It’s a Short Trip from Farm to Table
at Napa Valley Restaurant
Jan. 2006 — When Victor Scargle wants a handful of fresh herbs, all he has to do is step outside the kitchen door and snip them from the garden. Scargle, 33, is executive chef at Julia’s Kitchen, the white-tablecloth restaurant at Copia: the American Center for Food, Wine and the Arts, a nonprofit institution in Napa, Calif., and the 3.5-acre organic garden is an integral feature of the center. Copia, which opened in November 2001, is the culmination of an effort launched in 1988 by legendary Napa Valley winemaker Robert Mondavi and other leaders in the wine community. They envisioned an educational center that would celebrate and promote the region’s culinary heritage.
Copia, which is built on 12 acres donated by Mondavi and has partnerships with other institutions including the University of California and Cornell, fulfills that mission by offering visitors a variety of ways to explore “the fascinating cultural intersections of wine, food and the arts.” There are wine-tasting classes, cooking classes, concerts on an outdoor terrace, art exhibits, tours of the garden and shopping in the gift shop. The center, which has artist-in-residence programs for poets, dancers, filmmakers, scientists, winemakers and chefs, also houses a collection of rare food and wine books.
Julia’s Kitchen and two other dining facilities at the center are managed by the Los Angeles-based Patina Group, which also operates Patina Restaurant at the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles; Pinot Provence in Costa Mesa, California; Pinot Blanc in St. Helena, California; Pinot Brasserie in Las Vegas; and food operations in a number of California museums.
Scargle has to meet lofty expectations. That would be inevitable for anyone who presumed to cook in a restaurant named for the late, great Julia Child. The namesake for Scargle’s restaurant is this nation’s high priestess of food and wine.
The restaurant attracts both discriminating locals and wine-and-food tourists from around the world. Typically, the guest will spend a whole day at Copia, participating in a wine tasting, watching a cooking demonstration, and staying for dinner at Julia’s Kitchen.
Scargle didn’t set out to become a chef. He was headed for a business degree at the University of California at Santa Barbara, but one semester, he landed in an advanced accounting class that bored him silly. He had worked around restaurants since he was in his early teens, and found he was missing the commotion and camaraderie of the kitchen. “You’re not saving lives, but you’re creating an experience that gives people an escape from the daily grind,” he says. “The joy of the job comes from seeing people happy.”
He dropped out of college to work at Fess Parker’s Resort in Santa Barbara, then went on to a variety of restaurants in New York and Florida, including Tribeca Grill, a hip hangout for Manhattan celebrities. He returned to California to cook at San Francisco’s highly regarded Aqua, then assisted in the opening of Aqua, Las Vegas. He’s also worked at Burlingame, California’s Pisces and as executive chef for San Francisco’s Jardiniere.
Biodynamic Garden’s Proof Is in Produce
When he was offered the executive chef post at Julia’s Kitchen in early 2003, recalls Scargle, the garden that came with the job helped seal the deal. He still marvels about it. The garden curator keeps him supplied with an endless succession of exotic vegetables such as the deep orange cheddar cauliflower and crimson-colored fava beans. The garden also provides visitors with a more well-rounded education about food. “It’s neat when the guests go out to the garden to see these things grow and then come in and see we’re using the same vegetables,” says Scargle. “It puts the whole thing together.”
The garden is managed according to the biodynamic principles developed by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner. “They plant based on the lunar cycle, and spray herb preparations on the new moon. They make compost tea and bury stuff in the horn of a bull for several months,” says Scargle, who admits to initial skepticism about the gardening method. “I said to the gardeners, ‘How do you know it works?’ They said ‘Just try it.’ ”
Scargle isn’t up on all the nuances of biodynamic gardening, but he’s certainly impressed with the results. Copia is named for the goddess of abundance, and the garden presents Scargle with a cornucopia of produce year round. At least 60 percent of all the produce he uses comes from Copia’s garden, and in the summer, the percentage is even higher. All of Scargle’s kitchen trimmings are recycled back into the garden. After the gardeners bring produce in to the chef, they take all the scraps back with them to compost piles in the garden.
Scargle is fortunate that he can depend on Copia’s garden, which is one of the few areas in the Napa Valley not hit by this January’s torrential floods. Copia, which is on relatively high ground in downtown Napa, was surrounded by floodwater that only licked at the edges of the garden. Copia has announced that there was no flooding in the facility and only “low-level cleanup” was required in the garden.
