Wine Country Cooking : Is This a Great Job, or What? : Sweet Deals: Three restaurant chefs traded the rat race for slower-paced jobs as staff chefs at California wineries.


The fame that goes with being a world-class chef has appeal only while the klieg lights are on. Once back in the depths of the kitchen, many chefs burn out on the details.

Three California chefs have left the glitzy restaurant lifestyle for the calmer, more creative world of the winery kitchen, where the fame may be far less but where the personal rewards appear to be much more tangible.

Winery owners hire chefs because they know that table wines show best with fine food. But the high cost of maintaining an on-staff chef has, in the last six years, eliminated all but a tiny handful of such positions. Six years ago, California boasted more than two dozen on-staff winery chefs. Of the few who remain, three are former restaurant chefs who gave up what they saw as a rat race. John Ash, Jerry Comfort and Mark Malicki all still feel cooking is exciting and rewarding, but prefer to do it in small, private kitchens.

“The initial appeal of the restaurant is the excitement, the adrenaline rush that keeps you going,” says Ash, whose successful restaurant John Ash and Co. was founded in Santa Rosa nearly 15 years ago, but who now makes his sauces for Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County. Eventually Ash felt the adrenaline collapse as the day-to-day routine of cooking took its toll.



Malicki, who ran his own restaurant, Truffles, in Sebastopol in western Sonoma County, says he disliked the non-cooking aspects of running a restaurant. He found cost analysis of the commercial operation to be tiresome. He also disliked the headache of dealing with such mundane pursuits as the whims of purveyors, staff and insurance companies. He is now five miles up the road at Iron Horse Vineyards.

“I enjoy this a lot more,” says Malicki. “I can be home at night, and I don’t have to make money (for someone else).”

Comfort spoke of the hectic pace of the restaurant kitchen. At Checkers, he says, “Cooking was two hectic hours at lunch and three hours at dinner.” That sort of schedule dictates shortcuts in cooking, he says, that don’t always make for the best food.


Now at Beringer Vineyards in the Napa Valley, he can take the time and care necessary to create great cuisine in a generally unhurried manner.

Of course, there are those who seem to thrive on the excitement of the restaurant kitchen. Gary Danko, a Madeleine Kamman-trained chef of extraordinary talent, preceded Comfort as staff chef at Beringer before moving on. For the last two years he has been head chef at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco and has won high praise from critics.

But Ash, Comfort and Malicki would rather be cooking in less-public surroundings.


Before he started cooking professionally, Ash was a photographer and medical illustrator in San Francisco with an interest in food styling and cooking. “I’d always loved to cook,” he says, “it was my little passion.” Eventually, he landed a position at Del Monte Foods as head of new product development, where he came up with the idea of the pudding-in-a-cup, something far removed from haute cuisine.

He tired of the corporate life, however. So he toured Europe, taking courses at cooking schools such as La Varenne in Paris and Cordon Bleu in London. When he returned to San Francisco, he operated a small catering company. In 1979 he mentioned his desire to cook to neighbor George Smith and his wife, Nancy Doyle, two physicians who loved great wine and food. The Smiths encouraged Ash to start a restaurant, and they helped arrange financing.

John Ash and Co. opened in a Santa Rosa shopping center to rave reviews in 1980. In 1988 it moved five miles north to a new building at the Vintner’s Inn.

But Ash, 51, says that after cooking professionally for more than a decade he began to find menu development more interesting. When he was offered a position as staff chef with Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino, he didn’t think twice. He remains a consultant at the restaurant bearing his name, but now prepares smaller meals out of a large two-section kitchen at Fetzer’s Valley Oaks property.



At verdant Valley Oaks, two hours north of San Francisco and a mile east of Highway 101, Fetzer’s kitchen is set up back behind the organic garden that was one of the major reasons Ash took this job. The rear kitchen, closed off from the rest of the circular, pergola-designed building, is large enough for the army of chefs necessary to cook for 150, which happens occasionally. The front kitchen is a teaching line, above which are angled mirrors so guests can see what’s cooking.

