When I was a full-time restaurant critic, there were two things I loved about the job. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed dining out for a living. There are worse ways of putting food on the table than eating food on the table. But just as enjoyable was learning about the sources of inspiration and personal history that commingled to create a chef’s vision.
As a rule, chefs are an eclectic, creative and, dare I say, bohemian lot. How and why they stepped into the kitchen is bound to offer up some good stories and, more often than not, some delicious food. As Sonoma County Restaurant Week (March 9–15) kicks off next Monday, we thought we’d check in with some of the participating chefs and ask them what dishes and people had the greatest impact on them. I hope it makes you hungry. If it does, check out the many restaurants offering special meals at great prices for restaurant week right here, www.sonomacountyrestaurantweek.org.—Stett Holbrook
Canneti Roadhouse Italiana
It’s just like your Italian grandma used to make is, perhaps, the most overused cliché in food writing, but in Francesco Torre’s case, well, what can you do?
“Everyone has a grandma who chefs, and oftentimes, it’s just a story they tell. This is a real story,” says Torre. His old-school inspiration takes the form of a daily ritual he learned as a child in Italy.
“I put the ragu on at eight in the morning,” says Torre, which is just how grandma Fina used to do it back in their small Tuscany town. Torre cooks the meat sauce all day long at Canneti Roadhouse Italiana in Forestville, where his bolognese joins other dishes inspired and inherited from grandma’s cookbook.
Torre is a 41-year-old middle child who got dropped off at grandma’s and helped her make dinner. These fondly recalled boyhood days inspired him to go to cooking school, he says, as he lays out some other of grandmother’s finest from his homeland: the prosciutto ravioli, the pasta e fagioli.
Those days also inspired his Sunday trattoria menu that’s all about family and sharing at the roadhouse. Torre mostly works a modern Italian menu that can also transport you to a Tuscan village with all kinds of goodness on the Sabbath.
There’s a deep, direct inspiration at work here: Torre wanders the surrounding fecundity of the Forestville eatery for ingredients. They make charcuterie, the bread and the olive oil, and they cultivate a lot of the produce that winds up on the menu. He’ll pick herbs for the rosemary focaccia, check in on the sheep on the farm. “I pick wild flowers and wild lettuces every day,” he says, “and of course we source a lot of our stuff locally.”
Which brings him to his second inspiration: Giuseppina Mosca.
“She changed the course of my life,” says Torre, who worked under Mosca at the Michelin two-star Il Bottaccio in Montignoso, Italy before graduating to executive chef—and before emigrating to the United States. “Everything was made to order,” he says. “It was difficult but it was the best quality food.”
Canneti Roadhouse Italiana,
6675 Front St., Forestville. 707.887.2232.
Mateo’s Cocina Latina
It’s that busy time before dinner service, and Mateo Granados’ kitchen is in full swing. Smiling and energetic, he feels at home here after years in fine-dining spots such as 42 Degrees, Masa’s, Manka’s Inverness Lodge and Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen. Granados came to the United States when he was 23, and his family still lives in Mexico. Not surprisingly, an inspirational dish for him has been Yucatán tamales.
“My mom used to make them for the whole family,” he says.
After proving himself in respected, high-end establishments, Granados decided to go back to basics—a farmers market stall, then a mobile restaurant touring wineries—and he found himself thinking of his roots.
“I think I was looking for a personal, comforting food, being homesick, and decided to replicate it. I want to show the world what I loved eating when I was growing up,” he says. “The tamales are made with organic olive oil, toasted banana leaves, tortillas and gravy. We serve them with a fried egg. They’re amazing.”
He’s well aware of the cultural and culinary gaps between the Yucatán and the decidedly moneyed Healdsburg, but prefers to celebrate them.
“Cooking tamales at Mateo’s taught me consistency is very important, every ingredient
matters and the technique has to be precise, otherwise the price of the tamale we charge is not worth it.”
Mateo’s Cocina Latina,
214 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. 707.433.1520.
If you have yet to visit Peter Lowell’s in Sebastopol, it’s time you did. The strictly organic, rustic Italian menu is far from ordinary. Take such examples as the pizza tedesco with shaved potato, sauerkraut, bacon, Gruyère and crème fraîche, or the gnocchi alla romana with rabbit sugo and wild mushrooms—nothing typical here. The restaurant is farm-fresh (they have their own and draw from a hyper-local roster of purveyors) and proud of it .
Chef Joseph Zobel’s culinary education (that’s Zobel on the cover) began with mom.
“My main inspiration comes from my mother, who is a great cook,” says Zobel.
