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Roux Scholarship: a postcard from California

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Roux Scholarship: a postcard from California

Eleven chefs and former Roux Scholars – led by Michel Roux Sr, Alain Roux and Brian Turner – visited California last month for a gastronomic tour of some of the region’s finest restaurants. The Caterer finds out how they got on

Two years on from their culinary tour of New York, a party of 11 Roux Scholars headed to California last month to take in the gastronomic delights of Saison,  Benu and the French Laundry, among many others. Michel Roux Sr, Alain Roux and fellow judge Brian Turner led the group of chef stars in search of taste sensations.

Dinner at Saison by Steve Drake, 2001 Roux Scholar
We had been in San Francisco a few hours and our first meal out was at the three-Michelin-starred Saison restaurant by chef Joshua Skenes, in the Mission District.

First impressions really set the bar high for what was to come, with a huge open kitchen and hundreds of persimmons hanging from the ceiling – the setting was cool, exciting and original.

The open kitchen was the same size as the dining room space and seated 18 covers. The room was big, with plenty of space for the chefs to work in. Harry Guy, the 2016 Roux Scholar, had chosen Saison for his stage and had one week left to go.

A feature of the food there is that it is mostly cooked either directly or indirectly  on wood and coals in a delicate, refined way, giving it a unique style.

We had 13 dishes – all highly original, complex in texture, flavour and yet subtle.

The standout dish was Liquid Toast – sourdough was toasted on one side and the other side was dipped in a mixture of egg yolk, soy sauce and beurre noisette. It was then served with sea urchin. It was an incredible dish of soft, rum baba-like texture with a crunchy top, and the powerful, yet perfectly balanced addition of  the sea urchin was quite magical. It was a masterclass in flavour, texture and temperature.

Service was, as you would expect, very knowledgeable, polished and friendly. I would say it’s at the top end of three-star prices at $398 per head for the set menu.

The stunning persimmons, which played their part all night, were used in the  final course in the form of traditional hoshigaki (or dried persimmon) served with tea, completing the menu.

For me, this was a stunning meal, an inspirational space to sit in – and no doubt to work in – and it has certainly inspired me ahead of my next project.

Lunch at Buena Vista Café by Brian Turner, Roux Scholarship judge
We all slept well on our first night in San Francisco and on waking we were extremely surprised to see the glorious sunshine of San Francisco Bay.

With the sun in our faces, we started the day just like regular tourists on a visit to The Rock, better known as Alcatraz. This is an island in the heart of the bay that has been used as a fort, a lighthouse and a prison. By the time we left, it was surrounded by fog.

Next we moved to one of San Francisco’s iconic cafés, the Buena Vista on the  waterfront.

buena-vista1

The place was humming, and I am not sure how they kept our tables free, but thanks to Bob and Jack, two of the owners, we sat and were regaled by the stories of this wonderful café.

The Buena Vista is credited with bringing Irish coffee to America and having experienced one before lunch I can understand why – it was delicious! The crab specials were equally memorable, although the season was really yet to start.

From the café we could see the world-famous trams clanging their way up the hill, but being youngsters we walked and took taxis to the Blue Bottle Coffee headquarters where we took part in a great coffee tasting.

Ever onwards, we moved to the Berkeley district to check out the Cultured Pickle Shop where we learnt a great deal about one of the current crazes of California – soured vegetables (and their fascinating fermentation processes).

It was now early evening and I admit we were starting to flag but we were  heading just around the corner to another iconic Californian restaurant – Chez Panisse. For the past 40 years, I have admired and even worshipped the great work of Alice Waters and her energy in getting chefs to think and cook with local, seasonal produce and to create marriages of simple, pure flavours. As we neared the restaurant, with its well-lit frontage, it looked so welcoming we couldn’t wait to go in. However, in life some things don’t always work out, and I am afraid we all felt the same – the less said the better. Perhaps on another visit, it will fulfil my dreams. Sadly, not this time.

