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The Gastronomically Correct

Executive chefs’ kitchens are their kingdoms, and woe to those who trespass. So why, on a scorching-hot weekend in Napa Valley, were six of San Diego’s best executive chefs working elbow to elbow?

Because these six chefs care about the future of food in San Diego. They’re part of our traveling gang of culinary ambassadors, a group called San Diego Gastronomically Correct Chefs, led by Bernard Guillas of the Marine Room. They’ve cooked at the Beard House in New York City, and now at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, always spreading the gospel of good food.

The late, great gastronome James Beard’s brownstone in Greenwich Village, home base to an eponymous nonprofit foundation dedicated to gastronomy, is the place for chefs to cook if they want to polish their national images. But that kitchen is so cramped it’s a challenge just to get food on a plate. Cooking at Copia, opened in November 2001, includes a different but equally important ingredient: education. An added bonus is its state-of-the-art kitchen, located behind the main dining room named after Julia Child. “The kitchen rocks,” says Guillas. “It’s very well-equipped.”

“It’s an honor to be among the first chefs to cook at Copia,” says Stephen Window of La Jolla’s Roppongi. Copia, named after the Roman goddess of abundance, is a cultural institution dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of wine and food with the arts. Conceived by Robert Mondavi, it’s a stunning $55 million, 80,000-square-foot building surrounded by an ever-changing living exhibition: 31¼2 acres of organic gardens.

According to Kara Nielsen, education program manager, the chef’s program highlighting seasonal produce fits perfectly with Copia’s connection to the land. Our six San Diego chefs have taken over this weekend to present tastings, cooking classes and a seven-course, $125-a-plate dinner Saturday night.

I’m running, I’m running,” echoes down the narrow back passage between Copia’s kitchens at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The normally soft-spoken Tom Atkins of J. Taylor’s Del Mar whizzes by on his way to an open grill in the main kitchen. He’s precariously balancing two enormous containers of sliced nectarines and peaches, ingredients in his dessert for tonight: grilled nectarines and Indian blood peaches with peach sabayon and candied almond tuille.

Dinner’s not until 6:30, but the pressure’s on for these six chefs to get tonight’s meal prepped between a tomato tasting at 11 a.m. and a seafood demonstration at 1:30 pm, both open to the public—and packed. Tonight’s dinner on the Olive Grove Terrace is sold out at 50 people.

Stephen Window has been in the smaller demonstration kitchen since 8 a.m., quietly tucked into a corner filleting halibut, the main ingredient in tonight’s Canadian halibut with spiced garbanzo bean purée, slivered Fuji apples and lemon basil–infused coconut broth. He fills wax paper–covered sheet pans with 52 perfectly matched 3-ounce fillets, what he calls his “prime cuts,” smaller pieces saved for the afternoon seafood demonstration.

Window darts out about 9 a.m., in search of a tool in the main kitchen, but not before huddling with Riko Bartolome, of The Grille at Maderas Golf Club (now at Rice in W San Diego). Bartolome is preparing the dinner’s first course, mirin-spiked tartare of baby Baja abalone with melon and lemon verbena ice in black pepper melon water. There’s a discussion about the presentation. Once satisfied, Bartolome sticks his sample plate in the refrigerator, to refer to when he prepares this dish tonight. Then he takes off for the main kitchen, too.

At 10:50, Tom Dowling of the Rancho Bernardo Inn shows up in the demonstration kitchen. He’s been working in the main kitchen since early this morning, preparing one of tonight’s appetizers: shiitake mushrooms, scallion and sweetbread Napoleon. He gets ready for the tomato tasting he’s about to conduct with Guillas and Paul McCabe of Top O’ the Cove.

“I did a lot of research for my appetizer tonight and for my cheese course, Fourme d’Ambert blue cheese marjolaine with a Zante black currant–port marmalade,” explains Dowling. “It’s always about the pursuit of excellence. Everything has its perfect stage, dependent on the right temperature, degree of doneness, the way it’s cooked or handled. There may only be a few times in your life as a chef when everything is perfect on the plate, but you strive for it. It’s like finding gold.”

It’s 11 a.m. in the Meyers Food Forum studio. The cameras are on, the chef’s mikes are live, and scores of visitors are filing in for the tomato-tasting class. The always-ebullient Guillas is juggling tomatoes and joking with Dowling and McCabe. More than 100 kinds of tomatoes, examples of which are piled in big baskets on the counter, are grown in the organic garden outside.

Dowling takes the lead, explaining the tomato’s place in food history—and that there are more than 2,000 types. The cameras focus on McCabe and Guillas sprinkling fennel pollen on sliced tomatoes, then searing them to bring out the flavors. Heavenly scents rise up in the studio. The audience studies the monitors intently.

“We’re here to share our passion, our tips and simple techniques,” says Guillas. “Try this: Take two identical tomatoes. Refrigerate one, leave one at room temperature, then taste them. You’ll never refrigerate tomatoes again.”

McCabe adds, “To experience all you can of tomatoes, serve them different ways on the same plate. Make a tomato concasse; purée some tomatoes; add little teardrop tomatoes you’ve blanched, peeled and marinated, served along with a tomato broth, fresh mozzarella and dried tomato chips.” His sensitivity to ingredients shows up later that night in his amuse-bouche of seared foie gras, brioche, caramelized mango and orange-ginger sauce.

After the tomato tasting is over, the chefs leave for the main kitchen. Guillas immediately goes to work on his dinner entrée: Cape gooseberry–glazed black buck antelope chop. Lunch is not an option for any of the chefs. Bartolome, Window and Atkins show up in the Meyers Food Forum at 1:15 p.m. to set up for Window’s fish demonstration.

“We’re going to follow the halibut recipe, step by step,” says Window, “but you must use your senses, your eyes, your taste, constantly. Cooking is like being a chemist.” Bartolome proves a natural in front of the crowd, flipping utensils like a gunslinger.

The pace in Julia’s Kitchen quickens by 5:30. Twelve more people have been squeezed onto the terrace, making it 62 for dinner. This may not sound like many for a chef accustomed to a full restaurant, but for a refined meal, where every plate is intricately planned, problems can arise. Window is peeling lemon grass for skewers for McCabe’s Baja pawn beignet. Dowling asks, “Do you have enough lemon grass?” Bartolome recommends wrapping a shiso leaf around the beignet for presentation. It’s too big a bite, cautions McCabe.

Guillas has about 20 spoons in one hand, trying to figure out the best way to lay them down and fill them with his truffled duck rillette. He pipes rillettes into 26 spoons, then changes his mind. Too stiff-looking. “Let’s go for a deconstructed look,” he says. The others agree.

Everyone is helping everybody else. “There are no prima donnas in this group,” says Window. “We’re all proud to be part of this team.”

It’s 6:30. The chefs have spread out and are working quickly and quietly. Soft jazz is playing on the terrace, and a cool evening breeze has set in. The guests are arriving, and J Sparkling Wine (Sonoma, 1997) is being poured. The guests go through 125 of Guillas’ duck rillettes, 170 of McCabe’s prawn beignets and close to 200 of Dowling’s sweetbread Napoleons.

Based on these numbers, the kitchen knows early on—the dinner’s going to be a hit. Would these six chefs go through all this work again? “In a heartbeat,” says McCabe.

Copia is well worth a visit when you’re in Napa Valley. Call for program information or to make a reservation for lunch or dinner in Julia’s Kitchen, 500 First Street, downtown Napa, 707-259-1600.

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