Thursday, February 4, 2010

25th Annual Chefs' Holidays at The Ahwahnee

Chef Suzanne Goin of Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern at her cooking demo at the 'Chefs' Holidays at the Ahwahnee' in Yosemite.

Uhm, let's see: three days of celebrity chefs cooking amazing food at The Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite in the middle of winter?! Okay, I'm in. I'll splurge to watch Suzanne Goin of Lucques, A.O.C. and Tavern give cooking demos and cook the final meal served in the Ahwahnee's magnificent dining room. Sure I will -- and I did. Last week Robert and I spent three glorious days and nights in Yosemite Valley eating our way through food prepared by four chefs: Suzanne Goin; John Stewart and Duskie Estes of Zazu Restaurant + Farm, Bovolo and Black Pig Meat Co. in Sonoma County; and Jody Adams of Rialto Restaurant + Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. On a previous trip to Yosemite I'd picked up information on the Chefs' Holidays events and was more than intrigued. And I was reminded of them often as I get regular e-mails from Delaware North, the company that runs all accommodations, concessions and special events at Yosemite. As you can see by the title of this post the Chefs' Holidays have been happening at The Ahwahnee for the last twenty-five years. There are a total of eight sessions that take place during January and February. I chose Session 5 for a reason: two of my current favorite chefs were going to be there. I've already written about my passion for what husband and wife chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes do at their two restaurants Zazu and Bovolo in Sonoma County. They live their loves locally; easily within one hundred miles of where they live and work. Their two restaurants embody the local lifestyle and their food is amazing. When I saw that they would be participating I decided to splurge and attend. The extra added bonus of Suzanne Goin as the headline chef was more than I could ask for. And while I didn't know much about the third chef, Jody Adams, I do now and I am now a fan of hers too.

Mirror Lake, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park

All of this taking place in Yosemite. I love Yosemite in the winter. There's no one there. It's as beautiful as it is any other time of the year. We were very lucky on this trip. We arrived on a Sunday and left on a Wednesday; the Thursday before our trip a huge storm dumped a lot of snow. By the time we arrived on Sunday the storm was over and the roads had been cleared. What was left was stunningly beautiful. A nice amount of pristine snow covered everything making for a true winter wonderland. The outside daytime temperature hovered around thirty-five degrees -- not too cold at all with our layers of sweaters, scarves and winter coats. When we weren't at the Ahwahnee eating we were out exploring this amazing place. This was a trip I could easily do over and over and over...

*Chef Suzanne Goin, Lucques, A.O.C., Tavern in Los Angeles, Californa. Author, 'Sunday Suppers at Lucques'

The event took place over three days and nights. On Sunday night there was a reception to meet the chefs and we did. We chatted with Suzanne, John and Duskie, and Jody while eating hors d'oeuvres and drinking wine. It was a good way to start off the event. All the chefs were very approachable and quite friendly. On Monday at ten o'clock in the morning we met back at the Great Hall of the Ahwahnee for the first cooking demo: Suzanne Goin. Chef Goin prepared 'Pan-Roasted Quail with Pancetta, Baked Ricotta and Sicilian Breadcrumbs' followed by 'Roasted Pear Salad with Endive, Hazelnuts and St. Agur.' Watching her cook I noticed that Chef Goin was very precise in everything she did. She new her next move; her mise en place at hand. I understood; she'd been trained in restaurant kitchens in France. Most chefs I've known exhibit this type of precision. It works, and is necessary, for what they have to do. She was also very giving in how she showed us to prepare the two dishes; answering questions, offering suggestions and making apt comments. Her two dishes were nicely refined, and beautiful to look at. After the demo we tasted the pear salad and it was really delicious. I've always loved endive and blue cheese together; the addition of the roasted pears added another layer of flavor and texture.

Roasted Pear Salad with Endive, Hazelnuts and St. Agur, Chef Suzanne Goin

Pan-Roasted Quail with Pancetta, Baked Ricotta and Sicilian Breadcrumbs, Chef Suzanne Goin

Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes starting their cooking demo at the 'Chefs' Holidays at The Ahwahnee' in Yosemite.

*Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes, Zazu Restaurant & Farm, BOVOLO, Black Pig Meat Co., Sonoma County, California

That afternoon we all met back at the Great Hall at two o'clock for John and Duskie's cooking demonstration. They made 'Hazelnut Crepes with Nutella and Blood Orange Syrup' followed by 'Brussels Sprouts, Local Apple, and Black Pig Bacon Salad.' John and Duskie are a little more country to Suzanne's city. Duskie chose the crepes recipe with Nutella because Nutella is something she likes and because she likes to combine high and low food together. The idea is to use easy to get products with those that are harder to get in the same dish. There's also a nice playfulness to Duskie and John, evident in this dish. One of the main reasons I like these two chefs is because as mentioned above they live locally, and because one of their credos is 'no waste.' They use every part of the animal; any organic waste from the food preparation process is either fed to their pigs or composted for their garden. In their restaurants many of the vegetables for the day's menus are harvested in the garden outside the kitchen's back door just before service. At their farm-home they raise pigs, have chickens for eggs and a garden. It's a full circle lifestyle. During their demo they were relaxed and easy-going; they worked well together but it was also evident that they knew what they were doing. These are seasoned professionals. While the crepes were Duskie's dish, the Brussels sprouts dish offered John his moment to work with his black pig bacon. Bacon that he cures himself along with other salumi that he makes. We tasted the Brussels sprouts after the demo and they were earthy and wonderful; the bacon, apples and sprouts working together perfectly.