Ferry Plaza Farmers Market by Andrew Jones, 2004 Roux Scholar
We visited the farmers’ market on a Saturday morning and, with over 150 stalls of the finest produce from San Francisco and the local area, the place was bustling.

The first thing to strike me was the sunflowers, all very Van Gogh with their huge bunches and one of my favourite flowers! I think that a good farmers’ market is like a sweet shop for chefs – we could have spent all day looking at the products and talking to the farmers who had as much passion for growing and bringing their produce to market as we do about cooking it. Here they have a great scheme with over 300 restaurants involved where they provide carts for the chefs and complimentary parking. If only we had something like this in London…

Lunch at In Situ by Simon Hulstone, 2003 Roux Scholar
Saturday lunch was the first of two amazing Corey Lee meals that we would experience on this trip. Our first was at the unique In Situ restaurant based in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What made this experience so unique was that every dish on the menu had been donated by some of the world’s best chefs with their full approval.

We started lunch with an intense, silky-smooth caramelised carrot soup, topped with curried coconut foam – a recipe by Nathan Myhrvold from Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking.

in-situ

A few further snacks were presented including one from the Clove Club’s Isaac McHale.

Buttermilk fried chicken and pine – a dish that I have eaten at the Clove Club – was executed perfectly, and I’m sure Isaac would be proud.

To follow was what would be one of the highlights of the trip – Richard Ekkebus’s  sea urchin with cauliflower pureé, lobster jelly, caviar and gold leaf. A masterclass in luxury, refinement and skill, it was a fantastic dish.

We all agreed, almost instantly, that this was a stand-out dish and was probably  the most photographed one of our tour. Ekkebus sent us messages of thanks for the compliments and comments on his dish, which was a great touch. His dish was in good hands and made us all want to travel to Hong Kong to try it at his two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Amber, at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental. Lee’s team treated every dish they reproduced with the utmost respect and the
chefs who created them should be delighted that they were being served just as they had visualised.

Further dishes followed from Thomas Keller, Virgilio Martinez and even Massimo’s Bottura’s famous ‘Oops! I dropped the lemon tart’. Finally, came a showstopper from Albert Adrià of Tickets in Barcelona – we were presented with what looked like an ordinary rind-washed cheese with biscuits but it turned out to be an amazing cheesecake with hazelnut cookies. It was a great finish to an amazing meal, which made us very excited to see what Lee had up his sleeve for this evening’s meal at Benu.

Dinner at Benu by Sat Bains, 1999 Roux Scholar
Benu is a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in San Francisco run by chef-owner Corey Lee. It is a modern restaurant serving new American cuisine with an Asian leaning, using Corey’s Korean heritage as influences. The space is ultra minimal with beautiful focal points, great artwork and a window showcasing hanging soya beans for the creation of their own soy sauce. We were seated in the private dining room, but there was no pomp or ceremony, just a confident air of perfect service and hospitality.

Master sommelier Yoon Ha was our host for the evening and led his team in delivering discreet, professional and informative service. The menu started with 10 small delicacies, all bite-sized or two mouthfuls which were served at a rapid pace, every two to three minutes. I thought this was brilliant as it got us all excited, the flavours were exceptional and textures played a crucial part in the meal.

benu

The menu proper followed next with eight dishes, of which the highlights were  lobster coral xiao long bao, one of Corey’s signatures, which explodes in the mouth and delivers an incredible texture.

The beef rib was another high point. The beef was served carved and perfectly cooked with a selection of garnishes and condiments such as crudités, water kimchi, cabbage kim-chi, cucumber kimchi, ramp and soy that gave brilliant contrasts of hot, cold and texture.

This meal was without doubt the finest of the trip for me. Many of the others were worldclass but this stood out for technical skill and flavour; the balance of the menu was incredible and it blew us away.