Ash says when his restaurant clearly was becoming a grind, he thought about what he’d do instead. “I wondered whether I had another restaurant in me,” he says. “I was wondering what the hell I’d do later in life. Well, I found that as I got older, I liked to yak about food.” He started doing a Saturday radio show in Sonoma County and three years ago, when he joined Fetzer, he began writing cookbooks and teaching.

Today he creates menus for the Fetzer Valley Oaks Food and Wine Center in Hopland and travels extensively, cooking dinners at which Fetzer wines are served. He also is working on a new cookbook, tentatively called “John Ash’s Wine Country Cuisine,” to be published by E.P. Dutton.


Always a kitchen tinkerer, Beringer’s Comfort, 36, got his first restaurant job at 13, a busboy in his hometown of Stockton. He worked part-time in kitchens for eight years before taking a two-year culinary course at San Francisco City College.

Then, however, he jumped onto the fastest career track available to a chef. In a space of 12 years he worked with four great chefs. After working at San Francisco’s Stanford Court Hotel (beginning as vegetable cook and leaving as sous chef), he served at Stars with Jeremiah Tower and then at Masa with the late Masataka Kobayashi. He also cooked for four years with founding chef Philippe Jeanty at Domaine Chandon before taking over as head chef at Checkers in Los Angeles, the hectic but acclaimed downtown hotel restaurant.

Two years after joining Checkers, he moved to the calm and professional--and decidedly less glamorous--kitchen at Beringer Vineyards, mainly for the chance to push the envelope of creative cookery.


His kitchen is larger than any he’s ever toiled in. Beringer designed a twin, side-by-side cooking line and installed some of the most sophisticated equipment--warming ovens, convection ovens, standard ovens and more--in Hudson House, a restored and expanded turn-of-the-century farmhouse in St. Helena, across Highway 29 from the main winery.

Comfort uses mainly the enclosed front kitchen; instructor and cookbook author Madeleine Kamman uses the teaching half of the kitchen. Comfort has a staff of three who regularly assist turning out five- and six-course dinners for VIP winery guests.


Malicki too began cooking at age 13, after his mother died. His siblings were all grown, he says, “so I was cooking dinner for my dad every night.” At age 14 he took a part-time and weekend job at Delmonico’s, a local restaurant in New Haven, Conn., where, he says, he peeled a lot of garlic.

After high school he worked at a variety of kitchen jobs before getting his first position as sous chef at Pear Trees in New York, and at the affiliated River Cafe in Brooklyn.

He was operating a catering business in New York’s fashion district in 1984 when he and his wife took a trip to visit her sister in Sebastopol. “I fell in love with this area,” he recalls. “When we went back to New York, we asked ourselves why we came back.”

Two years later the Malickis moved west and opened Truffles in 1987. But working nights and weekends was no fun, and running a restaurant added to the stress level--"having to make a living at it,” he says with a trace of disgust.

Truffles was popular with wine industry people because Malicki liked to experiment with Asian dishes, which go with non-traditional wines, a favorite of winemakers. But Sebastopol isn’t located in a major metropolitan center, so traffic midweek nights was slow.


When the Sterling family sought to replace Martha Buser (now at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco) as staff chef at their Iron Horse Vineyards, Malicki, 35, never hesitated.

Now instead of cost accounting and pricing of dishes, Malicki can simply walk through Audrey Sterling’s amazing, multitiered garden of vegetables, fruits, and herbs and create taste sensations that work with Iron Horse’s line of wines, which includes spectacular sparkling wine and lean, delicate Chardonnays.

His kitchen is little more than the original 9x9-foot kitchen that originally existed in the handsome Victorian home Barry and Audrey Sterling bought 20 years ago two miles west of Highway 116 on a rise in the middle of vineyards.

The kitchen is small but has ample countertop space, and a rear door leading to the garden permits Malicki to grab fresh herbs to garnish plates just before serving.