Hazelnut Crepes with Nutella and Blood Orange Syrup, Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes

Brussels Sprouts, Local Apple and Black Pig Bacon Salad, Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes

Chef Jody Adams starts her cooking demonstration at 'Chefs' Holidays at the Ahwahnee' in Yosemite.

*Chef Jody Adams, Rialto, Boston, Massachusetts. Author, 'In The Hands of a Chef: Cooking with Jody Adams of Rialto Restaurant'

Our final cooking demonstration was by Chef Jody Adams of Rialto Restaurant + Bar in Boston on Tuesday afternoon. Chef Adams also made two dishes: 'Orange Dusted Scallops with Sunchokes, Harissa and Olives,' followed by 'Scallop Ravioli with Pistachios, Pomegranate and Mushrooms.' Chef Adams was such a joy to watch; she was funny, smart and also really knows what she is doing. There was a bit of Julia Child's zaniness to her but she was actually in absolute control. When questions were thrown at her she surprised by breaking down the chemical process in certain cooking scenarios. Both recipes had long ingredient lists and many steps but she made it all seem effortless. She was very open to substituting ingredients; she taught interesting yet useful techniques - like how to cut parchment exactly to the size of your sauté pan. It felt a bit like we were in her home kitchen all around a cooking island pitching in. Chef Adams was unknown to me before this event but she has a new West Coast fan now. If I ever get to Boston I'll be stopping in to Rialto. We tasted the the orange dusted scallops after the demo and they were among my favorite dishes we ate.

Scallop Ravioli with Pistachios, Pomegranate and Mushrooms, Chef Jody Adams

Orange Dusted Scallops with Sunchokes, Harissa and Olives, Chef Jody Adams

The dining room at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park

*Behind the Scenes Kitchen Tour

On Tuesday morning there was an optional tour of the Ahwahnee hotel kitchens. Robert and I were curious to see the behind-the-scenes of such a huge operation. There's the beautiful public side but behind closed doors is where all the action takes place to keep the operation going. Sous-chef Beth Brown took us through the huge kitchens, storerooms and baking areas. I've been in a lot of professional kitchens, and I've seen other hotel kitchens but the size of this one was XXXL. The fact sheet handed out says that the kitchen is 6,500 square feet; the ceiling is 38 feet high at its highest point. The kitchen prepares 1500 meals per day for the dining room not including room service, weddings or special events. The bakeshop produces 400 loaves of bread per day. This is cooking on a massive scale. It was interesting to see what goes on behind-the-scenes in an operation this big.

The line in the Ahwahnee Hotel kitchen.

Bread baked daily in the kitchen of the Ahwahnee Hotel kitchen.

Sous-chef Beth Brown in the Ahwahnee Hotel pastry shop where chocolate truffles for the hotel sweet shop are being made.

*Chefs' Holidays Gala Dinner, Chef Suzanne Goin

The final event of the three day food extravaganza was a gala dinner served in the Ahwahnee Hotel dining room. As Suzanne Goin was the headline chef she created and prepared the menu for the evening: Arugula Salad with Blood Oranges, Roasted Dates, Almonds and Parmesan; Maine Diver Scallops with Green Garlic Soubise, Chanterelles and Meyer Lemon; Alaskan Black Cod with Kabocha Squash, Golden Raisins, Pancetta and Pedro Jimenez; Braised Veal Cheek with Risotto Carbonara, Pea Shoots and Black Truffle Butter; Bittersweet Chocolate Tart with Mascarpone and Pistachio Ice Cream. It was all incredible, wonderful, amazing -- nothing more needs be said.

Chef Suzanne Goin and me. She's holding her book: 'Sunday Dinners at Lucques' which she autographed for me.

Chefs John Stewart and Duskie Estes and me. I interviewed them for an upcoming blog post.

Chef Jody Adams and me.

Snow-covered Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park

I love Yosemite but you know that already. Attending this event was truly an experience I won't soon forget. The setting, the chefs, the food, and the company. Will I go again next year? Possibly. I will give it serious consideration. It was that good.

Upcoming Posts: Interview with Chefs John Stewart & Duskie Estes owners of Zazu & Bovolo restaurants in Sonoma County. Reviews: Venezia: Food & Dreams by Tessa Kiros, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur by Romney Steele, The Spirit Kitchen: Everyday Cooking with Organic Spices by Sara Engram and Katie Luber and Kimberly Toqe.

Bookmark and Share


  1. Sounds like such a fun event and the kitchen tour is very neat. Wow, Yosemite National Park is just gorgeous in the wintertime!

  2. Thanks, Natasha! It was just spectacular. I really recommend this event too.

  3. charles You must have had a great time and all these chefs around must have inspired you !! cheers from a sunny Paris Pierre

  4. Merci, Pierre. Yes, it was very inspiring and we were given several great recipes to try at home. You must come to California and attend one of these someday.

  5. Great recap of the event. It was so much fun being with you there!

  6. Can't decide which would be my favourite - the ravioli or the scallops...hmmm I am getting hungry looking at the photos!

  7. And I am very happy I got to share it with you, Robert.

    Eva: thanks for stopping by. Picking one of those two dishes as a favorite would be difficult for me too.

  8. Sounds like a great time.

    And how could it not have been with such talented chefs and great food.

    I especially like the Orange Dusted Scallops.