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Susan Preston

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and the beat goes on...

A few months ago we were confronted with a quandary. Our lives at Barndiva have always been, first and foremost, about creating exciting food and drink experiences. We strive to do this by nurturing new talent, pushing the creative envelope, consistently strengthening the ties that keep the farmer to chef connection thriving.

We are blessed with a Chef who remains fully committed to ‘touching’ every plate that leaves the Barndiva kitchen, but increasing numbers of people want to experience Ryan Fancher's food in spaces we’ve designed. The time had clearly come for us to expand, and where else but next door, in the shiny new kitchen we had built for our events and private parties.

Ryan was hankering to put a new spin on classic French Country, cooking which would reflect the easy, brassier style of our early days in town, and he has an extremely talented sous chef, Andrew Wycoff, raring to lead the new kitchen. I have been longing to curate a highly edited selection of fine artisanal spirits;  daughter Isabel was game to produce a series of B&W film montages and a playlist that wasn’t just about filling space with white noise; Lukka wanted to book more live music. 

The only question that hung over all this enthusiastic dreaming was what would become of the art gallery inside the studio. How could we move forward without giving up what we cherished most about Studio Barndiva as it began to fill with bistro tables, wire couches, deep leather armchairs. 

When we first opened the Studio we produced a card that proclaimed: “We All Forage,” and I still believe that sentiment to be inherently true. We filled the space with "Beautiful Objects, Made with Respect" (another of our early aphorisms), handmade arts and crafts that resonated in a way that things designed by algorithm, easily found on the internet, cannot. Sourcing Vetiver nests from Africa, recycled glass chandeliers from Syria, handwoven Balinese batiks, stinging nettle runners from Kathmandu, brought the world closer, in a meaningful way. Perhaps it even helped a few small artisan economies survive.

But over the years it had become increasingly clear that the real heart of the gallery lay closer to home. Whether showcasing remarkable singular talents like Manok Cohen, Seth Minor, Ismael Sanchez, Susan Preston, Jordy Morgan, John Youngblood, Chris Blum, Wil Edwards, or hosting collaborative exhibits like Laura Parker's Taste of Place and Salon de Sens, the art which captured our attention the most returned again and again to explorations of a similar theme: how we define and encourage meaningful connections to the landscape that surrounds us. One that, like it or not, is rapidly changing. 

 

There is no reason to think a bistro within a gallery that hews to this directive won't inform and delight; if anything it might even allow us to burrow deeper into performance art and music,  venue underrepresented but very much alive in our exceptional and happily expanding north bay community. 

It has been an incredible honor to have a space in the center of town that’s continued to flourish while being able to change, to do its own thing in its own inimitable style. For that we give thanks for your support all these years. We have loved every new incarnation – but it’s a love that needs to keep growing, as much for Ryan, Drew and the kitchen, as for our artists.

While many of the artworks and antiques that surround you as you drink and dine in The 'new' Gallery are now part of our permanent collection, we hope you'll look around for the tags, spend some time with some of the remarkable local artists whose work we will continue to exhibit for sale.

The Gallery Bar & Bistro has only been open for a few months (our prix fixe Sunday Suppers are probably the worst kept secret in town) and we're incredibly pleased it's already become a space that encourages a lively exchange of energy and conversation- for us,  an integral and joyful part of the experience of dining.

On Friday, June 17th, we will add one more piece to 237 Center Street's portmanteau as we open The Gallery Garden to the public for the very first time. Come enjoy the music of Sunday Gravy, the first band up in what we hope will be a monthly series. 

The exhibit that opened Barndiva, coming up on 12 years ago, was called "A Taste of Art."  While so much has changed for Barndiva, and for Healdsburg, in the ensuing years, there is sweet irony that we continue to explore, honor, and expand what those words mean. Having an art gallery- with a bistro inside- is our version of having your cake and eating it too. Come by and have a taste.  Eat the View!

 

 


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Wednesday at the Barn Menu.....Giving As Good As You Get.....

After the sun goes down...

Peace, love and happiness is not a phrase that normally rolls off my tongue, not since the 60’s at any rate, but that’s the only way I can describe the extremely mellow mood that flowed through the gallery and it's gardens Saturday evening when over two hundred kindred souls came to the opening of Salon des Sens.

It didn’t hurt that the weather was sheer bliss, warm and soft, with magical early summer light. Nor that thanks to St. George Spirits and Copain Winery there was copious amounts of excellent drink to enjoy with Ryan’s infamous Quail Egg BLTs, Compressed Watermelon Gin Fizz' and Aviation Bon Bons. At one point, when I thought the evening had peaked, K2 laughed and said "Are you kidding? Have you been outside?” The garden was full. Everyone was smiling. No one had any intention of going anywhere soon.

But if anyone passing by thought the genuine bonhomie of this crowd was just down to alcohol and a sugar rush, they would have been mistaken. In fact, when the next night rolled around and the same mood prevailed as Freddy Cole sat down to play the piano beneath the chandeliers on Barndiva’s rear patio, I realized that while art and music were clearly the driving force behind both evenings, something else was at play besides Freddy.

Salon des Sens is an exhibit brim full of fresh ideas about how we view food, while the music that came out of the fabulous Freddy Cole Quartet was so comfortable and familiar it had all the ease of slipping your hand into a soft leather glove. What made these two remarkably different experiences similar was how well they both captured, without a complicated political or social agenda, something we’ve come to miss in our increasingly isolated WiFi lives. Communal good will.

There is a lot of talk these days about how the “old” Healdsburg is disappearing, and indeed, we do live in a town that’s increasingly benefiting from the kindness of strangers, thanks to our emergence as the new heart of Wine Country. But the crowds that flocked to the barn and the studio this weekend weren’t tourists looking for the latest wine thrill. I saw a lot of familiar faces as I helped pour JCB’s sparkling before the Freddy Cole concert, but I also got the sense that even folks new to Barndiva felt they had found safe harbor; a beautiful garden where for a few short hours they were exactly where they wanted to be.

Which was true. Barndiva hosted the evening, but the concert was made possible because Tommy Sparks and Jean Charles Boisset who joined forces and stepped up to support the festival. Ditto the Bay Area artists who exhibited alongside local artists at Salon des Sens  ~ strangers committed to working together to extend an important conversation about food.

It doesn’t take a social anthropologist to see that the zeitgeist Healdsburg is channeling at the moment is consistently drawing from a mindful collaboration of old and new. It takes it’s cue from the town's most cherished traditions ~ farming, food and wine ~ recharging the mission to protect them in exciting new ways, essential if we are going to survive this current economy without selling out and losing what made Healdsburg so great in the first place. It’s no accident that all the exciting new ventures coming to town ~ Ari and Dawnelise’s new Campo Fina, Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniel’s Shed project, Pete Seghesio’s Salumeria are all backed by people with deep ties to the community and a genuine investment in its long term health. All of them, along with newcomers like JCB recognize, as we did seven years ago, that however unique they hope their new ventures will be, ultimately we are all drawing from the same well. Keeping the water clear, making sure it continues to flow even as more and more come to drink from it, must be a shared goal.

Two moments exemplified what I can only call the quality of worthfulness ~ an old-fashioned concept that needs to come back into use. The first was watching Alex Lapham’s beautiful son’s face light up with pride as he watched his dad farming in the video Drew and I made that had it’s ‘world premiere’ at Salon des Sens. What Alex does ~ what all the other ‘stars’ of Eat the View do ~  is backbreaking work, far too long under appreciated as the culture has shifted it’s focus of what’s laudable to a grandiose definition that equates being rich or famous with being valuable.

