Take Five With Parcel 104’s Robert Sapirman

Robert Sapirman, executive chef of Parcel 104

Imagine cooking without such staples as sugar, chocolate, vanilla beans, cinnamon, coffee, and even pepper. That’s the challenge that Executive Chef Robert Sapirman and his crew at Parcel 104 restaurant in Santa Clara are taking on with the second annual “104-Mile Dinner” on June 7.

 That night, every ingredient used must come from no more than 104 miles from the restaurant (measured from point to point in a straight line). Climate Clean of Portland, Ore. will be working with the restaurant to mitigate and offset the greenhouse gas emissions generated from this $125-per-person dinner.

The seven-course dinner includes Point Reyes oysters, local petrale sole, and pork belly from pigs raised in the Yosemite area. Also on the menu are Cornish game hens that were slaughtered, then air-chilled, as opposed to the conventional method of water chilling. Proponents of this method favor it because they consider it more sanitary (studies so far, though, are inconclusive). In air-chilling, the poultry also absorbs less water, making for a crisper skin when cooked and more intense flavor.

Watercress and beignet dessert by Pastry Chef Carlos Sanchez

Parcel 104’s pastry chef, Carlos Sanchez, will be ending the night with a refreshing dessert of Sausalito Springs watercress topped with strawberry sorbet made with honey, fresh strawberries the staff will pick the day before in Sonoma, and tiny beignets of Bellwether Farms Carmody cheese.

The menu is subject to change, of course, since it’s all based on what’s available locally at the time. 

I sat down with Sapirman to find out the most difficult aspects of creating such a dinner.

Q: You came on board as chef last year just as the restaurant was about to do the 104-mile dinner for the first time. I think I detected just a tiny glint of fear and panic in your eyes then. How is it different this time around?

A: Last year, it was all about what could we get our hands on. It was a real race to find things. This year, we have more time, and we’re able to reach out to see that’s really out there.  Last year at the last minute, we were able to find wheat flour in Sonoma, so we were able to make crackers for the beet salad. This year, we’ve already discovered that Full Belly Farm (an hour northwest of Sacramento) — which is right on the edge of our 104-mile limit, and believe me, I measured it — produces flour and wheat berries.

Q: Last year, you guys were in a tizzy because you thought you wouldn’t be able to use salt. But at the last second, you found a source?

A: Yes, we get salt from underneath the Dumbarton Bridge. There are salt flats there. And a producer makes this very coarse pretzel salt from there that we have to grind ourselves until it’s finer.

Q: So there will be salt, but no peppercorns?

A: Nope. We can’t use peppercorns because they’re not grown in this area. We might use some chili peppers, though. It makes it more challenging. All the things we take for granted are gone, which forces you to be more creative. At the same time, we’re also very fortunate that we have so much available at our farmers’ markets here.

Q: What about the water you serve? Normally, it’s Fiji, which comes from quite a distance.

A: We’ll be pouring Calistoga water that night. And we’re looking at changing out the Fiji permanently.

Q: What other challenges do you have with this dinner?

A: We didn’t want to repeat the same proteins from last year. We did lamb last year, and Sonoma is a no-brainer for that. Beef was harder to find, but we will be using the eye of the ribeye from Hearst Ranch, which surrounds Hearst Castle.

We wanted to play around with using this rice syrup made by Lundberg Family Farms in the Sacramento Valley, but they’re just a few miles outside our 104-mile border. So we’ll use Marshall’s Farm honey instead.

We also have an herb garden here, and we’ll be using bay leaves, mint, rosemary, lavender, and if they’re still around then, the Meyer lemon blossoms, which are so wonderful.

Q: So you actually made a map of some sort showing a 104-mile radius from Parcel 104?

A: Yes, it’s in my office, with a big circle around it. (He gets it, and it shows how Roseville is just barely outisde the perimeter, as is Madera.)

On the day of the dinner, we also actually remove everything from the kitchen that’s not from 104 miles away, just so we don’t get tempted to add a pinch of cayenne at the last minute.

Q: For you personally, what would be the hardest thing to give up in your own life that wasn’t from within 104 miles away?

A: Spices in general. That’s why even now, I’m still looking so hard to find more spices we can use for this dinner. They just give dishes new levels of flavor. It’s amazing what a little black pepper will do to a dish.

Q: What do you hope to teach or show people by doing a dinner like this?

A: We want to showcase what we have here and to get people to appreciate it all. We want to show what great things you can produce within just an arm’s length away. 

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