From mom, he attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and continued to work in the city for eight years for many talented chefs. What dish most inspired him?
“There are so many dishes I love to eat and cook, but the dish that sticks out is a simple roasted chicken. There is something so perfect about a roasted chicken that simultaneously makes me hungry and inspires me.” (See the recipe at the end of this article)
Simple doesn’t mean easy. “The roasted chicken is very simple, but simple dishes are sometimes the most difficult to execute because they need finesse in the technique. With my food, I try to keep it simple and focus on solid technique while taking some risks with flavor profiles.”—Mina Rios
Peter Lowell’s, 7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. 707.829.1077.
When Brian Anderson was a kid, his grandmother was cook for reform-school youngsters released from the Preston Castle boys prison in Ione, Amador County, in northeastern California, which the Bistro 29 chef-owner says was “about as exciting as it gets.”
The youth were sent to a firefighters’ camp associated with the prison once they turned 18. His grandmother cooked food for the reform schoolers as they’d go fight forest fires for the state of California. How cool is that?
“She cooked there, she worked there for years,” recalls Anderson, 44. “She was an Italian woman, and she always made food for us too.”
Favorite dishes? “Her gnocchi and the ravioli that she made were our favorite things. I do one form of gnocchi on and off the menu here and there,” he says, which includes a fromage blanc and potato, garlic, mushrooms, kale and parmesan cheese version.
“I steer away from the marinara sauce or the meat sauce that my grandmother used to feed me,” Anderson says with a laugh—before moving on to his other inspiration: “The food that my mother-in-law made.” More to the sweet point, her profiteroles with homemade ice cream.
The story: Anderson was a former professional bike racer before he became a chef, and was riding in France in the early 1990s. “I lived with my future in-laws for a short period of time,” he says, recalling that first encounter. It was . . . love at first bite?
“I was, like, these are the best things ever!” he says. And Anderson wasn’t just being a cream puff with his mother-in-law: “I’ve always had profiteroles on the menu. Crepes, too.”—T.G.
Bistro 29, 620 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 707.546.2929.
Glen Ellen Star
The shining star of Glen Ellen Star is undoubtedly the wood-fired oven. Around it is a casual but professional space fit for chef Ari Weiswasser’s relaxed yet intense persona. The menu is almost classic California fare, with pop-ups of sumac, feta and harissa.
“I grew up in Philadelphia and started working at a restaurant at 14. One of the first things I got to make—and taste—was the Mediterranean mezza plate: hummus and tabouli, moussaka, babaganoush,” explains Weiswasser. “Fourteen is an impressionable age as it is, but I was especially impressed with the colors and flavors. I was discovering olive oil, preserved lemons, sumac. It was my favorite food to eat, an eye-opening experience to true ethnic cuisine.”
A couple of years later, Weiswasser visited Israel, which took him a step further. “Eating street food like shawarma made me realize what I love about food,” he said.
Glen Ellen Star opened in 2012 and came after a fruitful career on the East Coast and the farthest place from shawarma imaginable—the French Laundry. Glen Ellen Star is a mixture of both worlds—high-end style and big, approachable flavors.
“At the restaurant, we cook food that’s inspired by Argentina and Spain and anything with a wood-fired oven,” explains Weiswasser. “Both cuisines are bold, fresh, interesting and inspiring. Having said that, the restaurant has a classical French foundation. It’s nice to apply that foundation and knowledge with fresh vegetables and local ingredients.”—F.T.
Glen Ellen Star, 13648 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen. 707.343.1384.
With a name like Rocker Oysterfeller’s, the restaurant demands your attention and beckons you to stop for a closer look. Located in the Valley Ford Hotel south of Bodega Bay on Highway 1, the restaurant is a pearl of a find. As you might expect, the restaurant’s oysters, including an appetizer featuring Tomales Bay Oysters, arugula, bacon, cream cheese and a cornbread crust, are the specialty here. And it’s OK to overindulge; overnight accommodations are just steps away.
Chef and owner Brandon Guenther was schooled in hotel and restaurant management and cuisine at Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Ariz. Why he became a chef may have something to do with a gut feeling he once had. Literally.
“Inspiration came from my hearty appetite and need to fulfill it,” he says. “My parents were great cooks, each with their own strengths, which I learned and which began my journey in the kitchen.”
The one dish the fed Guenther’s yearning to cook:—”Tacos!”
“I grew up near the Mexican border and spent a fair amount of time on the other side. I developed a passion for the street tacos of Sonora, Mexico, and have been taco-ing ever since.”
And there’s our answer for why beer-battered fish tacos appear on a mostly Southern-inspired menu.