The second occurred the next night, listening to my friend Joanne Derbort speak about her husband David Dietz moments before Freddy Cole took the stage. Though most of the people attending didn’t know David, who died last year of cancer, the concert was in his honor. A man of rare intelligence and charm, his loss was greatly felt throughout our small community. In a short but eloquent speech Joanne managed to communicate to hundreds of strangers the true measure of a man who believed most of life’s problems, large and small, could be solved by working thoughtfully together. This weekend took a lot out of us ~ extraordinary efforts on the part of everyone here, especially Dawid, K2, Amber, Rachel, Daniel, Ryan and the entire kitchen staff ~ but along with the exhaustion there was a great sense of pride of jobs well done.

It’s an old-fashioned concept that gets no respect in Washington these days, but is very much alive in small towns like Healdsburg, where quite a bit gets accomplished before the sun goes down. Then we party.

St. George's Botanivore Gin includes the following ingredients: Fennel seed, Caraway Seed, Bay Leaf, Cinnamon, Cardamon Seed, Star Anise, Citra Bergamont Peel, Orris Root, Black Peppercorn, Angelica Root, Juniper Berry, Celery Seed, Cilantro Seed, Seville Orange Peel, Lemon Peel, Lime Peel, Dill Seed, Coriander Seed, Ginger Root

All text Jil Hales. All photos Dawid Jaworski, Jil Hales (unless otherwise noted.)

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Wednesday at the Barn Menu.....Five days to Salon des Sens ......... Six days to Freddy Cole...

As Opening Night Approaches...

Finding the sensate in food ~ luxuriating in the way it looks and tastes ~ is something we give a lot of attention to around here. If our comment cards ~ not to mention the word on the street ~ are anything to go by, it’s something we have learned to do rather well. But how to capture those same deeply satisfying elements in the works of art we exhibit (and let’s not mince words, hope to sell) in the fine art gallery we run next door to the restaurant has been more of a moving target.

Up to now the shows we’ve put together for Studio Barndiva, with the exception of Laura Parker’s Taste of Place, haven’t revolved around a single subject though it’s fair to say the artists we represent ~ Cohen, Minor, Morgan, Scheid, Youngblood, Sanchez, Rizzo ~ are all deeply invested in and take inspiration from the magnificent foodshed we live in. I loved the idea of Salon des Sens when San Francisco curator Maggie Spicer first approached me with the idea of collaborating because it presented an opportunity to mount an exhibit where artists from across the Bay Area could join our existing group in an attempt to answer in paint, photography, video and sculpture a question which has come to vex us: What really constitutes art when it comes to food?

We live in a technological culture that increasingly tries to seduce us with fastidiously perfect images which glorify food in much the same way pornography exploits sex. Every year thousands of cookbooks and magazines are published that cater to a food as porn continuum based on the titillation and voyeuristic charge we get from looking at something we cannot physically touch. Social acceptability that it's food and not sex does not alter the fact that arousal is the goal when food is idolized in order to make us long for it. Qualitative differences abound, of course ~ one man's mind bending, scientifically inspired images from a series like Modernist Cuisine is another's Red Lobster advert on TV, but the end game is the same. Like sex, we go in knowing there is no substitute for what we feel when we experience the real thing, but in a revealing way that knowledge is part and parcel of the attraction.

Which begs the question Maggie and I are posing with Salon des Sens: if actual hunger is not being sated by this kind of idolatry, is there something beyond longing which we crave from these images? Is there a difference between the earnest documentation found in cookbooks and food magazines and the commercialization of endless junk food adverts? What more might we expect from work that takes food as its subject matter but asks us to elevate it to an artistic level? I’m not, in general, a great believer in the ‘reception theory’ of art where one’s personal experience is used as the litmus test for the efficacy of a work rather than the forces the artist had a hand in creating, but when it comes to a subject so basic to our needs it stands to reason our response is bound to be highly personal. More so than a painting of a landscape or a portrait, even if we know the terrain or the face well. But does that mean food as a subject for art can never really move beyond a personal narrative the way Mona Lisa’s smile, Matisse’s dancers or Cezanne's landscapes are infinitely about so much more than the subject matter they present?

Salon des Sens will not provide definitive answers to these questions, but we’re confident the artists we’ve selected have the talent to frame them with a level of provocation that’s in sync with the true spirit of a salon.

The best art is a conversation you start with yourself where, if the art is good, some of your deepest longings to know more about what it means to be alive can be addressed in a way that leaves you wanting more ~ of life and art. In this way Caren Alpert’s work penetrates the organic yet formal elements of raw ingredients, while Maren Caruso elegantly dissects and codifies what we make from them; Michael Lamotte renders exquisite poetic light redolent of the earth, while John Youngblood documents with an Atget like respect the contours of farmworker's worn faces and hands. The movie Drew Kelly and I have made traces the human journey one plate of food takes to reach the table, while Susan Preston’s compost piece contemplates what should be the companion question ~ where all that food goes after we eat it. All the artists in Salon des Sens offer a way into a discussion we need to be having about this most precious stuff. The more we understand food in all its forms and expressions, the more we can understand what it represents: nothing less than our tenacious hold on life.

Wandering through SFMOMA on Saturday I took a detour from the Mexican photography exhibit we’d come to see and ended up in front of a Wayne Thiebaud painting. Display Cakes, like the best of Thiebaud, straddles representation and abstraction by taking desirable, seemingly well known objects and rendering them (and crucially, their shadows) into another dimension, one which hums with mysterious new possibility. What I’d never noticed before was how beautifully Thiebaud applies his paint, creating luscious texture across the surface of his cakes which elevates their formal qualities so they appear both seductive yet ironic. Go ahead, it seemed to say, swipe your finger across my frosting and see what you get. It won’t be sweet. Is that what you were hoping for?

Salon des Sens, with an opening reception on June 2 hosted by our good friends at Copain Winery and St. George Spirits, will run through June 12. Join us.

The Great Freddy Cole comes to Barndiva this Sunday

Tickets are going fast for both shows of this consummate jazz pianist and singer who kicks off the opening weekend of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. JCB is pouring their sparkling and the weather is promising to be splendid when Freddy plays his grand in the gardens with an incredible line up that includes Randy Napoleon, Elias Bailey and Curtis Boyd. The Freddy Cole Quartet will preform an afternoon show at 4, followed by a Gold Circle JCB wine reception in the Studio Barndiva Gardens. The second show begins at 7. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here, but if you're hoping for the Freddy Cole Sunday Supper there may be a few remaining reservations to be had by calling 431 0100. The concert is dedicated to the memory of David Dietz.

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

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Wednesday at the Barn Menu.....Salon des Sens draws one week closer....Tickets on Sale for Freddy Cole .........

Finding the Joy in Irony

A few important announcements this week, but no blog. It’s my birthday and I intend to use the day I usually set aside to write to go sit on top of a mountain and do nothing. Silence packs a wallop these days. There are times when I feel more turned on to the possibilities in life than when I was 20, more engaged than when I was 30, more satisfied with what I have accomplished then when I breached 40. I’ve also felt more frustrated than when I turned 50. We make a big deal about birthdays because we can’t or won’t use arbitrary markers to judge the depth of our true feelings as we move through life. The thing is, in the big picture ~ aka what it all means ~  everyday should be as important as the one before. Youth isn’t wasted on the young, abused maybe, but not wasted. It all matters if you say it does. So get out there and eat the view.

