Notes from Chefs’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee, Part 1
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, JANUARY 17, 2011—It’s not right to generalize but I’ve long felt that it’s a victim-less crime when you do so in a positive way, like when you say that you love Italians (which I do) or Australians (guilty, again) or that you never met a meanie from Seattle (seriously, the CEOs in that city will give you a lift to the airport).
I know too much about the cooking trade to believe for a second that all Northern California chefs are nice guys and gals, but the three I’ve been with since Sunday night—Sean Baker, Peter Chastain, and Emily Luchetti—tempt me toward that conclusion nonetheless. The four of us just wrapped up Session 3 of Chefs’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee, a magnificent hotel in Yosemite National Park, where the chefs conducted cooking demos and I acted as moderator and host.
Having arrived in San Francisco on Saturday, the “work week” (yeah, right) began for me on Sunday when Luchetti, executive pastry chef of Farallon and Waterbar, picked me up at the Huntington Hotel, perched high atop San Francisco’s Nob Hill. Emily and I had never met before, but she was kind enough to give me a lift from the city up to Yosemite.
The four-hour drive passed remarkably quickly. Not only was it a beautiful, sunny, unseasonably warm day, but we had the benefit of being total strangers. We discussed everything from the restaurant scene in our respective cities to writing books (Emily has penned six) to the Beard Foundation (Emily recently served on the board; I was married at the Beard House in Manhattan) to the French Culinary Institute (she’s currently a dean; I studied there).
Emily was also kind enough to consent to a lengthy interview in which we discussed everything from the pastry arts in general to her individual career path; she walked me through the formative days of Stars restaurant, one of the most important American dining establishments of the past 40 years, the place where Jeremiah Tower reached full flight and became one of our first celebrity chefs. Emily was part of the opening team of Stars as a line cook, but tired of the savory slog, and with Tower’s support, began transitioning to pastry, eventually becoming executive pastry chef. Wasn’t it nice of Jeremiah to encourage such a drastic change?
Sunday night, the hotel hosted a Meet the Chefs cocktail reception, where my first order of business was to introduce the toques to the 180 or so guests, addressing them from a balcony, and inviting each chef to say a few words. When I observed that all three chefs were from Northern California, a huge, prideful whoop went up from the crowd. A lot of them have been to these chefs’ restaurants and are fans. Many attendees had ruddy cheeks in January and their wine glasses dangled like bracelets at the end of their arms, embodiments of an idealized California lifestyle that at some point in every visit out this way causes me to email my wife that “We should move here!” It’s an unavoidable impulse, but it passes.
The chefs’ remarks were natural, organic, if you will. I was especially struck, moved even, by Sean Baker, a slim, tall (6′ 4″), bearded young buck who’s gotten a lot of buzz at Gather in Berkeley. Sean took the microphone in hand, bowed his head, almost as though in prayer, and shyly explained that he loved connecting with people, like the farmers he collaborates with, and looked forward to connecting with the guests here as well. It was such a sincere and unguarded moment, and the crowd received it so warmly, that it stayed with me for hours.
Minutes later, as the reception wound down, I asked Peter Chastain, chef of Prima Ristorante in Walnut Creek, what he was doing for dinner that night and he told me that his sous chef was here with his family and they were all going to dine together. But I was welcome to join. Seriously. It’d be no problem. He meant it, he assured me. By this point, I shouldn’t have been surprised that he would have extended himself like that, even though we’d never met before, because it had become clear to me that something special was unfolding here, and that it was no accident that all three of these chefs, each of whom had touched me in some way over the past few hours, lived and worked in Northern California, as did a majority of the guests.
Peter’s demo Monday morning was a rousing success, a perfect balance of passion for the task at hand and offhand jokes delivered with the finesse of a stand-up veteran. The only screw up came when I, acting as moderator, chimed in that when purchasing extra virgin olive oil, you really should seek out a good imported brand. Remembering where I was, I quickly added an altogether insufficient qualifier: “usually.” Later that afternoon, a softspoken couple, Susan Hermanson and Larry Robinson, approached me in the hallway and politely suggested that I should have emphasized that there’s plenty of great extra virgin olive oil produced right here in the USA. Turns out Susan and Larry own Victorine Valley Farms, where they produce—wait for it—olive oil.
Mortified, I apologized profusely, and they gave me a gracious pass. What did you think they were going to do, chew me out? Of course, they wouldn’t do that; they’re Northern Californians. Oh, no, there I go again, generalizing.
Monday afternoon, it was Emily’s turn to perform a demo, but before she did, Percy Whatley, the hotel’s executive chef and an old friend from when I covered the Bocuse d’Or USA, in which he’s competed twice, surprised me by taking the mike and giving me a very generous introduction. He’s such a nice guy. Wonder why that is?
Emily’s demo wove together technical information with professional and personal anecdotes and gentle, supportive advice. (When a guest asked for tips for low-fat desserts, Emily delivered her quite-serious and helpful suggestion of eating smaller portions without a hint of irony or humor, cutting any possible laughter off at the pass.) Sean’s demo, on Tuesday afternoon, was marbled with the stories about the farmers he hinted at Sunday night. As he mentioned their names, he smiled at the thought of them, as though they were being remembered across a span of years rather than just the half-day it would take him to get back home Wednesday.
After his demo, Sean and his wife, Reneé gave me some time for an interview; in fact they gave me all the time they had before supper: Each two-day session of Chefs’ Holidays concludes with a gala dinner in the hotel’s dramatic and soaring dining room. This session’s was prepared by Chastain and it was an ambitious, generous, five-course affair brimming with Italian flavors served up in huge but elegantly plated portions, well beyond what anybody had any right to expect of a chef operating far from his native kitchen.
Afterwards, most of the guest chefs gathered in the Ahwahnee’s bar, along with Percy and many of his cooks—they took turns buying rounds, hung out with guests, swapped business cards and offers of taking care of one other in faraway restaurants.
Goodbyes took longer than they usually do at these kinds of things. People got up to leave, stood and visited a few minutes longer with their table-mates, then reluctantly shuffled off into the night.
PS I’m going to try something a little different for the next session here, which begins on Wednesday, by (sort of) live blogging it. Look for a running summary of two days with Jimmy Bradley, Jesse Cool, and Rick Moonen starting sometime Wednesday. If you aren’t already following me on Twitter, go ahead and do that as I’ll be refreshing/re-posting with each addition to the dispatch.