Great Chefs of Sonoma

Haute Stuff

By Zack Stentz

IF SUMMER–to loosely paraphrase Martha and the Vandellas–is when the time is right for dancing in the streets, then what the heck is autumn the appropriate season for? The Sonoma County Harvest Fair, of course! Now in its 22nd year of wine stomps, art shows, food-offs, and enough apples to inspire entirely new laws of motion from Isaac Newton, the fair has this year added an entirely new twist: the Great Chefs of Sonoma Showcase Dinner.

Featuring chefs from four lucky Sonoma County restaurants and catering firms preparing the components for a sumptuous meal based around locally grown agricultural products, this Sonoma County­intensive meal is paired with medal-winning wines.

“I’ve worked years to get this event going,” says Barbara Hom, event organizer and a chef herself for Night Owl Catering. “In the past, a lot of Sonoma County chefs felt the awards night didn’t properly showcase local food, so this is an effort to address that and to highlight local food in conjunction with local wine.”

Selected by an august panel of food industry immortals like Sonoma County’s John Ash and Loretta Keller of Bizou in San Francisco, the wanna-cooks were culled first to 16 finalists, then down to four participants. “We tried to select them on the basis of which entries would go well with each other in one meal,” Hom explains, which rules out any culinary car crashes like Thai salad followed by tortellini.

Local ingredients, imaginative recipes, and inspired combinations promise to make this dinner memorable for the 200 or so assembled guests, beginning with aquaculture provided by Deborah Hazell-Krambs and Sherry Soleski of Santa Rosa’s À la Heart Catering. Planning such starters as fried Bay Bottom Bed oysters with sun-dried tomato aioli and a tart celery root salad, Hazell-Krambs laughs: “It’s funny, isn’t it? We’re here in McDougall-land and we’re serving people fried oysters.”

Grown in the shallows of Tomales Bay, Bay Bottom Bed oysters have emerged in recent years as a favorite at local restaurants, albeit usually in a somewhat squishier form. “We normally sell our oysters raw on the half-shell, because that’s how most places like to serve them,” explains Bay Bottom Beds executive Lisa Jang. “But they [À la Heart] wanted to fry them, and asked us to send a shucker, because they didn’t have any oyster-shuckers.”

Next up on the menu is a palate-clearing sliced tomato salad served with basil, nicoise olives, and shaved smoked pecorino cheese by chef Dan Berman of Santa Rosa’s MIXX bistro.

And at the proverbial center of the plate comes roast leg of lamb with cabernet sauvignon reduction sauce and accompanied by gourmet mushroom-stuffed ravioli and a mélange of vegetables. The cooking is to be done by Sheila Parrott of Santa Rosa’s Mistral restaurant, who relishes the opportunity to deal with a big ol’ Fred Flintstone-sized meat slab and not the smaller, fussier cuts usually found in white-tablecloth restaurants. “We prefer to do it as a whole bone-in leg of lamb,” she says. “It tastes better, and there’s just something satisfying about holding that big leg and slicing into it.”

Also looking forward to the event is Bruce Campbell, co-owner of the Healdsburg-based CK Lamb company providing the meat. “I’ve been involved in growing lambs in Sonoma County since I was 10 years old,” he says, “and to have my lambs be the centerpiece of this meal is very exciting.”

Supplying the dessert course is James Doolittle of Sonoma’s Ristorante Piatti, who will make an apple parmesan crostata with cinnamon gelato, a distinctively Sonoma County take on the childhood favorite of apple pie and ice cream. The abundance of apples and tomatoes gives the entire meal a seasonally appropriate autumnal feel, though the timing of the event did create some headaches for the À la Heart contingent. “It’s a little stressful, because this is really the busiest time of the year for us as caterers,” says Soleski.

“It’s a huge sell for us, using local agricultural products,” she adds. “So many people come to Sonoma County to get married, and they want the food that’s served to be representative of the area they’ve come to.”

Participants also view the event as an opportunity to remind local folk not to take the agricultural abundance of their surroundings for granted. “It’s necessary all the time to remind people where their food comes from,” Jang says. “In an urban environment, it’s very easy to get disconnected from the land and the sea that provide the things we eat.”

The Great Chefs of Sonoma Showcase Dinner takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5, at the Showcase restaurant at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. Dinner is $65. The fair is open Oct. 4-6. Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. 1350 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa. $2-$4. 545-4203.

From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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