Category Archives: Travel Adventures

Scenes From Chefs’ Holidays in Yosemite 2020

The Ahwahnee Hotel.
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.
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.
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.
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.

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48 Hours In Vegas

The Big Rig Jig sculpture by artist Mike Ross on display in downtown Las Vegas.
The Big Rig Jig sculpture by artist Mike Ross on display in downtown Las Vegas.

LAS VEGAS, NV — In the city that never sleeps, one can do major damage even if it’s only a 48-hour trip, and ostensibly to take in a Lady Gaga show. But one still has to eat, right? And boy, did my husband and I do just that.

Flock & Fowl

If you’ve never ventured beyond The Strip, you owe it to yourself to take a trek downtown. It’s arguably the city’s hippest neighborhood, with bold murals spanning two to three stories high on the sides of buildings, tongue-in-cheek sayings adorning old motel marquees, and a range of show-stopping public arts pieces.

Wit and wonder downtown.
Wit and wonder downtown.

Case in point, the Big Rig Jig at the Fergusons Downtown, an old motel that has been transformed into a venue of small local boutiques and eateries. The Big Rig Jig looks like something straight out of a “Transformers” movie. Composed of two massive tanker trucks bent and curved into an inexplicable “S,” it’s confounding, perplexing, and just plain amazing.

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A Prodigal Son Returns — To Boonville

Grass-fed beef tartare with tomatoes and fiddlehead ferns at the Boonville Hotel restaurant.

Grass-fed beef tartare with tomatoes and fiddlehead ferns at the Boonville Hotel restaurant.

 

BOONVILLE, CA — If there ever was Wine Country royalty, Chef Perry Hoffman and his family are it.

His grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt bought an old stone building in Yountville in 1978, and transformed it into a charming destination restaurant, before weighing several offers to sell it in 1993. They famously chose Thomas Keller, who went on to turn the French Laundry into a Michelin three-star establishment revered the world over.

Hoffman’s mother founded a Napa Valley florist company that has supplied blooms to the French Laundry for decades. His grandparents went on to restore the Philo Apple Farm that’s now run by Hoffman’s aunt, who also manages the lovely Farmhouse Mercantile store in Boonville.

Across from that store on sleepy main street, Hoffman’s Uncle Johnny has operated the Boonville Hotel for 31 years. It’s where Hoffman got one of his first jobs in the kitchen after high school. It’s where he fondly remembers tasting for the first time both Caesar salad and aioli.

Chef Perry Hoffman's return to the place it all started for him.

Chef Perry Hoffman’s return to the place it all started for him.

So in January, when Hoffman — once the youngest chef in the country to win a Michelin star when he headed Étoile at Domain Chandon in Yountville in 2009 — returned to become chef-partner at the quaint roadhouse built in 1860, it marked more than just a new job. It poetically signified a life coming full circle.

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Valette’s Is A Healdsburg Favorite For Good Reason

A place loved by locals and tourists alike.

A place loved by locals and tourists alike.

 

You know a restaurant has got it going on when it is packed on a Monday night.

The start of the week is typically a sleepy night for most restaurants. But not for Valette in downtown Healdsburg. On a recent Monday night, when I dropped in to dine at the bar solo (paying my own tab at the end), the place was bustling shortly after opening at 5:15 p.m.

Chef Dustin Valette and his brother Aaron Garzini opened the beloved restaurant in 2015 in the same property that their great-grandfather once owned. They turned it into a convivial space, with warm polished wood, big hefty leather bar chairs, and a golden glow from globe chandeliers.

Dustin was off that night. But I did get to meet his father, who in his mid-70s, still flies for the state Department of Forestry, responding to forest fires, including the devastating fires in Napa and Sonoma in the last two years.

Ahi poke that stands out from the pack.

Ahi poke that stands out from the pack.

When Dustin was a kid, his father would take him to school — dropping him off in his plane — because it was quicker than the school bus. How’s that for one cool ride?

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A Rewarding Time at Jordan Estate

Black truffle lamb jus poured over Sonoma lamb at a typical lunch for qualifying Jordan winery rewards members.

Black truffle lamb jus poured over Sonoma lamb at a typical lunch for qualifying Jordan winery rewards members.

 

The other day, I found myself waking up to the sun coming up over the Jordan Estates vineyard in Healdsburg, along with the pitter-patter sound of workers inspecting the barrel room next-door to my four-poster suite.

It was enough to make me want to roll over in bed and call out playfully, “How’s that 2019 vintage coming along, Jeeves? Do the barrels need turning?”

Yes, some rewards programs offer the opportunity to upgrade an airline seat, get store gift certificates or even cash back. Jordan does something quite different. It allows you to accrue points that can be used toward posh private wine tastings, decadent dinners prepared by its own chef or even overnight stays like this in one of its three private suites on the property.

It’s enough to practically make you feel as if you’re the queen — or king — of your own winery. If for a few hours, anyway.

Jordan has vanquished the typical wine club, which usually requires members to purchase a case of wine every month. Instead, what you purchase — and when — is entirely up to you. Plus, the points never expire. You earn three points per dollar spent. And when you join the program, you automatically get 3,000 points.

There are three membership levels: Silver (when you spend $500 in your lifetime), Gold (when you spend $2,500) and Platinum (when you spend more than $5,000). Once you reach one of those levels, you gain access to a selection of experiences that will cost you a certain number of points plus a monetary amount (since California law prohibits freebies with purchase of alcohol).

Bottles in the winery's shop.

Bottles in the winery’s shop.

The Jordan Estates chateau.

The Jordan Estates chateau.

Although I am nowhere near any of those precious-metal levels, I had a chance to experience what Gold and Platinum members can, when I was invited as a guest of the winery to stay overnight at the estate room plus enjoy a seat at a four-course “Formal Lavish Luncheon.”

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