The last time I had a meal this good was 17 years ago at elBulli and this was on a par. I’ve been lucky to travel and eat at some of the best restaurants in the world and this experience was one of my favourites. I came here previously, in 2010, and it was brilliant then but now it’s on another level. I would rate this as one of the top five restaurants in the world right now.

Thank you Corey and team Benu – you took us to school!

Lunch at Shed by Tom Barnes, 2014 Roux Scholar
Doug Lipton and Cindy Daniels opened Shed three and a half years ago with the idea of showcasing the produce of local artisan suppliers. Everything stocked by the shop is from various farms, all within a 10-mile radius, including Shed’s own farm, HomeFarm. The ethos Lipton and Daniels go by is “good farming, good cooking, good eating”.

Downstairs, there is a shop selling local fresh produce as well as grains, olive oils  and preserves. There is a takeaway larder, which sells many different salads and  pâtés, all prepared on site. They have America’s first fermentation bar, selling home-made kombucha on tap, as well as house-made shrubs (an old-fashioned refresher made from vinegars, fresh herbs and seasonal fruit). They even have their own milling room, where they mill homegrown corn to produce polentaand cornflour.

theshed

We were seated upstairs in the private event space, and treated to a delicious  three-course lunch by Perry Hoffman, who, at 23, was the youngest chef in the US to win a Michelin star.

His grandparents owned the French Laundry until they sold it to Thomas Keller in 1994.

Dining with us was Sebastian Pochan, the winemaker for Front Porch Farms, who provided us with the accompanying wines for the meal. His farm produces 1,200 cases a year, and they are sold across the bay area.

First course was a dish of California yellow tail tuna with mandarins, Malobar spinach and amethyst radish. It was a beautifully balanced, very fresh dish with the bitterness of the radish and the spinach going with the sweetness of the  mandarins.

The main course was a perfect roast chicken, served family style, with chestnut cabbage, persimmon and brassicas. The chicken was moist and had an amazing  flavour, and the dish was finished off exquisitely with a parfait of chicken liver.

The final course was a lovely selection of local cheeses, made by Soyoung Scanlan at Andante Dairy in nearby Petaluma. She names all her cheeses after musical expressions. My personal favourite was Figaro, a very soft and tangy goat’s cheese, wrapped in a fig leaf. The cheese was served with a pear and brandy  marmalade and amazing sourdough bread from artisan bakery MH Bread and Butter.

Dinner at SingleThread Farms by Jonathan Harrison, 1993 Roux Scholar
SingleThread Farms in Sonoma County hadn’t officially opened when we paid a  visit [it has since] but we were treated to a sneak preview. Owners Kyle and  Katina Connaughton (chef and farmer) run this high-end development on the site of an old post office that was previously burnt down. Spread over three floors, the top floor hosts a roof terrace with spectacular views and also has a garden where microgreens, herbs and fruit trees are grown.

The second floor harbours five luxury guest rooms, while the ground floor is home to a large open plan  kitchen and dining room with Japanese decor, giving a luxurious and  contemporary feel. The ethos of the restaurant is ‘omotenashi’, the Japanese style of hospitality that anticipates guests’ every need.

The 11-course tasting menu with guest-customised wine pairing consists of mainly Californian cuisine with Eastern influences. This is shaped by the  Connaughtons’ farm-to-table approach, the farm being located on five acres of historic San Lorenzo ranch. It supplies SingleThread with vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, as well as honey, eggs and olive oil. My favourite dish of the night was the frozen fromage blanc, tonka bean, amaranth, and poached quince, served with Novy Family Late Harvest Viognier, Russian River Valley 2010.

The restaurant was highly professional with creative and informed staff,  adhering to Kyle’s innovative and inventive cooking style. The incredible flora and fauna was sourced by Katina and made the experience even more  distinctive, allowing their commitment to this project to shine through.

Dinner at The French Laundry by André Garrett, 2002 Roux Scholar
This evening was a real treat and one we were all looking forward to. First we had had predinner drinks and canapés at the Auberge du Soleil, a Relais & Châteaux property high up in the hills at Saint Helena. The view from the terrace was breathtaking and a great start to the evening.

