Sophisticated Palate: A Taste of Northern California

A Tribute to Chef John Ash & Napa:

“Dear Johanna, I hope this email finds you well. It is to inform you that the recipe you designed won first place in the 2010 Ontario Service Inspired Restaurants Corporation recipe challenge. Executive Chef Michael Steh from Reds Bistro in Toronto chose your recipe and will be adding it to his menu. He will cook a 6 course dinner at the restaurant for you and 5 of your friends that will include your recipe. Furthermore, this has won you a cooking course for two with the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, California. Congratulations!”

What?!! I did not expect this to happen while I was casually sitting on the floor, writing a recipe for a simple dish that I love, in our cottage in the woods in Belwood, Ontario, Canada. I did not even take any pictures to enter the contest! This chef must truly love simplicity. I have a set of Japanese bamboo steaming baskets, I love lemon grass, I love lobster and I love watercress, so I put it together into a dish that is ridiculously easy to make, takes 5 minutes to cook and 10 minutes to assemble.

Chef Steh is an amazing chef that makes my dish beautiful in July 2010. In November 2010 we arrive in Napa, California for the first time. I’m so humbled by the experience that I’m speechless. Growing up as a very poor small town girl that was at the receiving end of every bully in elementary school, unpopular in junior high and invisible at university, this event far surpassed anything I could even remotely imagine. I feel overwhelmed and it is hard for me to wrap my head around the reality. It feels like I’ve entered a dream and I decide to simply bask in the glory and enjoy every moment of the experience.

We stay in a quaint fairy tale boutique hotel called La Residence. Every morning early we take off to the CIA for a day of cooking, eating and wine tasting. Our instructor Chef John Ash is the main reason why this trip is memorable. He is dynamic and his food knowledge and culinary passion is astounding. He fast becomes a mentor that I look up to and will not readily forget. He teaches me to grill and use a blowtorch on food. WHOA!

We are split into four teams that cook in a test kitchen under the same kind of pressure a real chef would cook under. It is utter chaos and I gain new respect for chefs. There is a day where we load a table for 20 people, all dishes made by us. Our presentation is out of this world. Included in the crowd of diners are olive grove owners, bee keepers, chefs, restaurant owners, vinyard owners, cooking instructors and us. Later we will visit these places and taste olive oil, honey and more wine.

Chef Ash teaches us “The Nose” by taking us through the A.C. Noble Aroma Wheel. We are unable to taste the immitation liquid representing wine. This is in order to keep us from drinking so that we can remain focused on the various wine aromas based only on what we can smell. There are aromas of chocolate, citrus, grass, spice, flowers, toast, earth, oak, yeast and more. It is an eye opening experience and so we learn how to pair the right wine with the right food. We eat a lot, we drink a lot every day, all day from breakfast to dinner and to my great astonishment, not a single person becomes blotto at any time during the course.

We get treated to dinner at one of the CIA’s own restaurants, Greystone. This night the degree students cook us a memorable meal and the final day of our course, we get to visit Castello Di Amorosa where we get The Royal Pairings of 2006 Il Passito Sonoma County Reserve (Foie Gras en Tourine), 2008 Bien Nacido Chardonnay Santa Barbara Reserve (Sottocenere Truffle Cheese), 2009 Gioia Rosato Di Sangiovese (Italian Charcuterie), 2007 Sangiovese Napa Valley (Mini Italian Meatballs of Ground Chicken and Fennel), 2006 Il Brigante (Piare Vecchio with a balsamic vinegar reduction), 2005 La Castellana Napa Valley Reserve (Milk chocolate filled with French vanilla ganache), 2006 Il Barone Napa Valley Reserve (Dark chocolate filled with Cappuccino Tiramisu Ganache).

The day before our return to Canada, we have the opportunity and privilege to visit 3 more vinyards for wine tasting. We start with Sterling Vinyards by taking the cable car up to the tasting rooms for yet another spectacular experience. The views are stupendous and we taste until our tastebuds are numb. We need to get to the final two vineyards. Neither of us can put another sip of wine down our gullets and we agree that the last two vineyards are going to have to fall by the wayward side. Never in my life did I think I will pass up on drinking more wine! That evening we eat our final meal at Bistro Don Giovanni and the following day we get smacked back to reality when we return the rental car and get on the plane back to Canada.

Our incredible experience with Chef John Ash, the time at the CIA and the Napa Valley comes to an end. Unfortunately words cannot express the depth of this experience. We will return a second time a few years later to experience more wine tasting in this fairy tale place, only this time, we feel like seasoned wine drinkers of the Napa Valley.

For more images from our Toronto and Napa experiences, follow these links to my Facebook page. For more about Chef Ash, follow the link below the Facebook links to his website.

Chef John Ash

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