“The foods of Mexico taught me a great deal about balance of flavor,” he says. “Salty, sweet, savory, spicy and sour can be found in a majority of dishes throughout Mexico; this is the basis for all cooking—using contrasting flavors in harmonizing ways to tantalize the palate and excite the senses.”—M.R.
Rocker Oysterfeller’s, 14415 Shoreline Hwy., Valley Ford. 707.876.1983.
Marianna Gardenhire at Backyard, in Forestville, peruses her Restaurant Week menu and stops at the coppa salad.
The charcuterie . . . ah, the charcuterie, here offered as offerings of cured Tamworth pig with wild fennel, fennel pollen, pickled mustard seeds and dried kalamata olives.
“What I like about this dish and what it means to me is that I grew up with a single mother who cooked every day,” says Gardenhire, a full-blooded Greek on her maternal side.
She grew up with her mom and her widowed grandfather, and part of the ritual was to go to market every day. Her mother’s meals, she says, were so much more than mac and cheese.
“They were full meals, well-rounded and drawn from seasonal ingredients. So much was about what was coming from the garden, what was fresh,” says Gardenhire.
She took the inspiration from her mother, Carol, all the way through the Culinary Institute of America where she met her husband and Backyard co-owner/chef Daniel Kaden.
Gardenhire grew up in the Mojave Desert and recounts how her grandfather “always had buckets of olives curing.” She, in turn, cures them every year too, and offers just-unsealed 2013 olives with the coppa, untouched by lye. That’s just one of the “the old traditions that you continue to do,” she says—while keeping it local and sustainable. (The Tamworth pork comes fromSebastopol’s Green Star Farms.)
“For me, this dish encompasses seasonality,” she says. “The seasonality, and using every piece of the animal, and making something beautiful out of it.”—T.G.
Backyard, 6685 Front St., Forestville. 707.820.8445.
The Spinster Sisters
Santa Rosa’s Spinster Sisters eatery has been on the local and national radar since it opened in 2012. Having won the attention of Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits and Gayot says a lot about this modern American hot spot whose momentum continues to build.
Chef and co-owner Liza Hinman says her introduction to the kitchen was a practical one. “I realized that if I wanted to eat better, I’d need to teach myself how to cook, so I became a chef out of a need to explore and eat better food than I did as a child.”
A stint at the late Gourmet magazine deepened her education. “I absorbed so much knowledge,” says Hinman. “My eyes were opened to a world of food and restaurants I never knew. From there, I moved to San Francisco and attended the California Culinary Academy and worked at some great restaurants before migrating up to wine country.”
Surrounded by such ethnically diverse cuisine, it’s understandable why no single dish alone influenced Hinman’s desire to cook.
“There is no one dish that inspired me, but rather a thirst to understand lots of dishes: polenta, pad Thai and mole—how these dishes are made by the cultures that created them and how I can recreate them at home. It’s an ongoing learning process.”
Diners get to be part of that process.
“I consider the Spinster Sisters a laboratory allowing me to use both the new and familiar flavors— and share them with our diners and my fellow cooks.”—M.R.
Spinster Sisters, 401 South A St.,
Santa Rosa. 707.528.7100.
Joseph Zobel’s Roasted Chicken in Herb Butter
1 whole local chicken, (preferably organic) giblets removed
2 heads garlic, cloves separated, still in the skins
1 medium yellow onion
2 stalks celery
1/2 bunch Italian parsley
1 tablespoon thyme leaves chopped
1/2 stick softened, unsalted butter
3 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
1 quart chicken stock
Salt as needed
Preparation: To ensure a crispy skin, dry the chicken well and salt heavily, inside and out. Then place in the refrigerator for 2 or more hours. Drain off excess moisture and pat dry.
Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Cut 1/2 the onion and one carrot and celery stalk. Cut 1/2 of one leek, add garlic, and evenly line the bottom of a heavy roasting pan with the vegetables.
Mix butter, herbs, and 2 tablespoons of oil together. Rest the chicken on-top of vegetables in roasting pan and carefully lift the chicken skin along the breast, leg and thighs to slide the herb butter between the flesh and the skin, saturating the interior and exterior of the chicken skin. Wipe off excess butter and truss the chicken with twine.
Rub chicken with the remaining olive oil and roast for 1-1/2 hours. Halfway through roasting, add the white wine.
Caramelize the remaining vegetables in some butter in a sauce pan. Add the chicken stock and pan drippings, making sure to skim off and discard the chicken fat.
Let the bird rest for 15-20 minutes, carve and serve with roasted potatoes, Calabrian chiles, braised kale and some good crusty sourdough bread.