Salon des Sens

Salon des Sens is two weeks away and the show is starting to come together. Incredible artwork from Carol Beck and Caren Alpert has just arrived, with more to follow all this week. Out in Dry Creek, Susan Preston is putting the finishing touches on her compost piece (pun intended) while here at the barn Drew and I are rushing to find a soundtrack for our movie, Farm to Table in 3 Minutes.  (The image used for our topper is Alex Lapham of Mix Gardens starting his day). We've fallen in love with all three of the artisan gins Lance and Ellie of St. George Spirits are bringing to the opening ~ so much so that Chef and Octavio will be collaborating on an Aviator Bon Bon while Rachel and I are zeroing in on a deconstructed gin and tonic with Quinine Lime Granita. Copain, our other talented host for the opening reception, has let us know they will be pouring both their remarkable Pinot and a Chardonnay. Thanks in great part to guest curator Maggie Spicer, it will all come together on Saturday June 2.  Great party, serious collectible art.  (If you think I'm kidding about how good the art for this show is going to be, check out an image from Michael Lamotte's work, below. )

The Jazz Festival Returns to Barndiva

This Grammy nominated pianist from one of the great jazz families of all time promises to up the sass and the class for this year's Healdsburg Jazz Festival. Freddie Cole will play two shows at Barndiva on June 3, in the gardens. JCB is pouring their wonderful Brut sparkling. Dedicated to the memory of David Dietz, whose presence will be profoundly missed.

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

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Wednesday at the Barn Menu.....Salon des Sens....The Jazz Festival Returns to Barndiva...

Salon des Sens is coming...

Salon des Sens is shaping up to be to one very cool show: Maren Caruso’s clean-edged, explosive photographic vegetable dissection series; Caren Alpert's astonishing microscopic studies which explore the color and texture of food we put in our mouths everyday, making them appear as if they were shot from outer space; Michael Lamotte’s exquisite black and white ‘portraits’ which exhibit a masterly control of light. I look at a lot of photographic work throughout the year, but the level of talent curator Maggie Spicer has gathered from across the Bay Area for this collection is remarkable indeed. It helps that she’s approached this show from a number of angles. Susan Preston is doing an earthwork piece with compost. Seth Minor will be back with a single-wire sculpture. John Youngblood has agreed to fill a wall with his rarely seen portraits of farm workers, printed from 8x10 negatives. Carol Beck, a new artist for us, will be showing vibrant acrylic work which captures in paint a complex of emotions triggered by the taste of certain foods.

The show will run until June 12, but don't miss the opening night party. Nader Khouri, who had the cover of SF magazine a few weeks back, shot the poster for the show, while two talented long time friends have stepped up to host the evening with us. St. George Spirits, the folks who brought you Hangar One Vodka, also have an impressive array of superb artisan spirits, including three premium gins and a rye with the intriguing name 'Breaking and Entering,' with which Rachel and I will be devising diabolical cocktails to serve on June 2. Distillers (and owners) Lance and Ellie will be here on opening night, as will the fine folks at Copain Winery, pouring something special from their cellar. (Heads up if you haven't visited Copain yet ~ it is one of the most impressive and beautiful wineries around). There are only two big unknowns: whether the video Drew Kelly and I have shot will be done in time for its grand premiere and what Chef is contemplating for his ‘edible art’ pieces. While the stars are aligning for this show, this being art it’s also nice to know there are a few uncharted planets in our orbit, right?

Click on the image for details to the show and opening party!

The Jazz Festival Returns to Barndiva

If you can’t make the Salon des Sens opening night, buy tickets for the Jazz Festival the next night ~ we will keep the gallery open so folks arriving for the afternoon performance can see the art show first.  Or, here's an idea, come to the barn both nights and kick off your summer with memorable art and music. We are thrilled to be a venue for The Healdsburg Jazz Festival again for two shows which everyone is saying will be ‘unforgettable,’ not least because our star is Freddie Cole. Yes, he's the brother of Nat, uncle of Natalie, but if you didn't know it already Freddie has had his own remarkable career in "a little less crystal, a lot more barrelhouse" jazz for going on four decades. Come for the first show to enjoy the sun setting in the gardens, or bring a sweater and listen to this smokey voiced crooner under the stars.

We want to thank the irrepressible Jean Charles Boisset for his support of Freddie Cole at Barndiva. Jean Charles, along with long time Barndiva friend Tommy Sparks, have stepped up to make this evening possible. You no doubt have been reading a lot about the French wunderkind's invasion of Sonoma and Napa lately, come meet him on Sunday June 3.  For both shows JCB will be pouring their sparkling ~  it’s the classy thing to do for this particular headliner in the Barndiva gardens on a warm Sunday evening. Trust us on this one: JCB is not one to miss a classy move.

While we are pleased to have the festival back at Barndiva, make no mistake: the heart of this evening belongs to our great friend David Dietz, whom we lost last year. David believed in the festival as a dynamic and unifying force in Healdsburg and brought his signature passion in support of it. Come and support the festival! This one’s for you David. And for Joanne, as always.

Tickets include a glass of bubbly, but to meet Freddie Cole and JCB,  if you step up and purchase a gold ticket it will include a special drinks reception in the studio gardens between the shows.

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales.

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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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Wednesday at the Barn Menu..... Introducing: Salon des Sens....

For this week’s Eat the View, we are thrilled to announce an exciting new exhibition in collaboration with San Francisco curator Maggie Spicer.

Salon des Sens is a food art show engaging the senses from compost to carrot crémeux, a curated collection from 15 remarkable artists who work in a variety of media ~ photography, video, acrylics, wire sculpture, watercolor, soil and food.

The opening reception on June 2 will feature edible art by Barndiva’s Chef Ryan Fancher and cocktails by St. George Spirits.

Details for the show are below and we will be writing more about it over the next few weeks, but mark your calendars now. This will be the art event of the season in Sonoma County.

Studio BARNDIVA

presents

Salon des Sens

To experience life’s cycle from compost to plant to plate, is a sensual journey we take every day with little or no thought. Yet it is potentially a visual exploration of taste, texture, shape, and smell which has the power to affect and teach us on the deepest level.

Studio Barndiva and Guest Curator Maggie Spicer are proud to present Salon des Sens, a group exhibition which sets out to explore how art can frame and elevate a conversation we should be having about the food we eat.

Opening Reception

Studio BARNDIVA Saturday, June 2, 2012 6-8pm Show runs June 2-12

Artists: Caren Alpert photographer, electron microscopes Carol Beck artist, poet, author, acrylic on canvas Maren Caruso photographer, vegetable dissection, wine viscosity Ryan Fancher chef, savory edible art Jil Hales visionary, video creative direction, 3 Minute Meal Drew Kelly videographer, 3 Minute Meal Nader Khouri photographer, food & landscapes Michael Lamotte photographer, local food stills Seth Minor wire sculptor Susan Preston mixed-media artist Rob Scheid photographer, food & travel Maria Schoettler painter, watercolors Maggie Spicer  curator, edible compost Rachel Weidinger watercolorist, farmer's markets John Youngblood photographer, selenium agriculture

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

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Dish of the Week.......Singing the Praises of 2011.......

Dish of the Week

Early Bird Omelet with Caviar Crème Frâche

I think it was Julia Child who once said the single hardest dish she ever mastered was “a perfect omelet,” but I bet more than one great chef would proffer the same reply. Ryan, who’s both intuitive and technique driven in equal measure, believes the secret to a light, fluffy and oozy omelet lies in patiently stirring over constant heat, and while this is true, it's only part of the equation. Even if you start with great eggs (ours were from Early Bird's Place), the right pan, and a perfected wrist action that keeps the eggs from scorching, making the perfect omelet is no walk in the park. If anything it’s a dance. One whose music you need to listen to long and hard before you know the rhythm well enough to move to it gracefully.

