Monday, October 28, 2013

Advice to a Young Chef from a...Winemaker

by student blogger BB

My commute from the CIA-Greystone campus in St. Helena to Napa, involves passing a number of famous wineries at the tail-end of harvest including  Robert Sinskey Vineyards and I'm reminded of a recent tasting and conversation with winemaker Jeff Vernig.  Vernig became Sinskey's winemaker in 1991, making him the youngest winemaker in Napa Valley at the time. Nearly 25 years later, his philosophy on wine is equally applicable to winemaking as cooking. Two particular quotes still resonate. Let me tell you why. The first.

"I don't want to be a smart winemaker, I want to be a wise winemaker."- Jeff Vernig, Winemaker, Robert Sinskey Vineyards
By wise, Vernig meant, he let his intimate knowledge of the vineyards drive his judgment. I've contemplated these words as my class, AOS 34, moved through three-week blocks of Banquets & Catering with Chef Paul Irving, A la Carte Cookery with Hyde Park-import Chef Gerard Viverito and now High-Volume Production with Chef Rebecca Peizer. By example and instruction, these chefs taught me the difference between being a "smart" chef versus a "wise" chef. That lesson begins with an intimate understanding of the item with which you are working.  For example, precise seasoning requires knowing when an item is most receptive to salt. Dry beans are best seasoned after the skins soften; add salt too early and the skins tighten slowing water absorption and resulting in a longer cook time and increased risk of broken skins.  Similarly, efficiency can be gained by building the flavor base at the onset (think low and slow moist and combination cookery), which translates to less adjustments throughout production and your ability to focus on other items. 

Vernig's second quote is even more memorable to me because of its accuracy to the culinary arts.
I admire chefs in restaurants, they have harvest seven days a week." - Jeff Vernig, Winemaker, Robert Sinskey Vineyards
As AOS 33, 34 and BP 13 prepare for externship in two short weeks, it has become clear to me that we are headed into our own 18-week harvest of sorts. Location sites run an impressive gamut from Eleven Madison Park and Per Se in New York, to Manresa and Providence in California.  Personally, after weighing offers locally and in southern California, I'm heading to the City of Angels to work in the LA Times Test Kitchen.  I'm more than excited and equally humbled by the prospect of hands-on food writing, styling, and recipe development & testing as I'm sure my colleagues are as they embark on their own endeavors.  So, let the "harvest" begin, and may the wise chef prevail.

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