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Scenes From Chefs’ Holidays in Yosemite 2020

The Ahwahnee Hotel.

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CA — It may have been a challenging few months for this glorious national park, what with an outbreak of norovirus and the Ahwahnee Hotel’s loss of one star, dropping it to a AAA three-diamond rating instead. But I’m happy to report that all seemed well when I was there last week as moderator for the last two sessions of the 2020 Chefs’ Holidays event.

This popular winter-time extravaganza, which consists of fun chef demos and grand gala dinners, celebrated its 36th year this January.

There might not have been any snow on the valley floor this time around, but there was plenty of sunshine, as well as more than enough action on the demo stage to keep everyone entertained.

All roads lead to good food here.

Husband-and-wife chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes got things rolling first, recounting the devastating loss of their Zazu restaurant in Sebastopol after last winter’s deluge flooded their place, and how local high school students kayaked in with a generator to help them pump out the water.

John Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu Farm & Catering.
Yours truly with chefs Loren Goodwin of the Gastropig, Jason Fox of the Proper Hotel, and John Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu.

Stewart and Estes may not have a restaurant at the moment. But they continue to do catering, as well as sell products from their farm, including their magnificent Black Pig Meat Co. bacon.

At their demo, they showed how to make a simple lettuce cups with avocado, sustainable Oregon bay shrimp and a smoked paprika vinaigrette, as well as fazzoletti hankerchief pasta with pumpkin, brown butter and crumbled amaretti cookies.

Oregon bay shrimp with avocado on lettuce leaves.

Jason Fox, late of the Michelin-starred Commonwealth in San Francisco and new head chef at the Proper Hotel in San Francisco, brought two special sous chefs on stage for his demo — his adorable daughters Lily, 11, and Emma, 8.

Chef Jason Fox with daughters Lily and Emma on stage.

He taught the audience a thing or two, especially when he showed off celtuce, an Asian vegetable with romaine-like leaves and a thick, prized stalk that tastes like celery meets artichoke. which he used in a Dungeness crab salad with Green Goddess dressing.

An apple and celery root overshadowed by the intriguing looking celtuce.
Celtuce salad with Dungeness crab.
Fox’s outstanding celery and chestnut soup.

Then, he whipped up a soothing celery chestnut soup that started with a base of caramelized sugar that the vegetables were then cooked in, enhancing their sweetness while adding a subtle bitter-caramel depth.

Chef Loren Goodwin sharpening his knives right before his demo.

Chef Loren Goodwin of the Gastropig in Oakland, who hadn’t been to Yosemite since he was 14, also demonstrated a useful technique to debone a chicken leg, leaving a flat piece of flesh with skin that will crisp up evenly when seared or grilled. It’s akin to spatchcocking an entire chicken. His Chicken Leg Al Mattone was served alongside seared endives, then finished with caper salsa verde.

Goodwin’s chicken liver mousse with roasted beets.

His chicken liver pate crostini won over even those who don’t normally like chicken liver, owing to the fact that it contained a copious amount of butter, making it unbelievably rich and velvety.

Estes and Stewart prepared the five-course gala dinner that was paired with wines. It began with a playful share board set in the middle of each big round table that held jars of their pimento cheese, coppa di testa, liberty duck pate, pickles, and mustard, along with bacon bologne.

A board of lusty charcuterie.

That was followed by a Thai-style pumpkin and coconut soup accented with lime leaf and a little spice. Then, came their riff on fattoush, with grilled eggplant composed with bitter greens and dotted with pomegranate molasses — all hiding a layer of whipped feta.

Pumpkin soup with Thai flavors.
Eggplant “fattoush.”
Comfort-food pork cheek.

Soft, custardy gigante beans garnished tender Snake River Farms pork cheek cooked with saffron and preserved lemon.

Crispy layers galore in this napoleon.

The night finished with a napoleon, its crisp layers sandwiching Meyer lemon cream.

The next day, it all began anew with three more chefs doing demos: Victor Scargle of The Estate in Yountville, Jen Biesty of Shakewell in Oakland, and Jason Paluska of The Lark in Santa Barbara.

Yours truly flanked by chefs Jason Paluska of The Lark, and Victor Scargle of the Estate in Yountville.

Scargle, who has cooked in San Francisco and the Napa Valley for years, started things off by demonstrating how to use feuille de brique, similar to phyllo but not quite as fragile to work with, to roll around a filling of mushrooms and pears before frying. The crispy cigars are then arranged atop winter greens.

Mushroom and pear cigars.
Scargle’s butternut squash.

Next, it was his creamy butternut squash soup made with fennel and Pastis to give it a back note of anise.

Biesty, who has competed on a range of cooking competitions, recounted how she had to cook with such jaw-dropping ingredients as pig uterus and nutria (think big rodent) on her way to becoming “Chopped” champion last year.

Chef Jen Biesty having way too much fun with the audience.

Fortunately, nothing that bizarre awaited attendees at her demo, where she made spiced pan-roasted duck breast with grilled fennel, pomegranate vinaigrette and puffed amaranth.

Her Serrano jamon croquettes had everyone wanting seconds. The golden log-shaped croquettes were addictive, especially alongside a cilantro-poblano sauce.

I could have eaten half a dozen of these croquettes.

Paluska, who cooked in San Francisco for many years at Town Hall and RN74, admitted he missed the Bay Area. As founding chef of The Lark, he got to design is menu from the get-go, filling it with all the things he most likes to eat.

Paluska hamming it up on stage.

That includes a signature dish of cast-iron seared diver scallops that he cooked, finishing it with roasted cauliflower, pancetta, and paper-thin slivers of Meyer lemon deep-fried till super crisp.

Paluska’s hangar steak tartare.

Next, he showed off his love of pickles by making a batch of sliced sweet red peppers that he used to garnish hangar steak tartare spooned atop home-made red garnet yam chips, and finished with chimichuri aioli.

Scargle cooked the gala dinner, which started with a creamy sunchoke soup with creme fraiche, black truffle, and celery leaves. The sunchokes, pureed to create the luscious body of the soup, had an almost artichoke-like flavor.

Sunchoke soup.
Pork belly and pears in a winter salad.
Duck breast with forbidden rice.

A chunk of crisp pork belly, rather than just regular bacon, was spotlighted in a salad with winter greens, pears and pomegranate seeds.

Short ribs with horseradish potatoes.

Liberty duck breast in a huckleberry jus was served atop black forbidden rice that hid great little slivers of pickled ginger and kale leaves.

Red wine-braised short rib came with horseradish pureed potatoes and caramelized cioppolini onions.

Beignet with vanilla panna cotta.

Dessert was a two-for-one — with jiggly panna cotta served alongside a sugared beignet.

The iconic Ahwahnee dining room.

Mark your calendars for the next Chefs’ Holidays, which will take place in January 2021. And because the floor of the massive kitchen in the Ahwahnee will be redone next winter, there will be a second Chefs’ Holidays in November 2021 to make up for the fact that the next regularly scheduled January Chefs’ Holidays won’t be until 2023. Check back here in the weeks to come for more info on the participating chefs.