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Etoile’s Perry Hoffman — A Chef To Watch in the Future

Perry Hoffman, executive chef of Etoile at Domaine Chandon in Yountville, has quite the pedigree.

His grandparents, Sally and Don Schmitt, were the original owners of the French Laundry in Yountville, who turned a dilapidated building into a destination restaurant in 1978, before selling it in 1993 to a then down-on-his-luck chef named Thomas Keller.

At age 4, Hoffman played in the kitchen of the French Laundry, while his grandma cooked in the kitchen, his grandfather seated guests in the dining room, and his mom (Sally and Don’s daughter) arranged flowers and worked as a waitress in the dining room.

His Mom later started her own florist business, which still supplies the blooms to the French Laundry, as well as a host of Wine Country restaurants. His grandparents went on to buy the Philo Apple Farm in Mendocino County, once again turning a rundown property into a showcase. Today, it is an organic, biodynamic farm that grows 80 varieties of heirloom apples in a setting so picturesque that Pottery Barn does catalog shoots there.

Hoffman, 27, followed in his grandmother’s footsteps, working in restaurants since he was 15. His food is already quite refined and mature for his young age. In fact, two years ago, he became the youngest chef in the country to garner a Michelin star — an achievement that prompted Keller to send him a hand-written note and a bottle of Dom Perignon.

For the past three years, he’s overseen the kitchen at the elegant Etoile, the Napa Valley’s only fine-dining restaurant housed inside a winery.

During fall and winter, too, there are apples aplenty on his menu, which, of course, come from the Philo Apple Farm. My husband and I couldn’t resist honing in on those particular dishes when we treated ourselves to dinner at Etoile in December. Choose either a seven-course chef’s tasting menu for $110 or a four-course tasting menu with options for $85. The latter is what we went with, though we added one additional dish.

Dinner began with a stunner of an amuse bouche — a quartet of small bites that included an outstanding bright Meyer lemon mousse crowned with Dungeness crab; silky clams;  a creamy chestnut soup with cocoa nibs and dice of sweet butternut squash; and a small skewer of oyster and young coconut in aromatic dashi.

The dish we added was the seared foie gras ($27), which was served with super thin, slices of Philo Gold apples (Golden Delicious),  as well as dehydrated apples and apple butter. The cooked apples lent sweetness, while the raw apples offered a crisp, fresh contrast to the richness of the foie.

Next, fluffy mounds of Dungeness crab topped with julienned apple, and given some added zing with pickled beets and crunch with tempura squiggles.

Butter-poached snapper was moist and silky, and resting on a luscious sabayon enriched with uni.

Liberty Farms duck breast comes especially rare in the center here, alongside precious beech mushrooms that have been pickled, little starchy nuggets of chestnuts and sweet Asian pear.

For dessert, we couldn’t pass up the apple bread pudding with a very boozy eggnog sauce and a fun popsicle of frozen yogurt. Airy and custardy, the bread pudding had great texture and was studded with chunks of apples.

To learn more about the legacy of Hoffman and the Schmitts, be sure to read my story in the April issue of Food Arts magazine.

More: A Visit to the Philo Apple Farm

And: A Recipe for a Fabulous Apple Cake from the Philo Apple Farm