The past few days have been a filled with roaring laughter, rousing toasts, intense cooking, celebrated camaraderie, joyful reminiscing and at the very core, great food from some of the brightest chefs in American and abroad paired with stellar Cakebread Cellars wine.
The 25th Anniversary of The American Harvest Workshop brought 50 out of the 115 total chefs that have participated over the past 25 years back to the Cakebread Cellars Winery in Napa Valley to cook in their tiny kitchen with local ingredients found throughout the region, like Cowgirl Creamery cheese, Hog Island Oysters and Rancho Gordo beans, along with Texas meat company, Broken Arrow Ranch, who have also been a part of the workshop since its first year back in 1987.
The atmosphere from start to finish was one of helping, sharing and collaboration, with egos checked at the door and farm to table creativity being the focus. Most chefs agreed that attending this workshop made an impact on who they were and are as chefs and many, as restaurateurs. They gained an appreciation for what it takes to make good wine, understand the value of high quality products and really dive into spirited creativity working beside fellow chefs from around the world. The fact that almost half of the total number of chefs who have attended in the past came back for this celebration, some of which attended 20+ years ago, and came back says quite a bit.
Like Chef Amy Ferguson, class of 1988, formerly a chef here in Dallas opening Baby Routh with Stephan Pyles, and now owns a catering business on the Big Island of Hawaii. Amy was one of the first to jump in and help her fellow chefs throughout the weekend, epitomising what this workshop really is. I kayaked with Amy the morning of the Grand Tasting and listening to her talk about the general love of the kitchen, the pace and the energy, along with the satisfaction of creating something special was contagious….it made me want to get in the kitchen and cook beside her. Chef Danielle Custer, class of 1997, former chef at Laurels in Dallas and now a chef in Seattle. She noted that the workshop was one she will always look back on with great fondness and appreciation, especially as she was a developing chef shaking things up here in Dallas. That sentiment ran deep among most of the participants, as well as friends and guests who may have paid to attend the workshop in the past.
Each year Cakebread allows a very select number of guests to attend the workshop and work side by side as sous chefs throughout the weekend. One guest who was back for the celebration said that the workshop wasn’t just fun, they worked just as hard as the chefs did to create the dinner for 100 on the final night of their original workshop. And the requirements were as high as if they were cooking in a restaurant. The chef she was working under made her re-dice cucumber 3 times to make sure each cut was perfect. Though it is a farm to table workshop, these chefs are still focused on impeccable quality and presentation, as that standard is a big reason they were invited to attend the workshop in the first place.
This year featured a new event for the winery, a walk around Grand Chefs Tasting spread throughout the winery and barrel rooms with half of the 50 chefs creating dishes to pair with the recent releases of Cakebread Cellars Wine. I spoke with Broken Arrow Ranch owner, Chris Hughes, son of founders Mike and Elizabeth Hughes who have participated since day one. He was a little busy as his wild game was being served by many of the chefs throughout the space and he was trying to man all the stations, but offered that the workshop is a great opportunity for chefs to use high quality wild game, like Broken Arrow Ranch’s antelope, wild boar, free range venison and Texas quail that they may otherwise not have access to.
The Celebration Dinner featured chefs pairing up to create an 8 course tasting dinner on the patio outside the winery for 100 guests. There were almost as many chefs in the kitchen as there were guests, as everyone participated in the preparation including a few outside volunteers and media attendees.
Chefs Amy Ferguson and David Paul Johnson created a dessert fitting of their Hawaiian homes, a Beet-Chocolate Cake with a Mac Nut Coconut Florentine and Honey Coconut Sorbet. Dense, rich cake with the sweet sorbet with tasted like honey toasted coconut, served with Kona Coffee, or if you were lucky a bit of the 2003 Cakebread Dancing Bear Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, a luxurious wine filled with licorice, ripe cherries, chocolate and leather.
As chefs reminiced well into the morning hours the obvious observation from this fly on the wall was true joy of once again coming together to learn, grow, play and create in the kitchen. Next year Cakebread Cellars will go back to inviting their small group of 4 or 5 chefs to the workshop to be the Class of 2012. Those chefs will go through the same experiences these did, working the farms, learning about wine and really getting their hands dirty, all with the same requirements to leave their egos at home, bring only their knives and great creativity.