To the extent that science plays a role, for an omelet that’s smooth as silk on the outside but filled with creamy wet curds, don't be tempted to mix dairy into the eggs. Though it seems counter-intuitive ~ cream should make something more creamy, not less ~ eggs don't need anything to bind to themselves, in fact, any ingredients you add will affect the omelet's ultimate viscosity. The balance at play is air, heat and time. Whip the eggs to a consistent froth and once they hit the heat (we use olive oil, not butter), drag a rubber spatula (or wooden spoon or fork) slowly front to back and side to side. Watch the edges. You will know from the look of them whether your heat is too high, or if you are dragging too slowly or too fast. When the eggs are at the soft curd stage, stop mixing. Now comes the crucial moment. You want a soft skin to form on both the top and the bottom surface while keeping the heat constant throughout. To accomplish this you can either pop the omelet under a brazier where the top will finish while the residual heat from the pan continues cooking the bottom, or stay on the burner while carefully flipping the omelet over in the skillet. Do neither and you risk the bottom sticking (or worse, turning brown). Whichever method you prefer, don't overcook the eggs.  This is essential.

Omelets stuffed with fixings like cheese, asparagus, crab, (you name it) are fun, but if we’re talking perfect omelet you don't want any other ingredients that will affect the perfect storm of  silky skin containing billowy curds.  As a topper, Caviar and Crème Frâiche are an inspired pairing ~ the cool of the crème combines with the pop of salty ocean to compliment, without overwhelming, the eggs, which should arrive to the plate as delicate in taste as they are in texture.

A word about caviar: while the name caviar can be used to describe the roe of almost any fish that produces eggs ~ salmon, steelhead, trout, lumpfish or whitefish ~ anyone who's tasted roe from the wild sturgeon living in the Caspian or Black Sea knows Beluga, Ossetra or  Sevruga are to lumpfish what cashmere is to boiled wool. That’s not to say that domestic caviar isn’t a wonderful and affordable addition to any dish that calls out for an oceanic bite. But stay away from pressed products. No matter where they come from,  no matter what size or shape the eggs, caviar needs to be fresh, to explode against your upper palate with a fresh briny snap.

Omelet with Caviar Crème Frâiche is the last Dish of the Week for the Blog this year. Looking back at the dishes we documented in 2011, we hope we managed a few Aha! moments that bridged the gap between the professional and the home cook, showcasing superior ingredients while finding the key to dishes that were both simple and elegant. No matter how labor intensive they were, and some of them were doozies, our hope was to delight your eye with finished dishes where the chef’s hand was all but invisible, his talent subsidiary to taste. The best dishes we eat in any year are usually the ones that don’t shout so much as fervently whisper, overwhelming neither the palate nor the stomach.

Because we think the first meal of the New Year should be as memorable as the last, Early Bird's Omelet with Caviar Crème Frâiche will be one of the stars of our New Year’s Day Brunch Menu this Sunday,  Janurary 1, 2012. On the drink side, for those of us who intend to party hard on New Year's Eve, the New Year's Day menu also brings back two classic Barndiva hangover cures:  Bite the Dog and the Fernet Old Fashioned.

2011: The People Who Made It All Possible

It takes a lot of hard work (not to mention talent) to keep Barndiva going all year. Even more to keep it growing in the ways we care about most. At the end of the day, ironic as it may sound, great restaurants aren’t about food as much as they are about people.  A lot of people ~ from the farmers and ranchers who grow and raise our ingredients, through the chefs of various stations who clean, cut, cook and plate,  to the servers, hostesses and bartenders who deliver our drinks and food to the table with a skilled flourish that honors the work and love that's goes  into every dish.

We are truly blessed to have talent in abundance here at Barndiva. And it isn’t just the professionalism our purveyors and staff have that is ultimately so remarkable; it's the way they rock it, with an abundance of humor and good will.

2011 was a great year for us, hard but truly wonderful.  We have always had great heart for what we do but I’m the first to admit our best intentions haven't always gone hand in hand with perfect timing. If you’ve eaten here in the past year, or shared the excitement of an event, you know we are on a roll.

None of us knows what lies ahead this year. It's hard to ignore the fact that most mornings the world outside feels like it is going to hell in a handbag. There’s too much greed and fear around, coupled with the uneasy but pervasive message from on high that even if you do a good job in life, an honest job, you’re going to end up with the short end of the stick. Don’t believe it. There are wonderful things happening all around us, they just need to be acknowledged and supported. Fought for. Enjoyed.  Joy should be at the heart of  what gets us out of bed every morning ~ even if some days it's just the fumes of the possible. But joy is like a fire, it needs kindling to get started. Constant feeding to keep it going.

So here's a Big Thank You to our kindling makers and fire builders of 2011 ~ starting with the singular farms and ranches that have supplied Barndiva throughout the year, especially the ones (you know who you are) that do not mind bringing in only one or two crops that meet Ryan’s exacting standards. Special shout out to Bonnie at Dragonfly who lets me fill the barn with the most impossibly beautiful blooms from her gardens while never failing to kick me in the ass when I need it; Alex and all the guys at Mix Gardens, Myrna and Earl at Early Bird's Place, Vidal and Daniel (and of course Lukka) at the farm, Lou and Susan Preston for writing the manual on how to raise happy pigs and sheep and besides great wine, produce some of the best olive oil around.

Thank you to our incredible Kitchen Staff  (special shout out to The Incredible Flying Wycoff Brothers, the irrepressible Pancho, Manny, Danny, Octavio, Shale,  and expediter extraordinaire Katie) and our charming and informed Front of House, now lead by the eminently able and urbane Bennett and the lovely Catherine.

To Dawid, who has taken the gallery on by storm, and to Amber, who helped Lukka fulfill all our wedding couple's dreams.  And last, but hardly least, my assistant and new mum K2, who keeps the blog (and the website) fresh, even when Chef and I threaten to run out of steam.

All of us here wish you a New Year that’s easy on the eyes, fulfilling and just plain filling ~ some of which we hope you will do here. Thank you for reading Eat the View this year (we know a lot vies for your attention) and for your support in person, here in the restaurant, the gallery, and at our weddings. Your continued health and well being matters greatly to us. Have an exciting year. Keep the home fires burning.

Salute!

All text Jil Hales. All photos Jil Hales and Dawid Jaworski (unless otherwise noted).

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Dish of the Week.....In the Gallery.....In the Fields with Friends.....

Dish of the Week

You & Mother Jus

‘You are what you eat’ is food politics 101, impossible to refute, but not far behind when it comes to the emotional vocabulary we use to describe food experiences is the truism ‘you are what your parents fed you.’  For generations like mine, who grew up in houses where someone cooked every day, the inexorable slide into a world where fewer and fewer people can make a meal from scratch is pretty shocking. And sad. Instead of a family's unique food traditions more and more formative food memories now seem to come, fully formed, from the same folks who have a vested interest in selling the corporate food culture.

Beyond the serious issues of how that culture may be compromising our health (if you ever truly get beyond them), there’s a significant qualitative difference between food memories created when people make the time to sit down together and eat a meal made from real ingredients and the default dining that's become a mainstay of the new American diet which is little more than a simulation of a home cooked meal, pseudo-foodstuffs you eat on the run or in front of a screen.

When Chef proposed Au Jus for the blog this week, neither of us was thinking of the Arby’s empire, or even the vast number of diners and truckstops that have sold Beef Au Jus sandwiches since they became popular in the 50’s. We were thinking in French, as we often do when it comes to the kind of food we cook. A direct translation of Au Jus is ‘of the juice,” with the clear reference being ‘the juice’ of the animal ~ usually lamb or beef ~ you are cooking. Once upon a time using every part of an animal meant survival; used correctly it's a term which should infer access to whole animals, which fewer and fewer restaurants have the skill or take the time to accommodate anymore.

 I have no idea where the ‘beef taste’ in the standard Au Jus served with millions of beef sandwiches bought and consumed every day comes from, but I’m willing to bet the farm there is no connection whatsoever between that sauce and the piece of meat you end up eating it with. This isn’t a rant against bouillon cubes, which we all resort to from time to time, but a reminder that even the ones that promise they are made from 'quality' ingredients are primarily salt, color, and a mix of artificial and hydrolyzed natural flavorings. (FYI: the most common way to hydrolyze a protein is to boil it in a strong acid triggering a chemical breakdown that results in the formation of "free glutamate," which, when joined by sodium, makes MSG. When added this way, the FDA does not require the label to list it as such.)