Whom do these chefs cook for? Wine buyers, mostly--wholesale or retail salespeople who trek to the wine country to reacquaint themselves with the wineries they represent. At Fetzer, Beringer and Iron Horse, food is such an integral part of the winery’s message that the chefs work almost daily on meals for one client or another, or for visiting importers from other countries.

One recent event was for a group of wholesale people from Miami who were touring the wine country for five days, seeing a dozen wineries. Most of the time, wineries brought in caterers to cook luncheons. At Iron Horse, however, they arrived at 10 a.m. for a tasting of new releases and barrel samples with Forest Tancer, the head winemaker. Then the guests walked down the unpaved pathway, between the row of flowering bushes, to the porch-graced Victorian home.

On a rear patio, Iron Horse sparkling wine accompanied smoked salmon canapes and quail eggs and caviar. At 12:30, lunch was served in the smaller of two indoor dining areas, with Iron Horse Fume Blanc accompanying a light appetizer, Chardonnay served with a seafood dish, then the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon with local cheeses.

The point of the luncheon was well made when the wholesalers realized that the delicate 1991 Chardonnay, which may be passed over in a traditional tasting with many other wines, was a perfect foil for the delicate seafood, and that the 1989 Cabernet went well with the two cheeses.

All three chefs also cook for other special occasions. For instance, Ash recently prepared dinner in honor of a Chilean winemaker affiliated with Fetzer’s parent company, Brown Forman of Louisville. Comfort prepared a dinner for the owner of a large retail operation.

Comfort also occasionally does major dinners of 50 or 100 for groups that contract with the winery. Recently the Marin Wine and Food Society held a birthday dinner in honor of Dr. Bernard Rhodes, owner of the Bella Oaks Vineyard and a partner in Heitz Cellars. Comfort prepared a six-course meal, served on china by a tuxedoed staff. Beringer wines and wines from other producers were poured into cut crystal.


Malicki may have the most varied job of the three. Though he rarely cooks for as large a crowd as Comfort or Ash, he cooks more often. Not only does he frequently cook for the Sterling and Tancer families (winemaker Forest is married to Barry and Audrey’s daughter, Joy), but he also does harvest luncheons throughout the fall.

All three chefs declined to discuss their salaries, but say it’s comparable to what they made at their last restaurant positions. Industry analysts say salaries here range between $70,000 and $100,000 per year.

Although that’s more than the owner of a small gourmet cafe might take home, it’s less than the owner of a great restaurant might make. What they do this for, they all say, is the greater freedom they get at the smaller winery kitchen than they had at the restaurant. In this peaceful setting, they can concentrate on such subtle elements as matching a specific wine with a specific dish.

“At the restaurant, you never knew whether someone was ordering white or red with a dish, so you had to think about how a dish would go with more than one wine,” says Ash. This meant occasionally making a dish that wasn’t as exciting as it could have been.

Moreover, says Comfort, he’s not locked into making recipes the same way each time; he has more flexibility in how he prepares things. “I’m constantly tasting the wine we’re serving that day,” he says, “and then tasting the dish, to see if the dish needs fixing.”


Also, when they are cooking for a small group, these chefs can concentrate on artistic elements that might be impossible in the heated atmosphere of the restaurant kitchen. These touches might be a more architectural display of the food, or a more time-consuming preparation.

Comfort admits that it’s nice to gain accolades for a dish, get your name in the newspaper, or walk out after a dinner amid applause.

“Some people like that setting,” says Comfort. “I like this one.”


John Ash often makes non-chocolate desserts that work well with Fetzer’s sweeter wines. This flavorful cake works best with Fetzer’s Black Muscat or Gewurztraminer.


8 ounces almond paste

1/2 cup butter

3/4 cup sugar

3 large eggs

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur

1/4 cup flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Powdered sugar

Balsamic Strawberries

Orange Mascarpone

In mixer, cream together almond paste, butter and sugar. Beat in eggs, almond extract and liqueur. Sift flour and baking powder together. Then beat into almond mixture until just combined. Pour into lightly buttered and floured 8-inch cake pan. Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes. Center should be just set. Remove from oven, cool on rack. Remove cake from pan.

