WHEN I told a friend who works as a chef that I was taking three days of cooking classes in the Anderson Valley for a vacation, his response was quick and typically tart: "I wish you'd told me first. I need help in my kitchen."
Wisecracks aside, I understand that some might find the idea of a "cooking vacation" counterintuitive. Who would want to worry over a stove with a group of strangers in the heat of summer?
But generally I find the step-by-step process of putting together a meal relaxing. I'd first learned of the class during a trip to Mendocino County a few years back. We made a quick detour from quirky Boonville to the Apple Farm in nearby Philo, 30 tucked-away acres just far enough off California 128 to feel like a genuine discovery.
We meandered through the lush grounds edging up to the orchards. Then I happened upon the Apple Farm's vast, sun-flooded kitchen: its large chopping-block work islands; huge old Montague stove; well-stocked pantry; row upon row of gleaming baking pans; stacks of gorgeous, hand-made crockery. Looking around this well-appointed, obviously professional kitchen in the middle of a fairy-tale-in-the-woods setting, I took it all in. "What," I wondered, "goes on here?"
I finally indulged my curiosity and called. It turns out that cooking classes at the farm are run by Sally Schmitt, who, with her husband, Don, owned and operated the French Laundry, the famed Yountville restaurant. After 16 years, they sold it and "retired" — entrusting the business to chef Thomas Keller — who did them proud and brought it international acclaim.
The weekend sessions, which run February through October, book up months in advance. Classes and menus are determined by what's available from local purveyors and what's doing nicely in the farm's gardens.
By the time my session arrived in late July, the meteorologists were predicting 95 degrees or warmer in Philo, so I packed shorts and skirts, a sweater for the cool nights and comfortable shoes. From the Oakland airport, it's a 2 1/2 -hour drive up U.S. 101 to Philo.
Heading into the hills on California 128, you get your first whiff of the woods — firs and evergreens and, finally, majestic groves of redwoods. The road narrows and serpentines dramatically the farther you climb, enough perhaps to make even the most road-hardy carsick.
I arrived with a friend well before the 5 p.m. start time. We had our choice of the three A-frame cottages close, but not too close, together, and all a quick walk from the farmhouse kitchen. (We nearly took the one with the private outdoor shower.) Each high-ceilinged cottage is simply appointed with a sort of rustic elegance: wood four-poster beds covered with cheerful quilts, wood floors covered by rag rugs, and small bouquets of lavender that scent the room.
After cleaning up in the old-fashioned sink, I headed to the farmhouse kitchen — blessedly air-conditioned — where I collected my apron and met the rest of the eight-person class. We assembled around the large island, where Sally had set out a crate of ripe, fragrant peaches.
Don trudged in wearing a workshirt, boots and dungarees and started things rolling by uncorking several bottles. We sipped and he told us what notes to look for in the Sauvignon Blanc from Husch Vineyards not far down the road.
Our group had two men and six women. One couple had come from Seattle for their third experience. We all made an introductory " 'Love Boat,' here's to the journey" toast.
Sally spoke in comforting, buttery tones as she handed each of us a folder of recipes. That's when we realized what we'd gotten ourselves into: That night's dinner would be a three-course affair. The next day, it would be five courses, but with a three-dish lunch to prepare and consume before that. One couple began planning a morning run among the redwoods up in the nearby Hendy Woods to jog off the cream and butter damage.
Sally simply plunged forward, going over the evening's menu: poblano chile soup, bacon-wrapped scallops, peach gelato. She got one group started peeling peaches, then started another on the next segment of the recipe. This technique, though it seemed democratic and logical at first, didn't account for the overzealous in class — the first to take charge, the first to tell you how they do it at home.
Competition in the kitchen
THE thought began to sharpen in my mind: I've chosen a vacation of hard, intimate work with a group of strangers. As I sloughed the skin from the ripe peaches, I couldn't seem to get the phrase "plays well with others" out of my head — especially as we were surrounded by precision German and Japanese knives. "Playing well together" would be the unspoken, though absolutely necessary, ingredient of the weekend ahead.
This was not "Love Boat" at all. More like "Survivor."