Which is not to say you need a whole side of beef in the kitchen to make a decent Au Jus at home. Sauté a piece of meat with a few diced veg, skim the fat, squirt some wine in the pan, scrape up the delicious bits clinging to the sides, and you’re good to go. (Add flour and you have a decent gravy.)

But Classic Au Ju, the way we make it here, is something else again. Everyone in the kitchen knows the various stages it goes through by heart and everyone pitches in to make it. Ryan's recipe was adapted from his mentor Richard Reddington, similar to one Daniel Boulud is known for  ~ all three men incorporate a bone stock and a trim sauce, with each contributing different aromatics. They also make use of a 'Mother Jus', which is simply the saved composite of past Au Jus, in much the same way a great balsamic comes from a mother starter, as do bread and yogurt. If you love meat Ryan's Au Jus is liquid Nirvana, more vegetal than starchy, semi-transparent with a rich caramel color, dense with flavors that compress the essence of the protein. Woven throughout are fragrant, rooty aromatics. The images below document the stages from trim sauce to finish ~ directions for the bone stock follow.

The Au Jus is ready. At Barndiva we finish it with a knob of butter and a zoosh of sherry vinegar which brightens the meaty flavors and lifts the wine, tomato, fennel and all the aromatics.

The importance of  roasting the bones and making them into a stock that is combined with the trimmings sauce and the Mother Jus can’t be overstated ~ the natural thickness of the final sauce is a direct result of the gelatin released from the collagen in the bones, the tendons, sinew, and connective tissue. Roast the bones for 1-2 hours at 350, then add to a stock pot in which mirepoix has been sautéed and combined with water, tomato paste, bay leaf, garlic, cloves, black pepper, and thyme. The bone stock is simmered for six hours, strained and reserved. The sauce made from the trim, detailed above, takes about 3 hours.

In the Gallery

Ah Coco, une femme douce, a lady we always love to hear from, especially when a new container arrives from France. This one had some gems ~ including cast iron heads that looked like they'd survived a hundred years of trial by fire which, in fact, they did. Cut from fireplace dogs from the 1920's on, most come in pairs which make beautiful bookends. Singly they are wonderful, unique pieces. Coco tells us the vases were part of an elaborate 19th Century garden wall, pitted and burnished a gorgeous old penny bronze. Heads: $75 Vases (only two left): $100

In the Fields with Friends

File this under "We're not the only ones around here still doing things the old fashioned way."

On Sunday we took a ride out to the Preston's to see how they were getting on with their new apple juice press. If you haven't been to Lou and Susan's beautiful farm and winery on West Dry Creek in a while, go soon, before the rains set in. Their new indoor farmstand ~ with select pieces of Susan's indelible art ~  is almost finished, built to go year round with room for drying and storing. Out in the fields there are still lots of tomatoes on the vines and vegetables growing in the various gardens. This is a great place to bring the kids, to walk and talk to them about everything you see. Keep an eye out for the traveling Hen House Gypsy Wagons where you'll find the pigs rototilling the soil, chickens not far behind (the better to picks up any delicious morsels those pig snouts miss).  The way animals co-habit at Preston Family Vineyard could teach our elected officials in Washington a thing or two about getting along. All of us, for that matter. If you haven't signed on to Lou's blog yet, do so, it's great stuff... here's the link.

A hand turned apple press is simple to use.  A lined, wood slate bucket catches the chopped apples, when it's full you slide the bucket under the press.  The handle is connected to an Acme Thread Screw which is attached to a plate that as you turn applies pressure to the apples. All you do is turn the handle until the juice stops running. Fresh Preston Apple juice is available in the new farmstore while it lasts. Their custom Oak press is made by Correl Cider Presses.

A pensive but happy customer.

Another happy customer who, who along with the chickens, will dine on what's left of the apples.

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

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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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Cat in the Orchard

(originally posted October 13, 2010)

The compulsion to make art has been with us for 17,000 years. For most of that time, the foremost question asked of the artist (perhaps second only to where’s the rent) has been why do you do it ~ where does this unstoppable urge to create come from? It’s a fascinating question especially if you’ve never had the calling, but beware the loquacious artist ~ Picasso pops to mind ~ who can come up with what sounds like a dazzling answer to what is ultimately a goose chasing question.

“You might as well ask me why I get out of bed in the morning,” an artist friend once explained, to this day the most refreshingly honest answer I’ve heard. By and large, art is made by people because ~ excuse the double negative ~ they can’t not make it. Doesn’t matter whether the art they make is good or bad. In your or anyone else’s opinion. They make art because, just like getting up in the morning, there is simply no alternative for them. Even in an extreme case, like van Gogh, anybody out there really think he wouldn't have flicked the switch in exchange for a normal, but art free life? He couldn't, not didn't. And constant use of his messed up mental health by art critics the world over as an explanation of his work is not just a ruse, it’s an insult to his genius.

An infinitely more interesting question is why we need art, what we see in it that is so intrinsically different from what we see just walking around, living our lives. Surely art explains the world to us, but while we can’t argue that context is unimportant, don’t trust history alone for an answer as to why you respond so deeply to one artist’s work, while you are left cold by another’s. In any case, the historical “reasons” we make art change every few hundred (or thousand) years. Since we’ve been keeping track we’ve gone from religion (with God the Über curator) to documentation (Vermeer and the Camera Obscura onward) to a need to explore the psyche (Freud and the Surrealist Movement did a nice tango on this one). For the last few decades art has been obsessed with finding meaning in materialism ~ you can thank Andy Warhol for the soulless Jeff Koons generation. My point is that while context is important, something else is up with our fascination, our need to look at and experience art. Is it finding grace? Is it looking in the mirror? Is it seeing our worst fears exposed?

A few years ago I dragged the family to NYC to see a Gustav Klimt exhibit, 8 paintings and a 120 drawings, at the Neue Galerie, Ronald Lauder’s exquisite private museum on the edge of Central Park. Though one of the most published artists in history, endless squabbles over Klimt’s legacy has made viewing more than one painting at time nearly impossible. The exhibit did not disappoint, but what happened unexpectedly while I was there set me thinking about context in a whole new light. Starting out in poverty, Klimt trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, immediately gaining acceptance and public commissions by Emperor Franz Joseph I. But instead of following a proscribed career, in 1887 he founded the Vienna Secession, a controversial group that encouraged unconventional artistic expression, invited exhibits by foreigners, and published a manifesto that debunked the myth that any one artistic style ~ especially what was in vogue at the time ~ should rein supreme. In short, at the turn of a century that would see two world wars change the map of Europe and, not least, the direction of art forever, Klimt helped push the envelope. Even when briefly shunned by society ~ his work deemed pornographic by every quarter that had once supported him ~ he defied conventions of the day, broke from tradition and become one of the most successful artists of all time.

Towards the end of the day I found myself standing in front of Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting, which had been purchased by Lauder for $135 million ~ the highest price ever paid for a single work at the time ~ depicts a beautiful, fragile Jewish woman engulfed in a gilded, intricately decorated world that we know from history was on the precipice of extinction. Lush, subdued color draws the viewer into a universe that cossets yet distinguishes the female form from the fabric of her history. Light skims off the surface of burnished gold leaf, while intricate ornamental detail is eloquently rendered with flowing sinuous lines. Egyptian, Byzantine, Japanese influences, arguably all present, are subsumed by techniques that speak to no known style at all. What seems a sharp edged nod to a Dürer engraving catches in the light and disappears, only to be replaced by a soft tonal mosaic that brings ~ of all people ~ the neo-impressionist Seurat to mind.

