Napa: Following food from farm to table

Road Journals Blog—Visitors to Napa’s foodie capital of Yountville have long been treated to the quintessential farm-to-table experience. A walk through the glorious gardens of The French Laundry proves as much; odd-colored heirloom tomatoes and eccentric varieties of eggplant are carefully labeled so you can recognize them on your plate when you dine.

Still, many of the valley’s other popular restaurants, while top-notch, always struck me as the opposite of local—as if their roots drew from New York or Los Angeles or Paris rather than from Napa’s fertile soil.


Chard grows in the French Laundry's garden. | Melanie Haiken

Recently, however, new chefs have arrived so excited by Napa’s bounty that they designed dishes specifically to show off their latest discoveries.

My last few visits to these new faves have provided not only incredible meals, but a list of local purveyors, from cheesemakers to olive presses, that I’m eager to visit on my next trip. I’ve also learned about DIY techniques like smoking and preserving; even if I never have the courage to smoke my own meat, it’s still exciting to eat salume that was cured in a chef’s own kitchen.


The French Laundry's garden. | Jill Clardy/Flickr

Start with chef Sean O'Toole from Bardessono. The Boston transplant was so inspired by local growers and ranchers that he named most of his dishes after them. (It’s not just short rib, it’s Marin Sun Farm beef. The same holds for Pazzi Farm lamb, Swanton Farm artichoke risotto, La Tercera Farm squash soup, and many more. This says nothing of the artisinal cheesemakers from throughout Sonoma, Napa, and Marin that dot the menu.)

Located in the ultra-green LEED-platinum-certified hotel of the same name, Bardessono shares the hotel’s mission of leaving the smallest possible footprint. Most ingredients hail from within a 20-mile radius.

At Cantinetta Piero in the new Hotel Luca, chef Jason Balestrieri spotlights his own house-made salume; served on an unassuming wooden board, the dish features six varieties, all cured on the premises. Pasta dishes feature homemade sausage. Even though Balestrieri's menu is Italian-inspired, befitting the hotel’s faux-Tuscan surroundings, it nevertheless features dishes built around local produce, cheese, beef, and pork.

Farmstead, at the southern edge of St. Helena, is a complicated but wonderful mix of farm stand, restaurant, nursery, and tasting room—all an outgrowth of Napa’s beloved Long Meadow Ranch. Located on an enormous piece of property that once belonged to the Whiting nursery and growing grounds, Farmstead is still a working nursery, affording visitors the unusual experience of being able to go home and grow the herbs, veggies, and fruits they just sampled in chef Seamus Feeley’s soups, salads, and stews.

If you’re an avid gardener like me, you’ll spend hours wandering the rows in the kitchen’s garden, from which Feeley—formerly the executive chef at the nearby Rutherford Grill—gets seasonal produce. The tasting room at Farmstead is a similarly educational experience; by the time you leave, you’ll know more than you ever thought possible about olive varieties and organic wine and olive oil production.

I was so curious I went home with two different kinds of olive trees wth which to experiment myself.

Perhaps by the time they mature in a few years, I’ll be an expert.

For more on the Napa Valley, see VIAmagazine.com’s package on the area.

This blog post was first published in April 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.