After a couple of hours, though, we fell into the rhythm of the "behind you hot plate" dance of the kitchen. As dinner emerged from its skillets and baking dishes, Sally's daughter Karen Bates gave us a lesson in presentation, how not to crowd the food, how to avoid leaving fingerprints on the plates. We delivered the first course to the table right around 9 p.m. — just as Don reappeared to open a Pinot Noir. After the gelato, served with a sprig of lemon verbena, Sally sent us off, sated but exhausted, to our comfy beds under a startling blanket of stars.
Though the rooster crows around 4 a.m., we weren't expected back in the kitchen until 10. After tea and toast and a metabolism-boosting walk to visit the goats, chickens, sheep and pigs, we reconvened to start in on lunch and dinner.
First came a summer pudding — layers of fresh, warmed raspberries over sourdough bread that needed to chill for several hours. Then we turned our attention to lunch: oven-roasted salmon with sorrel sauce and blanched haricots vert. The French potato salad included scallions and Italian parsley that we pulled from the garden — an elegant tangle of herbs, greens, berries, flowers and vegetables that looked as though it had grown from the pages of an English children's storybook.
Sally gently showed me the way to position the knife to keep the onion and lemon slices for the salmon paper-thin. Then she demonstrated the way to roll the sorrel leaves then cut at a diagonal, chiffonade-style, for a garnish. We hit a collective groove balancing dinner and lunch tasks. Consequently, our midday meal was served almost precisely at noon, and we ate it outdoors under a canopy of mulberry trees.
After lunch we had a three-hour break, a chance to roam about the region. Hendy Woods State Park, a short drive away, offered scenic hiking trails through virgin redwood groves. Anderson Valley wineries — Navarro Vineyards, Handley Cellars, Scharffenberger Cellars and Greenwood Ridge Vineyard — were open for tastings. Just down California 128 were the curio shops of Boonville's main drag and the Boonville Hotel, owned by Don and Sally's son Johnny Schmitt, where one could find a nice spot in the garden to have a cup of tea and re-center.
By 5 p.m., some of us were surreptitiously finding places to perch or lean, to rest our feet or lower backs, as we confronted the most complicated meal of the weekend: twice-baked soufflés, lamb in eggplant rolls with tomato concassé, a green salad and the summer pudding.
The enthusiasm of our most fervent foodies hadn't flagged — they chopped, they grilled, they sautéed. But if any one of us got too far afield, Sally in her kindest voice nudged, "Now, what does your recipe say?" or "Come close. Listen." In this kitchen there were no mistakes, only adjustments.
Joining us for dinner was Karen's husband, Tim, who fielded questions about the farm's day-to-day operations over the pillowy first-course soufflés. By the time we started in on the eggplant and lamb, Sally and Don were indulging our queries about their years at the French Laundry and the challenges of sustaining not just a farm but a way of life.
Come Sunday morning, we were all showing signs of getting a bit crisp around the edges. Even the most eager of our pack seemed ready to cede some responsibility: "Oh, you guys can do that," one woman said. "I don't want to get goat cheese under my nails."
When it came time to add the flour for the clafouti mixture, I put the scoop into the glass flour canister, but before I could get too far, an overeager classmate attempted to grab the cup out of my hand. "You'd fail home ec!" she cried, launching into a lecture about technique.
"And you know what you learn?" said Sally, coming to my rescue. "That really it doesn't make too much difference."
I thought about this — this subtle gift, courtesy of the Bates and the Schmitts — as we gathered a final time under the mulberry tree. The corn salsa with a bite of lime and jalapeño was a hit. The savory clafouti was complex. But the smiles all around — acknowledging the hard work, the collective accomplishment, a new ease and confidence — overpowered any bitterness.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Apples and more
From LAX, Southwest and United offer nonstop service to Oakland. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $138. From LAX to San Francisco, nonstop service is offered on Alaska, American, United and US Airways. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $176.
Driving from Los Angeles, it's a 500-mile trip, taking about nine hours, depending on traffic.
Driving from airports in the Bay Area, go north on U.S. 101 and California 128 to Philo. Drive time about 2 1/2 hours.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Apple Farm, 18501 Greenwood Road, Philo, CA 95466; (707) 895-2461, http://www.philoapplefarm.com . Cabins, $200 per night, are available only to students on weekends. Classes are $350 per person, including all food, wine and recipes. Rate is $1,140 for two, including lodging and taxes. Prices in 2006 will rise to about $1,500 for two.
— Lynell George
From weekend getaways to vacation deals, get all your need-to-know travel news from L.A. Times editors.