Cut cake and dust with powdered sugar. Place on plate with 1 scoop of Balsamic Strawberries and 1 to 2 small scoops Orange Mascarpone. Makes 10 to 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

380 calories; 178 mg sodium; 104 mg cholesterol; 22 grams fat; 41 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 0.70 gram fiber.

Balsamic Strawberries

2 pints ripe strawberries, stemmed and halved

1/3 cup balsamic vinegar

3 tablespoons wild honey

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon green peppercorns, drained and slightly crushed

Gently combine strawberries, vinegar, honey, pepper and green peppercorns. Keep refrigerated at least 1 hour before using.

Orange Mascarpone

5 ounces fresh mascarpone cheese

2 teaspoons grated orange zest

1 teaspoon powdered sugar

In bowl mix mascarpone, orange zest and powdered sugar. Keep refrigerated at least 1 hour before using.


This is good with freshly sauteed Swiss chard and roasted wild mushroom s. Ash suggests it be accompanied by a lighter Cabernet Sauvignon such as Fetzer Barrel Select or, interestingly, an off-dry Gewurztraminer. Ash says the Cabernet pairs nicely with the pork and the compote becomes the foil; Gewurztraminer pairs nicely with the compote and the pork then is the foil.


1 (4 1/2-pound) boneless pork loin

1 quart buttermilk

2 cups diced almonds

3/4 cup grated dry Jack or Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons minced fresh oregano or 1 teaspoon dried

Salt, pepper

Sun-Dried Cherry Compote


Lightly score fat on pork loin. Place in bowl, add buttermilk and cover. Marinate in refrigerator 4 hours or overnight.

Toast almonds in pan at 350 degrees until lightly browned, 5 to 8 minutes. Let cool. Grind fairly fine. Mix with cheese, oregano and salt and pepper to taste.

Remove pork from marinade and wipe off excess buttermilk. Pat almond mixture onto meat until evenly covered. Place on roasting rack. Let stand 15 minutes. Roast uncovered at 375 degrees until internal temperature is 160 degrees, about 1 hour. Let stand 10 minutes before slicing. Garnish with Sun-Dried Cherry Compote. Makes 10 servings.

Each serving contains about:

773 calories; 426 mg sodium; 123 mg cholesterol; 55 grams fat; 23 grams carbohydrates; 40 grams protein; 2.37 grams fiber.


Sun-Dried Cherry


1 tablespoon olive oil

1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots

1/3 cup minced shiitake mushrooms

2 1/2 cups meat or vegetable stock

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

1 1/2 cups Cabernet Sauvignon

1/2 cup sun-dried cherries

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon chopped thyme

1/3 cup Port

2 tablespoons cold butter, cut into bits

Salt, pepper

Heat oil in pan. Add shallots and mushrooms. Saute until very lightly browned. Add stock, orange zest and wine. Bring to boil and reduce by half. Add cherries, orange juice, thyme and Port. Reduce to light sauce consistency.

Turn heat off. Whisk in butter to thicken slightly. Adjust seasonings to taste. Keep warm.


Ash says the slightly spicy flavors and hearty texture of this soup are enhanced by an off-dry White Zinfandel.


1 1/2 cups dry white navy or Great Northern beans

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups thinly sliced yellow onions

3 cloves garlic, thinly slivered

2 tablespoons minced parsley

2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano leaves or 1 teaspoon dried

1 bay leaf

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

1/4 teaspoon red chile flakes

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup Chardonnay

1 1/2 pounds plum tomatoes, quartered and seeded

1 cup diced carrots

1 cup thinly sliced celery


Freshly ground pepper

1/2 cup diced fennel bulb


6 to 8 basil leaves

Rinse beans well and place in pot. Cover with at least 3 inches cold water. Bring to boil and cook 2 minutes. Take off heat. Let stand 1 hour. Drain and set aside. (This optional step shortens cooking time.)

