Features 2009 StarChefs.com Napa Sonoma Rising Stars
The Napa Sonoma Rising Stars Award Winners & Why They Shine
April 2009

California’s Sonoma and Napa Valleys not only house the country’s best Merlots, Chardonnays and Cabernets, they also represent the heart of a culinary movement towards house-made products – artisan charcuterie, cheese and pasta whose roots lie in a restaurant’s own beat-up farmhouse, organic garden or fresh walk-in freezer. Almost all of our 14 Rising Stars award winners have their own charcuterie programs and gather their produce from sustainable gardens or farms that sit in their restaurants’ backyards. We don’t think it gets any fresher or more personal than that. Taking full advantage of California’s abundant farm offerings, these up-and-coming chefs craft refreshing and creative dishes on the forefront of innovative technique, plating design and texture variation.

As a natural continuation of this farm-to-table trend, wine country restaurants are also embracing a wine on tap concept that brings the winery to the restaurant. Many of the chefs we visited served clients directly from in-house barrels bought from local wineries – an expert marriage of playful presentation and just-poured flavor.

There is no doubt in our minds that our wine country Rising Stars will stand out as the leaders of the culinary landscape to come. Here’s a brief introduction to the 2009 award winners; we’re sure you, too, will be impressed by their accomplishments.

CHEF: Jeremy Fox, Ubuntu
At first glance, Fox, who is not a vegetarian and worked the meat station at Jeremy Kinch’s Manresa in Los Gatos, CA, does not appear a likely candidate for the position of executive chef of Ubuntu, which serves all-vegetable fare. But the young chef’s past experience is exactly what makes his dishes sing. Fox credits Kinch for encouraging him to experiment with Manresa’s own garden produce and view vegetables as more than just a side dish. He wowed us with his inventive culinary sensibility, turning out hearty meat-free dishes that made vegetables the stars of every plate. We didn’t even miss the meat or remember it wasn’t there – and we’re not alone. Fox is no longer wine country’s best-kept secret and is quickly gaining fame nationwide. Housed in a Napa yoga studio, Ubuntu delivers a spiritual environment along with heavenly food.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Pot au Feu of Garden Vegetables with Homemade Fregola

CHEF: Christopher Kostow, The Restaurant at Meadowood
With only a short time under his belt as executive chef of The Restaurant at Meadowood, in St. Helena, CA, Kostow is already gunning for three Michelin stars and the restaurant’s management is right behind him. It wouldn’t be the first time Kostow tasted Michelin greatness – he was awarded two stars during his time as executive chef at Chez TJ in Mountain View, CA – and we doubt anyone questions whether or not he can do it again. His list of mentors includes Chefs Daniel Humm, whom he credits with changing his entire perspective on food and cooking, Christian Morrisset and Trey Foshee. Kostow’s playful use of ingredients and textures surprised us, while his strict precision in plating and technique gave dishes a subtle and sexy undertone. One example: a Foie Gras, Grape, Peanut dish that features foie gras in three ways – seared, cured and as a smoked custard.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Fluke Crusted in Carrot Tops with Pineapple, Ginger and Carrot Espuma

CHEFS: Eric Korsh and Ginevra Iverson, Restaurant Eloise
Co-executive chef team Korsh and Iverson didn’t originally plan on opening a restaurant in California’s Sonoma County, although wine country locals are more than thankful they did. The couple’s Restaurant Eloise, located in Sebastopol, CA, was first destined for Brooklyn, though soaring prices set them on a bargain hunt that led them out west. Now the husband and wife team feel at home in their traditional food bistro, whose clean and sophisticated cream interior makes it feel anything but. Drawing from their shared experiences at New York’s Picholine and Prune restaurants, Korsh and Iverson serve Old World-cuisine with a modern twist, incorporating local, fresh ingredients picked from Eloise’s own garden. We fell in love with their Mushroom Toast with Poached Egg, Black Truffle and Bordelaise Sauce – the luscious black truffles and earthy flavor profile made this dish a hedonistic pleasure to eat.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Mushroom Toast, Poached Egg, Black Truffle and Bordelaise Sauce

CHEF: Nick Ritchie, Bottega
Ritchie’s food takes your typical Italian grandmother’s Sunday dinners to the next level. The young chef de cuisine of Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, in Yountville, CA, reflects his big personality in the big flavors he puts into his rustic, home-style dishes. Wine country’s culinary wild child, Ritchie began with mentor Chiarello over 10 years ago when he knocked on the chef’s door and asked for a job as a way to stay out of trouble. His Ricotta Gnocchi with Salsa di Pomodoro della Nonna and Pecorino are pillows of ricotta cheese that melted in our mouths, while the Goats Milk-Braised Lamb Osso Bucco with Garlic, Fennel, Sweet Onions and Carrot Caponata took us to a cozy and scrumptious dimension between Old World Italian flavors and New World technique.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Ricotta Gnocchi, Salsa di Pomodoro della Nonna and Pecorino

