Interview with Chef John Stewart & Duskie Estes of Zazu and Bovolo - Napa Sonoma

June, 2009

Katherine Martinelli: What year did you start your culinary career? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
John Stewart: I’ve collected a paycheck since I was 12. When I was in middle school I started working at my dad’s catering company. Both of my brothers are chefs and my dad ran the catering company. Originally I really wanted to get out of it, but I never had a job that didn’t put me in the kitchen. After high school I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder and needed money, so I became a dishwasher and then started cooking. It was just a bar, but by the time I graduated, I was managing the restaurant. I went to culinary school after I graduated from Boulder. Both Duskie and I are cooking school dropouts. Cooking is in my blood, I can’t get away from it. I kind of need to cook. I really do enjoy it, but I almost have to do it.
Duskie Estes: I grew up in a large California family through marriage and divorce with many step-siblings and such, and nobody cooked because all the parents worked. So I ended up cooking for my entire family at a young age, and I realized I loved doing it. The way I saw my father each week was to go out to dinner in the not-too-shabby San Francisco restaurant scene; I was exposed to a lot of great food. I went to college on the East Coast, Ivy League, and thought I would be a doctor or lawyer. After two years I took a semester off and went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco just to see if my passion was really something I wanted to do. I loved it, so I went back to school, graduated and worked in a restaurant, and that sealed the deal.

KM: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
JS: Mario [Batalli], in general, is a great teacher. He’s very giving with the stuff he knows, he doesn’t hold onto it. He’s very trusting of people. I found the same to be true of Tom [Douglas]; he treated everyone with a lot of respect and offered employees healthcare and vacation pay, which is what Duskie and I do for our employees. That still isn’t a wide practice at independent restaurants.
DE: Tom Douglas—he has an executive chef named Eric Tanaka, and they were both my mentors. At Tom’s restaurants, the menus often change every night or a couple of times a week. When I worked with him, I’d basically have to walk into the kitchen and learn everything really fast. So there I got tons of exposure to so many dishes, cooking techniques and styles. I did that for three years and learned a ton, and it was fun. He also started me on the path for the farm-to-plate connection. He had farmers come in and talk to us about what we wanted them to plant. I started to appreciate the value of knowing where something came from.

KM: What does “sustainability” mean to you?
JS: It means the quality of the animal’s life was good. Obviously we’re going to eat [the animals], but we shouldn’t torture them. Farmers can make a living and be paid reasonably well, and we should want the land to be treated well. Many times big agriculture is so far-removed from people, they have no idea what eggs and chicken and pork cost, what kinds of waste are made, and how that affects the community. The ground water is disgusting in Iowa, and that’s not sustainable because people can’t live there. You can plow manure into corn fields if you only have a few hogs and a few acres of corn, otherwise it’s gross. I have like 40 chickens in my backyard and I don’t have a problem with chicken poop. But if you kill 1,000 chickens, you’re going to have a problem.
DE: Obviously, everyone defines it in a way that works for them. It means trying to be organic, not using sprays, having a low carbon footprint in terms of the amount of gas used, figuring how less stuff can go into garbage. Our vegetable scraps go to our sheep, our bread bowl leftovers go to the chickens. Our boxes are broken down to use as natural compost. It’s thinking of ways to reduce the outpost of garbage, and then trying to use compostable things, green things. Our tables at Bovolo are recycled glass. We’re looking into recycled cork flooring. We do as much as we can, although obviously there are times when economics are the rule of the day.

KM: How important are local and organic ingredients to your restaurants?
JS: They’re very important. I think local is more important in the scheme of things. I think the word organic means less and less now because big corporations are writing the rules. It’s not really organic anymore. If the organic raspberries at Whole Foods came from Chili, is that really organic? But local is still a term that means local. It’s a term that will be harder to take over from a corporate sense—if it’s grown here, it’s still grown here. It’s like “natural pork”—all pork, according to the government, is natural.
DE: It’s obviously not economically viable what we do, and it’s a choice we make. I couldn’t walk through life with any other choice. It’s my highest priority, besides my family.

KM: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
JS: I like really simple, honest food. I’m not that concerned with the trappings, like that whole restaurant experience. I’d like it to start with the food, which should be tasty and flavorful. You need to think about where the food came from, and the quality of the animal’s life. You can’t abuse people or animals and be OK with eating the food just because it’s cheaper.
DE: Get the best ingredients and don’t mess them up.

KM: What goes into creating a dish at your restaurant?
JS: Bovolo is almost completely pork-driven; I’ve cooked beef in the restaurant once, and I’ve never cooked chicken. A lot of it is driven by the animal, and that comes from the fact that we slaughter quite a few animals. For example, the pig heart sandwich came about because a friend of mine was going to be slaughtering animals and I had never seen it done, so I went to see it. After the animal was killed, I asked if I could have the hearts. I tried braising them and it became a delicious sandwich. A lot of it comes from that, from the actual animals, themselves.
DE: First we go outside to see what’s good [in the garden] that day. Then we have a chat amongst everyone, our pantry cook and sous chef, about what they think looks good. It’s a building of multiple ideas, so everyone contributes. Because our office is not at the restaurant, I have to go to the office and print out the recipe, and then adjust it if it’s not right at line-up. A lot of times the descriptions [on our menu] are vague because we tweak the dish when we plate it.

KM: What trends do you see emerging in the restaurant industry now?
JS: I think it’s this return to much more local food and food systems. Obviously we live here in the land of milk and honey, in the middle of California, so we’re very spoiled. It might not make as much sense to someone living in New York. I hope the trend leads to a return to smaller, sustainable farming, where people grow vegetables and hogs, not just 80,000 chickens. In many ways, we live under a rock out here. We live on a farm with no TV and with a million fruit trees. We know everyone who raises and produces most of the food we eat.
DE: Local is obviously a trend, but I’d say it’s not emerging, we’re in the middle of it—supporting local produce, local farmers. I think actually the trend I see happening is chefs doing trucks, setting up a truck somewhere. That seems like it’s a trend. I would say chefs are getting more casual. I see a lot of restaurants where you can have awesome food without all the trappings and cost affiliated with fine dining. That’s happening in our area. We’re in the country and we don’t have a TV! I don’t know about trends!

KM: What does success mean to you?
JS: I think that we are successful. Maybe I don’t have super-high expectations, but I have a lot of stuff now that I’ve always wanted. We have restaurants and great press, I have a great house, and a wife and kids, and we travel when we want to. I think if you just use money or finance to define success, you’ll be disappointed. Now I only want more free time to spend with my family. I don’t have a BMW, but I have five acres in Sonoma County. I don’t have financial worries, and that’s success.
DE: [Success is] being present for my family and having happy diners leave the restaurant—and coming back; it’s being a good employer with health benefits and vacation pay, supporting local farmers and producers, and remaining afloat while doing all that.

KM: What’s next for you? Where will you be in five years?
JS: Hopefully more of the meat company, we really want to focus on that. I don’t know if there are more restaurants in our future, I think not. I secretly hope the meat company is a nine-to-five gig. And trying to figure out how to spend more time with the kids.
DE: We’re working on our bacon and possibly launching it nationwide. If that goes well, we’d love to launch our salumi nationwide. Maybe something in the Northwest; we love Seattle and Portland, so I could see us doing something up there.