In separate soup pot, add olive oil along with onions and garlic. Saute until just beginning to brown. Add parsley, oregano, bay leaf, fennel seeds, chile flakes, stock, wine and beans. Bring to simmer. Cook 20 minutes and then add tomatoes, carrots and celery. Cook until beans are just tender, 15 to 20 minutes longer. For unsoaked beans, cook another 30 to 45 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add fresh fennel to pot just before serving.

Ladle soup into warm bowls and stir in 1 tablespoon or to taste of Aioli into each bowl. Garnish with 1 basil leaf. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

457 calories; 884 mg sodium; 14 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 20 grams protein; 4.59 grams fiber.


1 large egg

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

1 tablespoon chopped canned chipotle chiles in adobo

3 tablespoons chopped green onions

2/3 cup olive oil

Salt, pepper

Combine egg, lemon juice, garlic, chipotles and green onions in food processor or blender. Process until smooth. With motor running, slowly add olive oil to form emulsion. Aioli should have heavy sauce consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Store, covered and refrigerated, up to 7 days. Makes about 1 cup.


Jerry Comfort loves to serve this rich and spicy dessert with Nightingale, Beringer’s version of a classic Sauternes , though a late-harvest Riesling also works brilliantly.


3 pears, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch slices

2 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

2 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup Cognac or brandy

Whipping cream

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 cup currants or raisins

3 egg yolks

3 whole eggs

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 tablespoons vanilla extract

4 cups walnut bread, crust trimmed, cut into 1-inch cubes

Streusel Topping

Combine pears, brown sugar, butter, Cognac, 2 tablespoons whipping cream and cinnamon in large skillet. Cook over high heat until pears are tender. Add raisins. Then cool.

Beat egg yolks, whole eggs, 2 1/2 cups whipping cream, granulated sugar and vanilla. Strain. Mix with cubed bread. Place 1/2 bread mixture in buttered 4-cup loaf pan. Cover with pears. Cover with remaining 1/2 bread mixture. Top with Streusel Topping. Bake in water bath at 350 degrees until inserted wood pick comes out clean, 45 minutes to 1 hour. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

605 calories; 217 mg sodium; 306 mg cholesterol; 41 grams fat; 51 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.13 grams fiber.

Streusel Topping

1/2 cup flour

3 tablespoons brown sugar, packed

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

6 tablespoons soft butter

Dash ground cinnamon

In bowl combine flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, butter and cinnamon until coarsely crumbled.


A richer style of Sauvignon Blanc, such as Beringer’s 1991 White Meritage, is Comfort’s recommendation for this intensely flavored dish.


24 (2x2-inch) pieces sea bass fillets

Basil Oil

6 green zucchini, sliced to resemble spaghetti

6 yellow crookneck squash or yellow zucchini, sliced to resemble spaghetti


Salt, pepper

1 teaspoon thyme leaves

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

Filo Crisps

1 cup olive brine, reduced to 2 tablespoons

Tomato Oil

1/2 cup capers

Brush sea bass with Basil Oil, reserving 1 cup. Grill or broil 10 minutes per inch of thickness.

In pot blanch zucchini and squash in boiling water. In bowl toss with butter, salt, pepper, thyme leaves and garlic. Divide zucchini into 24 portions. On plate lay 1 Filo Crisp, top with 1 portion zucchini and 1 piece of fish. Place another Filo Crisp on fish and top with 1 portion zucchini and 1 piece of fish. Repeat to make 12 stacks.

Mix reserved 1 cup Basil Oil with reduced olive brine and sprinkle around. Sprinkle with Tomato Oil and capers. Makes 12 servings.

Each serving contains about:

533 calories; 654 mg sodium; 125 mg cholesterol; 42 grams fat; 13 grams carbohydrates; 28 grams protein; 0.68 gram fiber.

Basil Oil

1 bunch basil

Olive oil

In pot blanch basil in 2 quarts boiling water, 15 seconds. Quickly refresh basil under cold running water. Pat dry with paper towels. Coarsely chop.