We were lucky enough to sample some very special beers by a local winemaker  in Napa who is also brewing under the name Mad Fritz. We sampled four beers  each, paired with a small canapé. My favourites were a wheatstyle beer served with a lobster and avocado taco and a dark beer paired with foie gras and cocoa nibs.

Suitably refreshed, we were off to the French Laundry, Thomas Keller’s famous  restaurant in Yountville, Napa Valley. The team greeted us warmly and cut open a magnum of Laurent Perrier Rosé with a sabre for us – a real show that got the night off to a great start.

We were seated upstairs in the dining room for dinner and a tasting menu of 12 courses with matching wines. We sampled some of the established classics that we all know from Keller’s repertoire, along with some newer seasonal dishes.

Highlights included white truffle ‘vichyssoise’ champignon de Paris and Kendall Farm’s crème fraîche; ‘Oysters and pearls’ ‘sabayon’ of pearl tapioca
with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar; and ‘Navarin de légumes de jardin’ gnocchi à la Parisienne, garden carrots, winter radishes, pea shoots and red wine-mushroom bouillon.

The whole menu and dining experience was a tour de force in cooking technique, seasonality and ingredient choice together with a luxurious touch that we all love about fine dining. The service was opulent, attentive and highly knowledgeable about every technique and ingredient. I was last here nine years ago and it was great to see dishes that are still on the menu and still as tasty and relevant today.

Alongside these were newer and seasonally-led dishes, notably the navarin of  vegetables, picked that morning from the French Laundry farm, with memorable flavours and lightness.

The French Laundry has been operating since 1978. Keller bought it in 1994 and it has evolved and grown to deliver 80 covers per night (five nights a week) and up to 60 for lunch (three times a week) from 60 seats. We cannot forget what Keller has done for the restaurant scene in Napa Valley and California and it was a treat to see the team still evolving and setting the standards that we all wish to achieve.

Bike ride: the Napa Valley Vine trail by James Carberry, 1992 Roux Scholar
After breakfast, we walked from our hotel to the bike shop to get set up with  helmets, water, maps and of course our mode of transport.

The weather was just perfect, with no wind and a light covering of cloud, and everybody was looking forward to getting out for a leisurely cycle in such a beautiful location. To pedal through this area, which has the finest vineyards in North America and is straddled by the Napa hills on each side, was a treat for the soul. This was the first time we had done this and it was a welcome break from using a coach or train. We covered about nine miles on a flat, purpose-built  smooth cycle track, which was easy going for all of us.

roux-bike-ride

In what seemed like no time we arrived at the picture postcard town of  Yountville and stopped at the French Laundry Culinary Garden.

This is a three-acre green space, which supplies the restaurants in the area owned by Thomas Keller. The garden was originally much smaller and was tended in the early days by the chefs from the French Laundry.

The passionate head gardener Aaron Keefer now oversees it and with his team, grows the most amazing organic produce. Keefer explained how he keeps the soil fertile with black guano and chicken manure. He says that when the soil is teeming with natural microorganisms they impart the best flavour possible to the herbs and vegetables. I can testify to that, having tasted the fruits of his labour the night before at our very special dinner at the French Laundry.

Keefer has a magic  touch for growing magnificent ingredients and is a fountain of knowledge. It was a privilege to spend time with him and gain his perspective.

As we dropped off our bikes we passed Bouchon, Keller’s French bistro, and  Michel decided we all needed some refreshment. We were met with genuine,  from the heart hospitality.

There we enjoyed kimchi oysters mignonette, oeuf mimosa and divine crispy pigs’ ears with maple-scented aïoli, washed down with a wonderful glass of Chardonnay from Flowers vineyard on the Somona Coast.

The level of professionalism was outstanding, both front and back of house. It’s  also an understatement to say that this is a beautiful part of the world and a must-go place to learn about great dining and great wine with flawless hospitality.