As I stood there, a nine-year-old girl who had pulled away from her mother in another gallery came to stand beside me. While all these thoughts were going through my mind, she shifted uncomfortably from side to side. Like it, I asked? Yeah, she said, gnawing at her sleeve, but why is she so sad? Is she, I countered, to which the girl’s eyes, which had been darting around the canvas, looked directly into mine and held for a good five count ~ eons for a nine year old. The only thing free of her body is her mind, she replied. A non-contextual response, to be sure, but she had nailed it. In that moment, somewhere between the two of us, Klimpt’s ghost stirred.

In a few week’s time the question of context will become particularly relevant as the studio mounts Susan Preston’s “One Button Off,” the last show of this exciting and transitional year for us. Susan is one of the most well known and ~ though she would be the last to admit it ~ beloved members of our community. She and her husband Lou have created, in Preston of Dry Creek Farm and Winery, a living agrarian document that eloquently tells a deeply political story which has been instrumental in helping to inform Sonoma County’s embrace of sustainability. The edible gifts of their working farm, which exist so successfully alongside their vineyards, winery and tasting room, have also helped expand a previously limited viticultural agenda for Sonoma that was up to now scarily Napa bound. If you’ve visited the winery, walked the grounds, been lucky to share in their hospitality on any Guadagni Sunday or at any one of a number of public events they host, you cannot have missed how a refined artistic presence infuses everything they do. We live in a county where great wealth has spawned many extremely beautiful wineries, but few speak so fully of an independent artistic vision.

What we haven’t yet seen, though it has been much anticipated, is a full viewing outside the framework of their family endeavors of Susan Preston’s work as an artist.

The one-woman show will consist of 14 pieces. The hallmarks of past work will be there ~ the use of wordplay and talisman; the almost mystical transformation of the most common materials ~ but there is a great deal more here as well. A sense of universal themes with rousing, if slightly disturbing narratives. Susan Preston has what I can only describe as a lovers gaze for the animal/people that live in her world, an understanding of sensuality as distinct from gender, a belief that a battered nature is still capable of rocking us to sleep at night. This is a world where fools are kings and art has all the power of the confessional.

The greatest thing about starting with the premise that art need not document anything other than itself is that it enables the viewer to cauterize the aesthetic experience, allowing all the blood to flow back into what you have in front of you. This, at the end of the day, is really all you need to react, feel, reject, or love a work of art. While it may be hard to separate the Susan Preston for whom all actions have consequences (the better to eat you my dear) with Susan Preston, the artist, go for it. The exhibit, which opens on November 10th will run through December. Oh, and don’t forget to bring a nine year old if you happen to have one lying around.

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Complicated Lives

(originally posted November 10, 2010) Simple lines…complicated faces, the man next to me mumbled. He was talking to himself, but I followed his gaze to a poster across the underground track on the wall just beyond where we were standing, waiting for the train. London was awash in great art shows that winter but the Giotto Exhibit, which the poster was touting, was not high on my list. Religious painters are not my thing really. Yet once the stranger had drawn my attention to the image of the Madonna and child I found I could not look away. Beneath a film of soot the face of a woman who lived centuries before me glowed with incandescent dignity. I felt a better person just being in the same space with her.

I thought about that moment a few weeks back as Susan Preston and I moved through her studio on West Dry Creek looking through a collection of paintings that would comprise her one-woman show at Studio Barndiva, which opens November 10th. It may seem like a stretch to compare the work of a woman living today in a small farming community in Northern California with a man who, in wrestling with how to present the human form realistically on a flat surface, developed his own language for three-dimensional space that changed the course of art history. But that’s the thing about remarkable art: its capacity to capture the singular attributes which make us human transcend both time and providence.

Susan Preston is also an artist who begins with an extremely shallow picture plane that she fills, sparely, with ‘naïve’ characters who challenge our notion of what it means to be spiritually relevant. Whereas artists of Giotto’s time painted from a place infused with religious certainty, Preston, a woman very much of our time, poses a series of complex moral dilemmas. She does this through the development of a mixed-media/mixed-message language that is both literary and textural, resulting in work that, very much like the great Italian master, leaves us believing that the spiritual is ever present.

Take the half naked woman sheltering beneath the waves of Just Drops, Really. Is she the artist viewing history from a distance, or mother nature herself surreptitiously controlling the faceless monks as they make their Canterbury-like way down the mountain, catching rain drops any which way they can? She views the scene with a curious detachment from her self-contained envelope, neither strident nor embarrassed in her nakedness which, despite her age, radiates a rakish charm. Step away from the canvas and you are left contemplating an utterly contemporary question Giotto never had to consider: resources and who controls them. This confrontation without violence is a recurrent Preston theme, one that hints, if not confers, contemplative power.

This is especially true of her babies. These old souls, wise as Buddhas, complacent as cool California dudes, resonate without having to interact with the spare natural order that surrounds them. The caped baby in On Top of the Mountain and little boy on the back of a yak in Upward Tears are all but oblivious to the crow and farm woman who respectively share their world, yet the artist manages to convey that a powerful connection exists between them. The babies of Heaven of the Milk Tree pay little or no attention to the forbidding tree that dominates their landscape, yet their direct but unreadable expressions challenge the viewer to wonder if those dripping fruits which loom above them are filled with milk, or poison (life-giving or deadly). I Can’t Decide, the artist avers, in the title of Milk Tree’s companion piece, leaving us forced to engage with the work on yet a deeper level if we want to arrive at an answer. Which, I would hazard a guess, is precisely what she had in mind.

As for the Preston women, indecision reigns here as well. Motionless while dangerous insects creep into their hair (Hold Still), sanguine and naked in the face of traveling monks, (Just Drops, Really), even with a spike coming out of the head (We’ll Never Do That Again) they persevere with lacerating visual humor co-joined with word play used subversively in the title, or directly written onto the canvas. Whatever the animal is in One Button Off, it is surely female, and dressed for tea and sherry with Dottie at the Algonquin. With Comb Your Hair Jezebel the absent Jezebel, represented by two suspended combs, tines facing inward, answers the exhortation (by her mother?) not with words, but with a solid wall of black that vibrates affirmation in the negative. Black is often used as a conduit for Preston’s question and answer games. Take the portrait of the woman who dominates We’ll Never Do That Again, who for all the nostalgia implied by the use of the silhouette is not only disconnected from her body, but has that alarming bolt driven straight into her elegantly coiffed head. Which of the two calamities that has befallen her will “We” not do again?

Yet for all the unsettling questions that go unanswered in these paintings, they are not sad pictures, not by a long shot. With an irreverent and politically charged sense of the absurd the artist creates a strange band of characters and anthropomorphic animals that challenge our perceptions of what it really means to be alive, to be hungry. They also give us the chance to reflect on a universal truth: no sooner do we gain command of life than circumstances beyond our control will no doubt shake the ground we stand on.

This shifting sense of reality is made manifest visually with Preston’s collage technique which relies heavily on the use of distressed recycled paper. The brown paper ~ a supermarket variety which we all know so well from a lifetime of carting groceries home ~ is put through a time consuming process in which she buries, drowns, irons, and over paints it with watery gauche, the better to see through. This alchemy transforms the uniform brown into a gorgeous tonal pallet that brings to mind sun-baked earth, cracked leather, butterscotch, wheat, parchment, and sand. Under her hand, ordinary paper becomes all but unrecognizable, yet somehow retains the very essence of itself.

