tribes of wine lovers that infiltrate the area for these events, as they fill our waning winter coffers. On the other, it’s hard to ignore the fact that by mid-day many of them begin to weave and talk in extremely loud voices. How and when those not staying in town will find their way home becomes a real concern.

But my mixed feelings about Passport and Barrel Tasting weekends don’t only come down to a dichotomy that pits revenue against safety. I’ve heard it said with increasing frequency that’s it a good thing more and more people are staying in town to focus on tasting rooms they can walk to. But while that thought ~ especially for those groups that do not have designated drivers ~ makes sense, it runs counter to the initial spirit of these events which was to bring wine lovers into the countryside where they could connect a product they love with the place it is grown and the people who make it.

If you ventured to the last stretch of West Dry Creek in search of wine to taste this past weekend, just before the bridge and  bend in the road that leads to Preston of Dry Creek,  you would  have come upon a vineyard that made your journey not a detour but a main event. Adjacent to fields where pigs and chickens roam and fertilize  some of the oldest vines in the valley, guarded over by Guisippe, the Preston's magnificent sheep dog, a flock of new lambs took their first baby steps.

I’ve written about this family farm and vineyard often in the past, not simply because they are dear friends, but because they are working toward a bio-dynamic definition of farming that any fool can see should go hand in hand with the growing of premium grapes. When Lou and Susan pulled a great many of their vines out years ago to make more room for hedgerows and crops, revenue focused vintner’s shook their heads. The value of the land was in yield of a crop that made the most money, right? Depends on how you define that ephemeral word value.

Preston, Quivira, and forward thinking wineries like them have built large and loyal followings. They have started and continue to happily stir conversations about how food is grown and distributed, and what diversity can bring, on so many levels, to the monoculture of just growing grapes.

On Saturday I was struck by the various stages the baby lambs were going through in order to survive their first perilous days. Some were still sunk into the grass, huddled right where they had been birthed, weakly taking stock of their new surroundings. Others gamely tried to follow mum and the source of food, on legs that kept failing to hold them upright, while still others, only a few hours older, gamboled around with a joy of movement that was a blessing to behold. With the exception of the ones that did not have the strength to walk from birth, the lambs followed an age old journey all of us make ~ taking baby steps before they ran. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere I kept thinking, for all the vineyard owners who look at the rich magnificent balance the Preston’s have managed to achieve through the dint of mindful hard work, and think “sure, I’d like for my vineyards to look like that, but I don’t know where to start.” Unlike sheep, we should be able to figure out what happens next if we don't take those first wobbly steps, no matter how unprepared we think we are.

To read more about the Preston's and all their multifaceted endeavors, check out their beautiful new website and visit their blog.

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