Lunch at Redd Wood by Adam Smith, 2012 Roux Scholar
After a quick snack at Bouchon, we headed for our lunch at Redd Wood, a casual restaurant in Yountville run by chef Richard Reddington.

We were seated in a private room, with a floor-to-ceiling window looking out onto a courtyard and one wall decorated with signed menus, magazine articles and newspaper clippings.

I immediately noticed one of Marco Pierre White; the classic black and white  photo of him smoking a cigarette.

The style of food and service was very relaxed, with dishes served family-style down the middle of the table. To start we were served a selection of homemade terrines and charcuterie, with breadsticks and some toasted bread. Next up a couple of simple but very well executed salads, the first a take on a classic Caesar with Romaine lettuce, white anchovy, lemon, garlic and crouton, and a  demonstration of how the simple things in life are often the best. To follow this we had roasted octopus, Brussels sprouts, frisée, arugula and gribiche.

This was particularly tasty; the octopus was tender, and beautifully cooked and seasoned.

For the main course we had a home-baked pizza with cheese, tomato and fresh white truffle, alongside two pasta dishes, one a simple spaghetti with tomato sauce and the other a Earl Grey fettuccine with braised duck, root vegetables and apple.

The pizza and the tomato were simple but effective and the fettuccine was almost a take on a Waldorf. At Redd Wood they had definitely saved the best till last, and to finish we were given a beautiful cannoli; simple vanilla cream wrapped in crisp pastry, just perfect.

All in all a simple and relaxed lunch, with friendly service. There was a busy vibe in the main restaurant, which seems to be a popular destination for locals in  Yountville.

Colgin wine tasting by Andrew Jones, 2004 Roux Scholar
Before our tour I must admit that I had not heard of Colgin wines but as we arrived at the vineyard we could tell we were somewhere very special. This  pristine winery doesn’t do tours so we were very privileged to be allowed access.

We tasted three wines on our visit – a 2012 Tychonhall, which was my personal favourite and I think, their rarest, with only 350 cases made, of which only 36 bottles were allocated to the UK. We also tasted the 2006 and 2012 IX Estate Red,  both truly delightful wines to have the honour of tasting. Indeed after sampling such wonderful wines, Colgin is certainly a name I will not forget.

Dinner at the Restaurant at Meadowood by Matthew Tomkinson,
2005 Roux Scholar
Our last dinner of the trip was at the Restaurant at Meadowood. Chef Christopher Kostow has created a modern American restaurant amid a sprawling resort in St Helena, California; his ethos is one of relationships and partnerships and the idea of being “caretakers of a collective vision”.

Having made our way past the twinkling lights of the forest approach we were welcomed into a lounge that reminded me of a hunting lodge, wooden-built with roaring fires and high ceilings. We were served Champagne and then asked to go through to one of two rooms as tonight the group was to be split.

meadowland

The table was simply laid with a piece of stone and a foraged flower to indicate this connection with the land.

The initial courses were a steady stream of ‘snacks’, a Jerusalem artichoke beignet wrapped in its crisped skin, a piece of lion’s mane mushroom dipped in brown butter and some freshly-dug Pinto potatoes with honey and sorrel vinegar. The next two were fishbased, a miyagi oyster with a mignonette of fermented kohlrabi juice and then a combination of fresh water eel and beef tongue with a Semillon grape sabayon that had been smoked over cabernet sauvignon barrel staves.

To follow the snacks was a bread course; pumpernickel and rye bread dough  came wrapped around a poached King Richard leek and then steamed. It was served with butter that had been scented with caraway and had shaved, dried Albacore tuna over it. As we finished this a cauliflower custard with crushed cauliflower, Trojan sterling caviar and a sabayon of fresh olive oil was presented, served on top of cauliflower leaves.