Measure basil and place equal parts basil and olive oil in blender. Process to smooth paste. Remove and add 3 parts oil to 1 part puree. Shake to combine thoroughly. Let stand 24 hours.

Strain clear oil through fine sieve. Store, tightly covered, in refrigerator up to 1 week.

Tomato Oil

24 sun-dried tomatoes

1/4 cup water

1/2 cup olive oil

Rinse tomatoes of oil. Place in small saucepan with water. Simmer until tender, about 10 minutes. Puree and strain. Return to saucepan and reduce to light syrup. Add olive oil and stir gently.

Feta Crisps

1 bunch basil leaves, stemmed and finely minced

4 sheets filo

10 sun-dried tomatoes, diced

3/4 pound feta cheese, crumbled

Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay 2 layers filo, brushing each with olive oil, on top of paper. Top with diced sun-dried tomatoes. Sprinkle with basil and crumbled feta cheese. Top with 2 more layers filo, brushing each with olive oil. Bake at 450 degrees until golden on top, about 2 minutes. When cool, cut into 2-inch-square pieces.

Mark Malicki likes this not-terribly-sweet ice cream to be accompanied by an off-dry sparkling wine, such as Iron Horse’s new , limited-production Demi-Sec.


1 tablespoon rose water

1 cup milk

3 cups heavy whipping cream

1 cup sugar

4 egg yolks

1 tablespoon candied rose petals

In stainless steel pan, heat rose water, milk, cream and sugar to just below boiling. Remove from heat. Steep 20 minutes.

In medium bowl, beat egg yolks until well blended. Gradually add cream mixture while stirring. Pour yolk-cream combination back into pan and place over low heat, stirring constantly, until custard thickens. Strain and let cool.

Freeze according to ice cream maker instructions. Garnish with candied rose petals. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

604 calories; 71 mg sodium; 349 mg cholesterol; 49 grams fat; 39 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; trace grams fiber.

The fennel in this dish is really enhanced by serving it with a dry Sauvignon Blanc, such as Iron Horse’s 1992 Fume Blanc.


2 medium carrots, diced

2 small onions, diced

2 leeks, diced

2 fennel bulbs, diced


24 rock crab claws

Court Bouillon

In pot blanch carrots, onions, leeks and fennel in rapidly boiling, salted water 3 minutes. Strain and plunge vegetables into ice water. When vegetables are cool, remove and set aside.

If crab claws are uncracked, crack with flat side of large knife or cleaver. Bring Court Bouillon to boil. Add crab claws and cook 10 minutes. Add blanched vegetables and cook 2 to 3 minutes more. Use slotted spoon and and divide vegetables and crab claws among 8 bowls. Ladle over enough liquid to cover crab claws. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

202 calories; 838 mg sodium; 56 mg cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 21 grams carbohydrates; 14 grams protein; 1.60 grams fiber.

Court Bouillon

2 yellow onions, coarsely chopped

2 large leeks, white part only, rinsed and sliced

2 fennel bulbs, quartered and sliced

2 stalks lemon grass, coarsely chopped

2 carrots, coarsely chopped

1 bouquet garni (12 black peppercorns, 1 bay leaf, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 6 sprigs fresh thyme and 6 sprigs parsley, tied in cheesecloth bag)

3 cups dry white wine

1/2 cup white wine vinegar

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon ground dried chiles

In large stainless-steel pot, combine onions, leeks, fennel, lemon grass, carrots, bouquet garni, wine, vinegar, salt, chiles and 6 cups cold water. Bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 45 minutes. Strain through colander lined with cheesecloth, reserving liquid.

Tiles in rose ice cream photo from Mission Tile West, South Pasadena. Stemmed glass from Bristol Farms Cook ‘N’ Things, South Pasadena.

Fish tile in sea bass photo from Mission Tile West, South Pasadena. Plate from Bristol Farms Cook ‘N’ Things, South Pasadena.

Soup tureen and bowl in bean soup photo from Bristol Farms Cook ‘N’ Things, South Pasadena.

caption for art A wine rec