In the winter, citrus fruits are the menu’s stars. Scargle has kaffir and regular limes, Meyer lemons, grapefruits, tangerines and mandarins from which to choose. He has also been using the last pineapple guava and fuyu persimmons, and is still getting pomegranates and quince. And he’s been experimenting with the bright-orange Rangpur lime, which has the sweetness of a tangerine, and the kick of a lime. Scargle has found it makes a wonderful granite. When served with a warm savory dish, it melts and “becomes like a warm vinaigrette.”
This season’s Copia-grown vegetables that Scargle is now using include different kinds of chards and kale, mustard greens, beets and carrots. One of his favorite vegetables presently in season is the conical Romanesco broccoli, which Scargle thinks looks a lot like a bishop in a chess set. He likes to blanch it briefly and then warm it up with other vegetables. Once in a while, he will coat it lightly with tempura batter and serve it as a garnish for soup. Although he purees many other vegetables, he won’t use this treatment for the Romanesco broccoli “because it’s so beautiful as it is.”
Figuring Out Kohlrabi
Another in-season vegetable, kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea), was new to Scargle when he first came to Copia. The garden produces two different varieties, green and purple. When he was trying to figure out what to do with this odd-looking vegetable, the first thing he did was think about the vegetable’s near relatives. “I know it’s related to the turnip, so I treated it like a turnip,” Scargle says. “We play around with it, experimenting to see what we get.”
He purees kohlrabi with cream and salt and pepper, which makes a rich, creamy and nutty puree. He also cuts kohlrabi into julienne strips and deep-fries it. “It’s kind of like a celery root, with a nuttiness and an earthiness,” he says. Scargle also has diced it like a potato and crisped it in hash, and sometimes he serves kohlrabi carmelized in butter.
His menu this time of year is long on winter vegetables available in northern California. He serves a chicken breast accompanied by a hash of winter squash and potato. Sauteed sole comes with pureed fennel, and the rack of lamb is served with cauliflower, baby turnips and polenta seasoned with home-grown rosemary. He provided Seasonal Chef’s readers with this recipe for duck breast that uses carrots and Napa cabbage.
Occasionally the Copia garden gives Scargle too much of a good thing. During the summertime, all 20 varieties of eggplant produce at once, an abundance that tasks even his creativity. “There’s only so much you can do with eggplant,” he says. Fortunately Copia’s cooking classes can take all the excess.
Sometimes Scargle gives cooking demonstrations. His goal is not to show off elaborate and complex dishes but to give Copia visitors some techniques they can take home with them. “I want to show people that following a few steps isn’t all that difficult. You start with a great produce and if you seasons things and cook things properly, you’ll end up with a great presentation,” he says.
Restaurant on a Mission
Julia’s Kitchen seats 80,and Scargle serves an average of 90 to 100 dinners per night. Because the restaurant is at least an hour’s drive from San Francisco, it’s not a late-night destination, and most of the dinners are served between 6 and 8 p.m. The typical check without wine runs between $45-$55. Thursday night, which tends to attract locals, features a special three-course menu for $29.
Scargle has a back-of-the-house staff of 25, and another 15 in the front.
The red wines that make Napa Valley famous have a special affinity with lamb dishes. The lamb Scargle serves actually graze in the valley’s vineyards. He buys his lamb from Napa Valley Lamb Company of Calistoga. These lambs are used for weed control at various wineries in the valley, including Younntville’s Domaine Chandon, and Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville .
The lambs eat the vineyard’s cover crop and trim the leaves around the grapes before harvest, thereby cutting down on vineyard labor costs. Scargle says the local lamb has “a totally different flavor from New Zealand or Colorado lamb. Plus, he likes the close relationship the lambs have to the vineyards.
He also buys local dairy products whenever possible. Petaluma’s Clover Stornetta Farms provides much of the milk and butter, and artisanal cheeses come from Pt. Reyes Station’s Cowgirl Creamery.
Scargle brings a high level of environmental awareness to his fish purchases. He will only buy fish that has been caught by line or gillnet. He refuses to use farmed salmon, and instead, buys wild salmon, steelhead trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) and river sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus ) from the Quinault Nation, a Native American tribe headquartered in Tahola, Washington.
Scargle feels that Julia’s Table fulfills a special culinary mission. “Everybody talks about going from the ‘ground to the plate,’ “ he says. Because of his opportunity to cook from the bounty of Copia’s garden, “we are pulling it out of the ground and putting it on the plate. We know what was put into the soil. We know the whole process. You won’t find this anywhere else.”