Next, my favourite dish of the night was served, a small bowl of sunflower pasta ‘bon bons’ with a spot prawn filling, thinly sliced raw matsutake mushrooms and a rich buttery sauce – absolutely delicious. Course nine was a unique plate of lightly cured and gently poached local fresh halibut, with half a small grilled and fermented summer squash wrapped in cloth for us to squeeze over.

Another fish course followed, with a meaty fillet of Sacramento Delta sturgeon  that had been lightly grilled with kimchi, chestnuts, Hudson Valley foie gras and scorched cabbage.

Unusually, a cold course came next in the form of a chicken and whelk terrine with lovage oil, turnips, lemon and horseradish (both grated and the stems). It had some of the cooking broth and fat from the chicken, which made it very moist. The gentle acidity of this dish acted as a cleanser for the beautifully rich smoked Japanese Wagyu that came next, poached in its own fat and served from a smoking presentation box with onion soubise, beef jus, black garlic and shallots.

After we had finished this dish the waiting staff removed the almost burned down candles and replaced them with two that were much bigger.

I thought this was odd but then they proceeded to cut the top of the candle to reveal a creamy aged cow’s milk cheese core that had been mixed with black truffle. This was served with local honey and grilled porridge bread.

The final courses now turned sweet, with a sharp dish of yoghurt, olive oil, hibiscus and quince to refresh us, and then a more decadent parsnip tart with caramelised whey, white truffle ice-cream and freshly shaved truffle.

Lastly Meadowood’s take on mignardises – cherries dipped in chocolate,  frangipane ‘stones’, two-week-old persimmons from the chef’s garden and  ‘whisky for breakfast’ – aged maple syrup with brown butter infused bourbon.

This was an incredible meal that really did deliver its intention of giving us a taste of the region; it was satisfying but balanced enough to keep us excited  course by course. What a way to end an amazing week!

View from the top
San Francisco and Napa Valley proved an easy choice since Californian cuisine is so creative. It has inspirational ingredients and terroir wines combined with  inspirational chefs like Corey Lee and Thomas Keller, whose invaluable support helped us put together an incredible itinerary, sampling the best cultural and culinary experiences for our scholars.
Michel Roux Sr

These unforgettable, once in a lifetime trips are carefully curated to provide the  definitive trip in a short timeframe, to inspire and broaden the scholars’ experience, further shared upon our return with our respective teams. The trips sum up what the Scholarship is all about – the commitment to deepening  relationships with one another and the forging of new ones whilst realising that there is still so much to learn. The powerful bond we share is extraordinary and defines the Scholarship. My father and I return greatly inspired from witnessing each scholar’s achievements and talents.
Alain Roux

Chefs on tour
Michel Roux, global ambassador, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
Alain Roux, chef-patron, the Waterside Inn, Bray, Berkshire
Brian Turner, president of the Royal Academy of Culinary Arts and celebrity chef

The Roux Scholars
Sat Bains, chef-patron, Restaurant Sat Bains, Nottingham
Tom Barnes, head chef, L’Enclume, Cartmel, Cumbria
James Carberry, lecturer, Culinary Arts at the School of Food, Dublin Institute of
Technology
Steve Drake, owner, the Anchor, Ripley, Surrey
Andrew Fairlie, chef-patron, Andrew Fairlie, Gleneagles, Auchterarder, Perthshire
André Garrett, executive chef, Cliveden, Taplow, Berkshire
Jonathan Harrison, chef-patron, the Sandpiper Inn, Leyburn, Yorkshire
Simon Hulstone, chef-proprietor, the Elephant, Torquay, Devon
Andrew Jones, executive chef, Chamberlain’s, London
Adam Smith, executive chef, Coworth Park, Ascot, Berkshire
Matthew Tomkinson, head chef, the Montagu Arms, Beaulieu, Hampshire

Fancy becoming the next Roux Scholar?

There’s still time to enter the 2017 Roux Scholarship – the deadline is 31 January. To enter, visit www.rouxscholarship.co.uk

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