NAPA — "We don't need French chefs, French food or French wine; this is Lyon right here," said vintner Jack Cakebread, gesturing at the vineyard which stretched out in straight leafy lines to the mountains behind him. The group of chefs standing with him nodded agreement; they had come hundreds of miles to help prove the theory.
American food has changed dramatically over the past few years as cottage producers began concentrating on quality. All over the country farmers started thinking small, raising specialty produce like baby lettuces and golden beets.
They became so popular that stores like Safeway, which 10 years ago stocked 65 produce items, now stock as many as 400. Oyster farms sprang up along the seashore, bringing back species that had been long depleted. Exotic mushrooms were cultivated for the first time, and American cheese went way beyond Velveeta. And now, thought Cakebread (along with William Shoaf of Rosewood Hotels), it was time to bring the chefs to the source so they could see what was taking place in the fields. As one grower put it, "We count on restaurant chefs to assimilate these products into our culture."
For three days (Aug. 31-Sept. 2) chefs Mark Miller (Coyote Cafe, Santa Fe), John Makin (Crescent Court Hotel, Dallas), Robert Del Grande (Cafe Annie, Houston) and Dean Fearing (Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas) munched their way through the California wine country, gathering food to cook into huge nightly feasts. It was, they all agreed, a lot of fun--and it was just the first of what the organizers hope will become an annual series of harvest workshops to be held all over the United States.
At 5 p.m. Aug. 31, the chefs were winding their way across the Oakville Grade, one of California's more treacherous roads. The van was filled with the food that they were arguing over. That morning they had stood in the foggy mist at Hog Island Oyster Company collecting oysters. Feet planted in the mud, they peered out into Tamales Bay while cats chased ducks along the shore. They tasted the tiny delicate Kumamotos, round Belons that shock your mouth with a metallic tang and briney Sweetwaters that have made the company successful enough to double their sales every year; their volume this year will be 750,000 oysters. "They taste like butter," said Fearing, "they're wonderful."
There were salmon in the car too--little pink babies from California Fish Growers, a fledgling fish farm producing a "milk-fed veal kind of concept in fish." Since the farm started three years ago, their weekly volume has gone from 30 pounds to 10,000 pounds.
These coddled coho and steelhead are raised in controlled tanks and fed specially prepared pellets until they reach the right size. They are then bathed in an icy slush that reduces their internal temperature to 32 degrees. This "chill kill" prevents deterioriation; as we were to discover later on, it also gives a chef a fish so fresh that it's hard to handle.
Perched atop the fish were boxes that exuded a mysteriously musty odor every time the car took a curve too sharply. Inside were fluffy white pom pom mushrooms that looked like bleached sponges, trumpets of golden chanterelles and the homely, umbrella-shaped brown shiitake . Lurking in the shadows was something that looked like stained coral, smelled like pine bark and as yet had no name. All these fabulous fungi were grown by Malcolm Clark at Gourmet Mushrooms Inc. Clark started his business in 1973; since then his business has increased tenfold. Today he is cultivating mushrooms being grown nowhere else in the world.
There were boxes and boxes of specialty produce collected from Wine Country Cuisine, one of the growing number of specialty produce purveyors. Started less than three years ago, the company is projecting sales this year of more than $500,000.
And finally, there were the extraordinary cheeses of Laura Chanel, a woman who almost single-handedly created the craze for American goat cheese. In 1981, when she started California Chevre, she sold 5,000 pounds of cheese; this year she will sell 80,000 pounds.
And now the chefs were trying to figure out what to do with all this food. "I think we should try and make this nice and easy on all of us," said Fearing, whipping the car around yet another curve. "We could bread the fish."
"It's a beautiful fish," said Makin, "why don't we just grill it?"
"OK," replied Fearing, "Do we want to make a corn salsa for it? We could turn one of those grills into a smoker, roast the corn and make a salsa out of it. With a little bit of the tomatoes, garlic, some peppers." He thought for a minute and added, "Do we want to take some of that mascarpone and drizzle it over the fish on that salsa? Or do we want to save it for something else?"
Miller was all for saving the mascarpone for the potatoes that they were planning to roast with Sonoma lamb.
"That sounds good," agreed Fearing, "What do we want to serve with it? Do we want to do a tomato something?"