As wonderful as her use of paper is, it is but half a visual pas de deux that takes an archaic reference of reflective gold, once used for its resplendence and to confer both spiritual and political power, and turns it on its head. Here, beneath a cracked pavement of cut and torn paper, a silvery world beckons. The inference, that there is nothing to stop us finding magic in the most prosaic of materials (in this case chewing gum wrappers) goes well beyond the trope that all that glitters is not gold. Viewed straight on, the juxtaposition of textural organic earth tones edged with silver registers as a flat opaque surface, but the moment the viewer commits ~ an eye moving across the canvas, a shift of the body ~ light catches along the irregularly cut edges of paper igniting a grid of luminous intersecting lines, electrifying the entire canvas.

Though they have the power to haunt you for days, these are not, to my mind, personal pictures. The artist herself remains very much a mystery to the viewer. The one exception is Goodbye Pina, painted after the death of the great dance choreographer Pina Bausch. With an initial nod to Giotto’s God in the heavenly direction Pina’s body takes in her contorted dance of death, Preston then refuses to relinquish her beloved muse to an idealized heaven. Pina dances into eternity only after she has risen through an undulating landscape and crossed over into a searing black monolithic sky. Relieved of her pain and made whole again, the power of this simply drawn figure in danceflight is remarkable.

A versifier of the highest order (she could easily have been a poet) words are used to great effect throughout the pieces in One Button Off. We Killed The Wrong Twin begs two questions: our complicity, and why the wrong twin needed to be killed in the first place; Bring It Back may be a refrain from the kid issuing the baby bottles from his mouth, or again, from the artist to the viewer about our inability to feed ourselves in what Preston, in her other life as a organic farmer, knows full well are dire times. The elongated goat in I Never Told You I Was A Contortionist, clearly is, while the caped baby in On Top Of The Mountain, clearly is not. Are these titles lies, or, by being put on notice to suspect all words, are we simply being cajoled into making new meanings from them? Take your pick. By consistently sneaking up on the viewer and whispering discreet possibilities in our ear, on both an intellectual and a sensual level Susan Preston has made it clear in this collection that we are free to consider all options. Art that exhibits this level of profundity seeks not only to claim the epicenter of our attention, but creates its own morally complex force field. To the man in the train station I would say “Simple faces, complicated lives.” Much like our own.

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Rhymes with Play

(originally posted September 29, 2010)

Healdsburg made a joyful noise on Saturday night ~ especially on our part of Center Street where 200 elegantly dressed people of all ages came together and kissed, wept, drank, ate, laughed, told stories, then lost their shoes and danced their hearts out. Our weddings are always very special, but something else was in the air as well. As if the brief return of a warm night coupled with the sense that only a few weeks are left of summer heightened the mood so it swelled beyond the happiness felt by this particular couple and their families and friends. It reminded me how important it is going to be in the coming year to express delight whenever we can. We will continue to face seemingly insurmountable problems ~ a faltering economy, an ailing ecology, a paucity of leadership ~ that history has placed at our door. Most solutions will come in tiny packages. All but a few will seem to take too much time. Many of us reading this will not be around to see how it all plays out for our children and grandchildren. But we are in the game right now, and each of us with a powerful role to play. With the stakes so high, we need to keep from feeling overwhelmed. It’s essential we stop when we can to acknowledge that good things are still happening, though sometimes they need a jump start.

The first thought we came up with to keep the parties going ~ stay tuned for lots more ~ was to open the Gallery for musical evenings, films, talks and fun cocktail parties of any size. We will waive all facility rental fees to make use of the space more affordable. Our menus will be keenly priced, but will continue to be sourced locally and sustainably. Our farmers need to feed their bottom line, as do we, but we want Studio Barndiva to feed something else as well ~ a sense that as a community we have a great deal to be thankful for.

We like the French word soirée, even though it sounds a bit poncy, because it really does capture what we’d like to see happen in the Studio. To wit: “An evening party or social gathering esp. one held for a particular purpose” yes, that hits the nail on the head! Besides, it rhymes with archway, which is nice. Sometimes friendship alone pulls us through to the next courtyard in life, sometimes it’s music, or the spoken word. The point is to keep moving in an interesting direction. Yet real social contact is precisely what our all-consuming electronic media is robbing us of. What’s most important when we come together in groups, after the work of the day is done, is often simply that we are together. And while it’s great when you know people at a party, often it’s more exciting when you don’t. In a community our size ~ with so many interests and passions and so much talent to express them ~ it almost doesn’t matter what draws you away from the campfire of your hi-def screens and out to the town square. Your presence alone has the power to redefine the space, and claim it. Not knowing the outcome is part of the magic.

Of course it helps when there is great food and drink ~ which we will happily provide. When Ryan first came to us we weren’t sure how he would feel about all our weddings and special events. Lots of chefs look down on events, understandably. It’s not just the amount of work that goes into coordinating them. From a chef’s point of view, because of the timing and the sheer number of plates, most often they don’t showcase a chef’s talent in the way fine dining does.

Taking his cues from Lukka, whose joie de vivre is legendary, Ryan has fun with the menus, be they family style or comprised of many wine paired courses. He approaches a glitzy Oscar Night or a serious dinner where each course is paired with the dirt it was grown in with the same intensity, and as his talent blossoms it reflects on each and every farmer partner. Even for those working the events the sheer exuberance and style of our parties is contagious. By summer’s end we will have sent thousands of people back to their own cities and towns across the country talking about what’s going on in Healdsburg. Not just Barndiva ~ but the connection they made here with the surrounding community. Hopefully it sent them looking to recreate parts of that experience closer to home.

By making the story of local sourcing the point of our food, we haven’t relegated Ryan’s talent anymore than Bonnie Z’s, whose gift for arranging flowers is sometimes subsumed by the sheer extravagance of her locally grown blooms. Talent and product become indispensable to each other, and for the end user, indistinguishable. We all live in cultivated landscapes, in self-curated spaces. What we choose to seed and grow and prune is up to us. If only a fraction of our wedding guests go back to their hometowns and seek out a Farmer’s Market, that’s a fraction more than had the desire to do so when they sat down and unfurled their napkins on a warm summer night beneath the fairy lit arches in our gardens.

But make no mistake: Joy is the carrier of that message. And Joy, while clearly not in abundance these days, does not need a wedding to thrive.

So listen up: If you own a business and want to say thanks for a year of hard work (with another yet to come) or are a group of friends wanting to meet up to raise high the roof beams, we want to make Studio Barndiva ~ and the food and drink we serve ~ available to you. While we hope you will join us for some of our upcoming scheduled events (first up: the opening party for the much anticipated Susan Preston Exhibit: One Button Off) consider this an invitation to think up your own reason for a soirée in the coming months ~ rhyme it as you will.

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Happy Birthday Baby

(originally posted July 14, 2010)

Seven years ago, the day before we opened Barndiva for the very first time, we hosted an unforgettable interactive art exhibit celebrating the work of ten renowned local food producers. Each food artist was paired with two other artists: one to document their work, the other to interpret it. The interactive part was that we invited guests to “eat the art” while they experienced it. 300 old friends, new neighbors, journalists, vintners, and tout Healdsburg descended upon the barn on a warm and sunny Saturday in July expecting to be wowed. We wowed them. Who could resist the heady perfume of art, food, wine and music, all served up in a beautiful new building on a perfect evening at the height of summer?

The entire day was our business plan writ large, with the central proposition that diva’s don’t just live in opera houses. When it comes to food there are people who hit the high notes every day of their lives in vegetables fields, olive orchards, dairies, bakeries... even restaurants shaped like barns. There was a sense that day, articulated by almost everyone who was here, that something exciting was gaining momentum in Healdsburg; that Barndiva was only part of a zeitgeist that was happening in our town, and towns like ours (which admittedly is not many) across the country. The term ‘farm to table’ didn’t mean what it does today; the concept of ‘artisan’ had only recently begun being applied to something you’d find on a plate in a restaurant. The adoration we lavished on our food savants felt new and exciting, an homage to hand made and home grown that felt wholly warranted and fully our own.

