YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA — After five years of drought, the snow was back and the waterfalls gushing like crazy this winter in this spectacular national park (click on the Instagram video below).
The Ahwahnee may now be known as the Majestic Yosemite (because its former concessionaire Delaware North claims it owns the park’s historic names after trademarking them); and the former “Chefs’ Holidays” event is now referred to as “Taste of Yosemite.” But no matter what you call it, a bevy of stellar chefs were more than happy to be back for this 32nd year, and yours truly was once again the moderator for the two closing sessions of this annual gourmet event.
Every year, I get a chance to meet newcomers who are not only attending their first gala dinner event here, but visiting the park for the very first time, too. That’s coupled with regulars, some of whom have been attending this glorious event for more than seven years.
Each sessions features three chefs or gourmet purveyors who each do a cooking demo. There’s a wine reception where you can mingle with the chefs. And every session ends with a gala five-course dinner prepared by one of the visiting chefs.
The Bay Area was well represented at the two sessions I hosted last week. The first featured: Chef Peter Armellino of the Plumed Horse in Saratoga, who also cooked the gala dinner; Kim Alter of Nightbird in San Francisco; and Josey Baker of Josey Baker Bread in San Francisco.
During their demos, Armellino joked that doing the Majestic’s demo was more nerve-wracking for him than assisting Chef Traci des Jardins as she battled on “Iron Chef America.” Alter offered a nifty trick to judge the sweetness of a granita mixture before freezing it by floating an egg in it. A dime-size portion of the egg should be visible above the liquid; if it’s more like quarter size, then you have too much sugar in it and need to add more water or juice or other liquid. And Baker reminisced about how he started making bread after a friend gave him a portion of starter, which he still uses to this day.
For the grand dinner, Armellino served a golden beignet of Dungeness crab, accented with black garlic aioli and shaved vegetable salad; followed by my favorite dish of Scottish salmon cooked gently in a 200-degree oven until it was melt-in-your-mouth succulent. It was garnished with briny wakame, dashi gel, and a salt cured egg yolk.
That was followed by semolina gnocchi topped with braised duck; then Painted Hills rib eye, cooked sous vide before being seared and served with potato rosti, creamed spinach, and a classic red wine-shallot jus.
Jordan Gooch, Plumed Horse pastry chef who had never visited Yosemite before this, created a decadent dessert of Valrhona ganache with port wine, currants and cassis foam.
The closing session featured: Chef Peter Rudolph of Madera at the Rosewood Sand Hill in Menlo Park; Chef Peter Chastain of Prima in Walnut Creek; and Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, the founders of Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes.
Rudolph, who recently regained his Michelin one-star ranking after losing it for a year, talked about how being honored with it was even sweeter the second time around. Chastain reminisced about how his Italian relatives would cook up four-hour suppers every weekend for the family. And the Cowgirls led a cheese tasting, and had everyone laughing when they said they’d only offer a blue cheese on a party cheese platter if it was segregated in another room by itself, as the pungent cheese has a way of overtaking everything near it.
For the gala dinner, Rudolph served flaky smoked mountain trout with oysters, creamy leeks, and seaweed. Cracked corn porridge followed, topped with heavenly braised chicken. An unusual film of parmesan jelly covered it all, giving it a rather otherworldly appearance. The flavor was not detectable, however. I think a few shards of actual cheese over the top would have complemented the dish more.
Next, my favorite dish of the night — root vegetables cooked in a salt dough to concentrate their natural sweetness. They were served with a blood sausage puree that lent such a powerful hit of umami.
Rare lamb was draped over creamy farro risotto with sweet carrot puree.
Dessert was orange meringue with lovely honey ice cream, candied nuts and Cara Cara shattered sorbet.
With food and company so fabulous, I can hardly wait for next year’s “Taste of Yosemite.”
More: Chefs’ Holidays 2016
And: Chefs’ Holidays 2015