“Hi Dad. How would you like to be my sous chef? I’m doing a charity event in Napa and I’ll need a assistant.”
Ilan, my son, was the winner of Top Chef, season two on Bravo TV. Since then he had become somewhat of a celebrity and had done dozens of cooking events around the country and abroad. I had to say yes.
I was flown out first class and chauffeured to a very fancy hotel in St. Helena, California. Our driver for the event was John Shafer—owner of Shafer Vineyards, a most prestigious producer in the Napa Valley. On arrival, I found a bottle of their Cabernet Sauvignon wine in my hotel room. He was a delightful man who regaled us with farming stories (the vineyard owners call themselves farmers) as he drove us around for supplies.
The organizers had invited most prior Top Chef winners to make one dish each for lunch. Among the attendees, apart from Ilan, were Richard Blais, Harold Dieterle, Hung Huynh, Stephanie Izard, and Kristen Kish.
Ilan had decided to make a tongue sandwich with romesco sauce on fried bread. It was truly delicious, but a little much for some people who couldn’t stomach the idea of eating tongue. As there were so many students from the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena (CIA) jockeying to help, there wasn’t much for me to do. Ilan had also invited his friend Rahul, who is now a partner in his Los Angeles vegan ramen restaurant, Ramen Hood.
My job was to prepare ingredients as told. At one point Ilan asked me to perform some task and I suggested I do it a different way.
Ilan looked at me seriously and said, “Dad! All I want to hear from you is, ‘Yes Chef!’”
“Yes Chef,” I answered. I did what I was told. [That HAS to be a first—Ed.]
We served our dish and, with few exceptions, the crowd of high rollers raved over Ilan’s food. Everyone had been given a cutting board to eat on and some circled the chefs, asking them to autograph their boards. One woman approached me and I explained that my son, standing nearby, was the chef. She soon returned and again asked for my autograph. I asked why.
“You created this Top Chef,” she said, beaming.
Another woman, dripping with jewelry, asked me to sign her board. When I explained that I wasn’t the chef, she looked at me in abject horror and backed away as if I was contagious.
Service over and surrounded by vineyards, we started drinking some amazing wines. A bunch of us then sauntered (staggered) over to the restaurant at the Meadowood Resort and, of course, Ilan was friendly with the head chef, which made for quite a lush meal. We also drank a few more bottles of wine. At one point, I mentioned that my favorite brewery in the world, Russian River Brewing Company in Santa Rosa, was only 25 miles away. Russian River brews a beer, Pliny the Elder, which in my opinion is the best beer ever made. Everyone agreed that it was time to stop drinking wine and start drinking beer.
Russian River Brewing Company was founded in 1997. While RRBC has recently opened a new brewpub in Windsor, California, the original premises in downtown Santa Rosa consists of a very long bar that is eternally crowded. Serving standard pub fare, it has the feel and look of a local pub in Anytown USA, but the beers they make are magical. Pliny, my favorite, is a double IPA. Double IPA means double the amount of hops, which makes the beer bitterer, but if properly made (and Pliny is) the addition of extra malt balances the bitters and turns it into something sublime. Many brewers make double IPAs but no one does it better than Russian River. It is not uncommon to see many a customer clutching his pint and smiling knowingly. A pint or two of Pliny and all is well with the world.
Refreshed from our outing to the brewery, we returned to St. Helena to a restaurant booked for all of the chefs and their helpers. By this time, we were all rather lifted, which made the chefs quite talkative. At one point some the chefs competed in showing their battle scars, which ranged from cuts (lots of them), to serious burns, to scald marks. They seemed to find this subject hilarious.
Dinner over, we all traipsed over to a local bar to listen to music. Hanging out with chefs is fascinating but their excesses in food and alcohol must take a toll on them, and I wouldn’t be able to do this all the time. Nevertheless, that weekend was an experience.
The next morning, hung over, the limo whisked me back to the airport. It was time for a detox.