It was the greatest opening party Barndiva could have imagined. Of course we needed the good will, inexperienced as we were, to get through that first tumultuous year. And we were thrilled to have pulled off an exhibit of such great complexity to launch our business. But what we were most proud of was the $16,000 we helped raise with Slow Food Sonoma County, our partners for the event, to be spent on a program that would bring sustainable farmers to the kitchen doors of Healdsburg Public Schools to provide for their lunch programs.

Paul Bertolli, already contemplating Fra Mani, the next great act in his remarkable culinary career, arrived first with homemade salumi he’d cured in his basement in Berkeley. He had been paired with the artist Ismael Sanchez, who fashioned a life size homage to the dead pig out of rusted wire, and with Evan Bertoli, his nephew, a classmate of our daughter Isabel and a budding photographer. The group vetting the artists with me had concerns that a boy as young as Evan could pull off work that would raise significant money at auction, but one look at the image he took of Paul’s beautiful hand slicing through a sheaf of snowy white pork fat put that fear to rest: it was haunting, fully capturing the skill Paul brings to the art of charcuterie.
And so it went, with virtually every collaborative exhibit: Lou Preston’s wine was exhibited alongside Susan Preston’s installation piece of a single worn blue kitchen chair sitting, as if floating, on a mound of flour with a jug of their Guadagni on the floor. Ig Vella brought huge rounds of cheese and a lifetime’s worth of craft in his worn and irascible smile. Elissa Rubin Mahon stacked a dozen of her jams in an old wood box by the front door where they sparkled like jewels in a Bulgari window. John Scharffenberger sent slabs of different grades of chocolate and huge bags of chocolate nibs which we poured on a wine barrel below Michael Recchiuti’s accompanying ‘canvas’ of hand poured chocolate upon which he had painted a shimmering, incandescent barn. The smells of Olive Oil and Honey and Bread and Peaches ~ all other exhibits ~ filled the air, mingling with the laughter and music and talktalktalk.
One of the artisan producers I’d personally invited to participate was Karen Bates of the Philo Apple Farm. Though the focus of the exhibit was the artisan bounty from Sonoma County, Slow Food understood that as a family we intended to draw from a sustainable food shed that started in Mendocino County where we own a farm on the Greenwood Ridge. Our place is directly above Karen’s; her family and ours have been nearest neighbors and friends, raising our kids together, for going on 30 years. Karen’s artisan product, her ‘art,’ as it were, was the ‘mother’ starter she used for the farm’s infamous apple cider vinegar, made from organic heirloom apples that grow on their 40 acres along the Navarro River. I had only ever seen yogurt or bread starters before so Karen’s massive disc of fulminating bacteria blew me away.

Karen has chosen the artist Laura Parker to document her work and towards that end Laura has spent many hours at the farm that spring photographing apple trees in full blossom. She then transferred 55 images onto fabric panels that on the morning of the exhibit she slung across the entire rear of the barn. It was a gorgeous body of work. Remarkably, she’d taken an inherently flat, captured image and given it back the life it once had out in the fields. Karen and Laura are good friends, which you could tell from the way their pieces played together. There was also something wonderfully incongruous between the mothership starter floating in a huge glass bowl of rust colored cider, and these ethereal blossoms, splashing sunlit patterns through the air, moving like a curious school of butterflies, hovering, but with no intention of landing.

Laura and I connected that day, talked briefly, then lost touch, except for infrequent emails about our respective openings. From hers I gleaned that she was mixing up her time between fine art, highly sought after pastel images of fruit and vegetables (presently on exhibit in Studio Barndiva), and interactive work which sounded more experiential than performance. It wasn’t until she sent something about a new project called Taste of Place that I started playing closer attention.

 

Taking the current interest in terroir out of the vineyard and bringing it to the farm, Laura was making the case that everything we eat, not just wine we drink, has a indelible fingerprint connecting it with the soil it is grown in. She visited farms and tramped around, meticulously labeling soil samples, which she then put into wine glasses for folks to smell and discuss. She only used dirt from sustainable farms (fyi: soil becomes dirt when you take it away from where you find it). She didn’t ask anyone to taste the dirt (though some did) but she made the case that by smelling deeply we are in fact tasting: scientifically that’s what happens on the sides of our tongues when we salivate, the result when something piquant ~ in this case dirt with a little water added ~ hits our olfactory senses. What she found from the first few interactive shows was that often just the smell of dirt played a strange alchemy on memory. It can bring back a moment in time when we were very young, before dirt was just something to wash off. Sound implausible? Maybe, but this is exactly what happened to Geoffrey at the Taste of Place lunch Laura put on at the Boonville Hotel in 2008.

I have a long history with the Boonville Hotel: I was among the second round of investors when the restaurant was in its glory, and it provided my first real connection to Anderson Valley. Ironically, given what I do now, it also exposed me to a style of country dining I’d only ever seen in Europe, where it’s not unusual to see some of the food you are eating growing or frolicking in the fields beyond the dining room windows. The hotel is now owned by Johnny Schmitt, Karen’s brother, a wonderful cook who had worked with Laura and her farmers to create a soil-paired meal I had no intention of missing. My husband thought otherwise. On the day of the lunch, with temperatures already climbing over 80, it was all I could do to get him in the car.

The first thing that strikes you when you experience Laura’s Taste of Place is how different the soils look when you are able to study and compare them, side-by-side. Some soils are deep and rich, while others look almost too thin to support growth of any kind. Some are rocky, with bits of granite, some smooth as silt, several so light and airy they seem to be crawling up the sides of the glass.

There are two ways of describing what happens after that. The first is to take a page out of wine Terroir vernacular (albeit tongue and cheek) as indicated from crib notes Laura and Karen wrote about the Philo Apple Farm.

Philo Apple Farm – Flood Plain, Navarro River District. Unlike the Indian Camp Ground variety, flood plain has a yellow mustard color. It's texture is hard and clod like. A bit less exotic in aroma, but more varietal, with olive and mineral notes, and a bit weightier finish. The nose here is clay and smoky with huge extract and extraordinary elegance.

Then there is the way Geoffrey experienced Taste. First he stuck his long aquiline nose into a glass of “Indian Campground: Arrowhead Reserve” and inhaled deeply. Then he furrowed his brow, closed his eyes, sighed. “This brings me right back to our coal cellar in London when I was 5." He looked up at Laura and smiled. “It’s the smell of anthracite and moisture. God, I spent hours playing down there, with this smell in the air.” Later, in the car on the way up to the farm he remarked that he hadn’t thought about those years for a long, long time.

It is amazing to me, and quite wonderful indeed, that after seven years we are still talking about the sanctity of the soil here at Barndiva. Since Ryan arrived the idea behind “eat the view” has taken on even greater meaning. It’s not just a nifty tag line for our patrons anymore, but embedded deep within their enjoyment of everything we surround them with here at the Barn. With inspired cooking, as with bio-dynamic farming, it's hard to know where the passion ends and the science begins. A growing part of me feels we may be seeing the beginning of a thoughtful re-consideration of why food tastes the way it does, which could even lead us to a reappraisal of the very concept of nourishment. There is now talk about Secondary Metabolites in plants which, while they have probably been around since the beginning of time, are only now being studied for the possible secrets they hold in protecting the plants that produce them. If we are ever able to unlock that connection, they may someday be able protect us as well.

These are exciting times to be considering taste and how it applies to farming practices and food. What’s most incredible is the fact that this new frontier has been here all along, where it’s always been, right beneath our feet.

If you missed our opening party seven years ago, now is your chance to share an historical evening at Barndiva. If you were here for The Taste of Art, thank you for your continued patronage. We hope to share A Taste of Place with you in August.

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