CHEF: Matt Spector, JoLē

Finding a chef who whisks his soul into his food is extremely rare, and Spector is one of those chefs. In his Contemporary American Calistoga, CA, restaurant, JoLē, Spector leads diners out of their comfort zones with risky dishes that pair uncommon ingredients with a brilliant use of spice, all the time resonating with diners’ palates and stomachs. An excellent example is the Lamb’s Tongue with Fresh Chickpeas, Chili, Feta and Garlic he served us with a Roasted Red Pepper Sauce. The dish displayed a flawless execution of the lamb’s tongue, which married beautifully with the fresh, crisp texture of the bright green chickpeas. We were warmed by the grand Mediterranean flavors and saw a clear connection between the plate’s understated but elegant presentation and the chef’s own quiet but powerful demeanor. Another favorite: the Chicken Fried Veal Sweetbreads with Green Bean and Mushroom Casserole. We couldn’t have asked for better-prepared sweetbreads, which had been soaked in buttermilk and dipped in flour. It’s very exciting to see a chef put so much of himself into his food.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Lambs Tongue with Fresh Chick Peas, Chili, Feta and Garlic with a Roasted Red Pepper Sauce

CHEF: Philip Tessier, Bouchon
Having begun his career on the opening team of New York City’s Per Se, Tessier is straight out of the Thomas Keller-school of precision, exactness and cleanliness: He used tweezers to plate our Beet and Asparagus Salad, which was perfectly dressed with a Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette and wonderfully executed with Poached Rhubarb and Baby Romaine. Although the last thing you should do is write him off as a carbon copy of Keller. The chef de cuisine of Bouchon in Yountville, CA, has brought his own style to carrying out Keller’s desire to modernize the Bouchon kitchen, building on his mentor’s sous vide techniques and introducing new ways to think about food. All of the dishes we tasted were equally as sharp and meticulous as the knives Tessier used in creating them.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Warm Mushroom Salad with Pickled Sunchokes, Marcona Almonds, Upland Cress, and Sunchoke Glacage

HOTEL CHEF: Jesse Mallgren, Madrona Manor
Mallgren’s exquisitely prepared, creative dishes attract diners from across the country to the cozy Madrona Manor Wine Country Inn and Restaurant. With entire freedom to run the restaurant’s culinary program and organic garden, where he grows much of the kitchen’s produce as well as the flowers that decorate the tables, Mallgren has raised the bar with his New American cuisine and practiced technique. We were awed by his Liberty Farm Duck, which featured Roasted Breast and Crisp Confit with Caraway Onion and Beet. The onions were cleverly served as a geleé and the confit was exquisitely crisp. Not only was everything perfectly prepared, but it was also beautifully plated. Mallgren creates two separate tasting menus daily along with a seasonally changing á la carte menu. At the same time, he is also responsible for all banquets and typically does 60-80 small events a year.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Liberty Farms Duck: Roasted Breast and Crisped Confit, Caraway, Spring Onion and Beet 

RESTAURATEUR AWARD: John Toulze, the girl and the fig, fig café, and Estate
Since hired as the sous chef of the girl and the fig in 1997, Toulze’s cooking and kitchen leadership has converted the quaint, loosely French restaurant into one of wine country’s icons, growing, himself, to be executive chef and managing partner of the multi-branch business. Together with proprietor Sondra Berstein, Toulze runs three restaurants scattered across Sonoma County – the latest, Estate, serves regional Italian fare; he has his hands in everything from developing the girl & the fig’s “Wine Country Fig Food” product line, creating recipes for the girl & the fig Cookbook, and carrying out the girl & the fig’s catering line. A self-taught charcutier, Toulze built an extensive in-house charcuterie program based on a learn-as-you-go process. Now an expert, he incorporates seven to 11 different types of charcuterie into his restaurants’ menus, which typically include sopressata, lonzo, lardo, pancetta, rosette de Lyon and chorizo. Toulze’s savvy business style and opportunist attitude act as two strong catalysts in the girl & the fig’s upward-bound trajectory.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Sautéed Maryland Wild Striped Bass, Ragout of Salsify, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Bloomsdale Spinach, with Spinach Vin Blanc

SUSTAINABILITY: John Stewart and Duskie Estes, Zazu and Bovolo
In a region that prides itself on its fresh, locally grown produce, chefs are expected to take full advantage of the fruits and vegetables growing in their backyards. Stewart and Estes do just that, but on a much higher level. The husband and wife team feed the menus of their two Italian restaurants, Zazu Restaurant & Farm (Santa Rosa, CA) and Bovolo (Healdsburg, CA), with organic produce from their very own sustainable garden. The couple has commented that they would sooner run out and harvest an ingredient in the middle of service than take an item off the menu, a philosophy that has many diners fawning over the extreme freshness of their food. The star ingredient of the Breakfast Pizza we sampled – the eggs – had been collected that morning from the restaurant’s henhouse. Stewart and Estes have also developed their own line of Black Pig Salumi, which includes bacon, salumi and fresh sausage made from antibiotic- and hormone-free pork, boar and lamb.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Charcuterie Plate: Finocchiona, Picante, Country Style Terrine, Pickled Vegetables, Roast-Marinated Eggplant, Roast Peppers, Our Own Olives, Asiago Cheese and Cannelloni Beans

