Right in the middle of harvest, the busiest time at any winery, Cakebread Cellars in Napa Valley invites five chefs from around the world, a group of local artisan food producers and food and wine enthusiasts to take part in the American Harvest Workshop, a five day intensive on food and wine. It’s a hands-on program, with the chefs and other participants literally getting their hands dirty, picking grapes, harvesting veggies from Cakebread’s winery garden, and creating and cooking two five-course dinners for 65 people.
As we gather on day one for orientation and a tour of the garden, I can’t help thinking this feels a little like Top Chef. No, it’s not a competition, but the five chefs will be working together as a team, and this is the first time they’ve met each other. Culinary Director Brian Streeter, who is our leader for the workshop, has them choose a card from a stack that indicates the protein and the Cakebread wine that each will be required to use for the first dinner. One lucky (or unlucky) chef gets dessert. He tasks them to “think about the wines and purveyors and how you might highlight each.”
Cakebread held the first harvest workshop 27 years ago, in 1987. Founding owner Jack Cakebread came up with the program to support and promote American chefs and food purveyors that he had met in his travels selling his wines. His vision for the American Harvest Workshop was a way to share the family’s passion for food and wine by introducing the chefs to local artisan purveyors and exploring the farm to table and glass connection. So far 130 chefs have been through the program. It’s a big time commitment for these chefs – they are out of their kitchens five full days. This is a big commitment for the purveyors too, as they donate both their time and food products for the chefs to cook with. Many of the purveyors have participated since the beginning. Something really special must be happening to keep them coming back, keep attracting new chefs and keep Cakebread committed to continuing the workshop year after year. I would soon find out what that was.
It seems crazy that during the absolute jam-packed of the year in any winery, harvest, that Cakebread puts on this workshop, inviting 26 chefs, media and consumers to come to Oakville, and teach and entertain and feed all of us. Why do it? Chef Brian explains that harvest is the only time that really makes sense. “It’s a way to celebrate what we do and to celebrate the creativity of great chefs, our wines in Napa Valley and the local artisan food purveyors and to get the word out and learn from one another,” he says. “We see the the passion for wine and food and we feed off your enthusiasm and we learn as well.” The Cakebreads want us to experience harvest, to be in the thick of it so to speak. If we did it in the winter when things are slow, we might not be able to have breakfast in the vineyard, and we certainly couldn’t pick grapes.
At Cakebread, food has always been as important as the wine. Jack and Dolores Cakebread became known for their culinary expertise. When the winery was founded 40 years ago in 1973 Dolores would whip up nibbles for volunteers working and guests visiting the winery as there was no money to hire a chef or bring in a caterer. She planted the beginnings of what is now an incredible garden, with over 100 varieties of vegetables thriving in the wine country climate. Today there is an amazing winery kitchen, staffed by chefs Brian and Thomas Sismith.
These are the chefs attending this year’s workshop:
Greg Biggers – Café des Artchitectes, Sofitel Chicago Water Tower
Eric Haugen, The Lamb’s Club, New York
Marc McDowell – Makena Beach & Golf Resort, Maui
Jim “Sevy” Severson – Sevy’s Grill, Dallas
Brad Turley, Goga Restaurant, Shanghai
We start with a tour of the organic garden, where gardener Marcy Snow shows us incredible produce – not just tomatoes, squash and herbs, but fragrant Charlene melons, Armenian cucumbers, anise hyssop (very minty), spicy mustard greens, pineapple sage, hyacinth beans and amaranth. It will be interesting to see what the chefs choose to go into their menus.
The purveyors that Cakebread invites are the ones that they work with all year round in the winery kitchen; it’s not just for show. They are tried and true food creators, people whom the Cakebreads and their staff believe in. After our garden tour there’s a farmers market set up for us, so the purveyors can show off their products and tell their stories to the chefs, as the chefs will be required to work with these foodstuffs.
Sure there’s local cheese (Skyhill goat cheese, Point Reyes blue cheese, Bellwether ricotta), chocolate (TCHO) and charcuterie (Fatted Calf), but there’s also heirloom beans from Rancho Gordo, antelope from Broken Arrow Ranch (lean and delicious) and a world of spices from Whole Spice, including an African curry and a Bloody Mary mix.
I learned a few things. From California Vegetable Specialties, endive takes 125 days to grow in the field and then another month in the greenhouse (that’s why it’s so expensive), and that “take” as in shitake or maitake mushrooms means mushroom in Japanese, from Gourmet Mushrooms. As the chefs taste their way through the market, I wonder what they’re discovering and what will end up on our plates for dinner.