12 days: on the ninth day of christmas: werner… (2017)

•January 1, 2018 • Leave a Comment

1st Course: Otono Rock Cod Ceviche

Conveying a sense of place has become a motif among restaurants and chefs.  And what makes so many destination restaurants unique is actually being there. Local ingredients, landscapes, weather, traditions, history, politics, religion, and language all converge to form culture, culinary and otherwise.

So how do you bring all of that to another place?  Increasingly, that has become a challenge to chefs, who are drilling ever-deeper into their own cultures while traveling abroad more than ever before.  And while this cross-pollination is important, knowing is very different from understanding, or more significantly, experiencing.

Most of the chefs who arrive at The Restaurant at Meadowood for the Twelve Days of Christmas know that what they do at home cannot be adequately transplanted afield. But, for the foreign chefs especially, if replication isn’t possible, approximation is.  In the spirit of collaboration, where indigenous products and context fail, technique prevails.  If flavors, colors, and senses can’t be experienced firsthand, at least methods can be explained and applied to proxy ingredients. And, to varying degrees guest chefs have relied on this alternative avenue for bringing a bit of their homeland to Napa.

As someone who has had the opportunity of traveling to many of the guest chefs’ restaurants over the years, it has been highly educational to witness how they adopt and adapt, how they creatively open a window to their own place from a faraway setting.  Manish Mehrotra presented a compelling example of this on the second night, in part because Indian culture is so foreign to my own.  So too, the last three guest chefs this year represented culinary corners that remain relatively unfamiliar to me (and to the great majority of the guests who attended their dinners), and so were presented these same challenges of cultural and culinary transference.

The first of these was Eric Werner, who cooked on the ninth night of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

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12 days: on the eighth day of christmas: keller… (2017)

•December 31, 2017 • Leave a Comment

4th Course: Cod

On the eighth night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, the hills above Los Angeles were on fire.

Not two months earlier, it had been the hills of Sonoma and Napa, where fires had spread quickly and destroyed indiscriminately.  Monumental efforts and vast resources were poured into saving lives, property, and priceless vineyards.  Meadowood Napa Valley evacuated.  The French Laundry closed.  The smoke was so thick, and the air quality so bad, that some were even leaving San Francisco.

I monitored the events from afar, as friends left their jobs and homes for safety.  And, I read about the heroic battle to contain and extinguish the fires.

Not only was the devastation still visible when I arrived in Napa Valley in early December for the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it became a renewed topic of conversation as the southern part of California started to burn.  I even met a few people who had fled north to the valley for refuge among family and friends.

And so, when I saw a volunteer fireman one morning at the Model Bakery in St. Helena, where I often began my day with coffee and one of its buttery English muffins, I stopped to thank him for his service.  A few days later, he walked into the kitchen of The Restaurant at Meadowood wearing a blue apron.  It turns out, he’s also the executive sous chef of The French Laundry.  His name is Elliot Bell.

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12 days: on the seventh day: takazawa… (2017)

•December 30, 2017 • Leave a Comment

 

Yoshiaki Takazawa and John Hong

Yoshiaki Takazawa is one of the four chefs cooking at this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas whose restaurant I have not visited.  And, admittedly, I still knew very little about this Japanese chef and his cooking when he arrived at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

The anticipation and excitement surrounding Takazawa’s dinner was noticeably high. What little I did manage to gather from personal friends who have been to Takazawa’s restaurant suggested that he has a dynamic approach to flavor, and that he is a phenomenal technician.  Both of these things were true to what I witnessed in the kitchen, and with what Takazawa presented on the seventh night.

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12 days: on the sixth day of christmas: brock… (2017)

•December 29, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Cross-pollination.

By now, Sean Brock’s great contributions to the current wave of revivalism rippling through our American South is widely known. While organizations like the Southern Foodways Alliance have been crucial to the documentation and preservation of that region’s rich, culinary heritage, Brock’s ability to communicate and apply his obsession with Southern history and culture in his restaurants has ignited a pandemic of culinary curiosity in an area of our country long-dismissed and shamed.

If you are unaware, I urge you to explore the Southern Foodways Alliance website to learn more about its important mission and work.  And, of course, I encourage you type Sean Brock’s name into your browser and disappear into his world for a while.  In addition to countless other Southern voices – farmers, distillers, millers, chefs, and academics; many of whom I’ve had the privilege of meeting at S.F.A. events and Music To Your Mouth over the years –  they are spearheading one of the most important culinary movements of our lifetime.

I’ve said this before, but I’ll remind here again: The Twelve Days of Christmas is more than a string of fancy dinners.  It is also more than a celebration of culinary excellence. At its very best, this event is a platform for awareness and cross-pollination. Sean Brock’s deep-dive specialization makes him an exemplary candidate. So it is not surprising – indeed, commendable in my opinion – that he is one of only two chefs whom Christopher Kostow has invited to return to cook at The Restaurant at Meadowood for a second time.*

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12 days: on the fifth day of christmas: sukle… (2017)

•December 28, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Canapé: Sunchoke

In 2015, I was photographing a road trip through New England when I stopped in Providence, Rhode Island for a couple of days to visit Ben Sukle at his small, counter-seat restaurant birch.  Sukle’s (pronounced soo-kohl) cooking focuses on the products of his region, which he is quick to point out, is surprisingly diverse. The smallest state in our American Union happens to encompass both farmland and sea coast, so both fresh seafood and farm products are available within an hour’s drive of his restaurant.

As a visitor, this means that I was able to cast a relatively wide net in a short amount of time.  In just a little over 48 hours, Ben and his wife Heidi took me on an eating crawl that included chowder, lobster rolls, and vintage Italian-American cookery – pizzas at Il Forno, and baked polenta and cold snail salads at Mike’s Kitchen inside the V.F.W. hall in Cranston.

In the years since, I’ve had the pleasure of Sukle’s company at events around the country. He’s ever-curious and highly intelligent, both of which are evident in his approach to cooking.  The fact that he’s also extremely articulate, with an admirable alacrity both in and out of the kitchen, also explains why I was particularly excited to see him on this year’s roster at the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

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12 days: on the fourth day of christmas: fox… (2017)

•December 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

In the garden.

Anyone who ate at ubuntu in the late aughts will know that Christopher Kostow wasn’t exaggerating when he recently introduced Jeremy Fox as one of the most talented and creative chefs of our time.  Fox is celebrated for his intuitive understanding of vegetables, and his dynamic vision for them in the kitchen, which he has codified in his cookbook “On Vegetables.”

Since leaving Napa, Fox has relocated south to Santa Monica, where he is chef of two restaurants, Rustic Canyon and the recently opened Tallula’s.  Cooking this year on day four, he is one of two chefs this year (and in the five years that I’ve been photographing this event) to be invited back as a guest chef at the Twelve Days of Christmas at The Restaurant at Meadowood.

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12 days: on the third day of christmas: stone and von hauske… (2017)

•December 19, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Garden at dusk.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are especially festive when good friends are in the kitchen.  Familiarity and conviviality go a long way in making the experience a fun one for everyone.  And if there are two chefs this year who could bring a party atmosphere to the kitchen of The Restaurant at Meadowood, it would be the duo Jeremiah Stone and Fabián von Hauske Valtierra.  Young and fun, they have two restaurants next door to each other on the Lower East Side of New York: contra and Wildair.

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