RESAURANT CONCEPT: Duncan Gott, Taylor’s Automatic Refresher
When Gott and his brother were offered the chance to take over an old, run-down hamburger joint in St. Helena, CA, the two jumped at the opportunity and knew exactly what type of restaurant they wanted to create: one that served food they liked to eat. After playing in the kitchen for several months and rebuilding the restaurant site, they opened the doors to Taylor’s Automatic Refresher in 1999, hoping for at least 50 customers the first day. They got 600. Ten years later, Gott is now the owner of three Taylor’s Automatic Refresher restaurants (the other two are located in San Francisco and Napa, CA), and he hopes to increase that number to 10 in the near future. One of reasons behind Taylor’s status as a wine country landmark is its down-home comfort food, serving up mouthwatering burgers and other modern diner staples – a mean Mint-Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Shake and famous Sweet Potato Fries. Eco-friendly Gott also only uses compostable products in all of his restaurants.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Fish Tacos with Sweet Potato Fries

PASTRY CHEF: Deanie Hickox-Fox,Ubuntu
The desserts created by Hickox-Fox at Ubuntu, if not inspired by childhood memories, at least took us back to our early days, when eating sweets out of a jar with cookie crumbs or retro banana-coconut ice cream was typical child’s play. Of course, Hickox-Fox’s dishes are much more complex than those we ate as kids – her thoughtful use of textures and unlikely flavor combinations lead to unexpected and lighthearted desserts that demonstrate a special elegance in their plating designs. The eclectic desserts that form her menu reflect Hickox-Fox’s versatile and inquisitive personality –she’s constantly pushing the boundaries and exploring herself through pastry. Our favorite: a sophisticated Meyer Lemon and White Chocolate Parfait with Winter Citrus, Rose Geranium Meringue and Pomegranate. This dessert’s ingenuous use of color and shape was equally as refreshing as its clean, seasonal taste.

The Dish that Clinched It:
- Meyer Lemon and White Chocolate Parfait with Winter Citrus, Rose Geranium Meringue, and Pomegranate

MIXOLOGIST: Scott Beattie, author of Artisanal Cocktails
Like most bartenders, Beattie got into the biz for its fun and action-packed nightlife; unlike most bartenders, he went one step further by taking his shaker into the kitchen and out to his local garden. The drinks Beattie served us incorporated the same culinary techniques, uncommon ingredients and homemade garnishes that put him on the map as bar manager of Cyrus Restaurant in Healdsburg, CA. Beattie even took the time to walk us through his neighborhood and show us where he picked his first lime and discovered the ingredients he later planted in his own backyard. Given that the majority of the cocktails we tried were more on par with a swanky love potion than an afternoon aperitif, it’s needless to say we fell head over heels. Beattie’s dangerously delicious Bleeding Orange is refreshingly light and airy, striking a pleasant balance between its sweet and citrus notes.

The Drink that Clinched It:
- Bleeding Orange

SOMMELIER: Geoff Kruth, The Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant
During our tasting at The Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant in Forestville, CA, Kruth taught us a useful pairing lesson: When in doubt, serve champagne with soup. The master sommelier – one of less than 150 throughout the world – likes the contrast in textures, as did we. The lovely, round bubbles of the Marc Hebrart Brut Champagne married uncannily well with the lush, smooth Veloute of Celeriac. Another trick Kruth keeps up his sleeves: serving an aged sweet wine as a savory pairing.  His quick-minded ingenuity and ambitious wine pairings are what have earned Kruth a place on the short list of today’s top young American wine professionals – and now a spot amongst our Rising Stars. We were impressed by his extensive knowledge of winemakers, regions and grape varieties, not to mention the small fact that he is the director of operations for the non-profit Guild of Sommeliers. Another trick Kruth keeps up his sleeves: serving an aged sweet wine as a savory pairing.

The Pairing that Cinched It:
- Riesling, Zilliken “Saarburger Rausch” Auslese LG Kapsel, Saar, Germany - 1983 paired with Alaskan Black Cod with Gingered Gulf Prawns and Sherry Soy Emulsion

SOMMELIER: Yoon Ha, La Toque
Although you may not expect a South Korea native to choose the career of sommelier (traditional Korean cuisine is not typically accompanied by wine), Ha is a clear exception. Currently the sommelier at La Toque restaurant in Napa Valley, Ha found his calling while traveling through Europe and experiencing the magic created by proper wine pairings. His elegant and gracious tableside manner won us over immediately, although it was his out-of-the-box pairing style that made our tasting memorable. His choice of Belle Glos Pinot Noir, “Taylor Lane Vineyard,” Sonoma Coast, for a totally hedonistic Seared Foie Gras and Broiled Freshwater Eel dish knocked our socks off. The wine’s low acidity and voluptuous texture stood in for the lack of fruit in the dish. It’s always thrilling to experience a well-honed palate that fits in anything but a box.

The Pairing that Cinched It:
- Pinot Noir, Belle Glos “Taylor Lane Vineyard” Sonoma Coast (Caymus) – 2007 paired with Seared Artisan Foie Gras with Broiled Freshwater Eel, Sweet Soy and Forbidden Rice