Featured Articles

Stories about real people and real issues in our communities.

Duskie Estes on the James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef Tour

04 March 2014 Written by  By Duskie Estes
Published in March 2014 Articles

I am participating in the James Beard Foundation’s Celebrity Chef

event, scheduled to be held in Danville, on March 12, at the Bridges Restaurant & Bar.

The tour began in 2004 as a way of funding the culinary educational program sponsored by New York’s famous James Beard House. This year’s events are scheduled in twenty two other locations around the country. Including Washington, D.C., Maui, Chicago, Birmingham MI, Los Angeles, Dayton,Oregon, and Sonoma. www.celebritycheftour.com.

At each tour stop a group of top chefs combine their talents and skills to create a 5-star multiple course dinner that is described as “a work of artistry and craftsmanship.” Each course is paired with a premium wine. Guests not only enjoy a truly memorable meal but, following a Beard House tradition, they have an opportunity to engage in conversation with the participating chefs. I’ll be working with some great fellow chefs, including Chef Ari Taymor from Alma restaurant in Los Angeles, Chef David Varley from Seattle’s RN47, and Chef Sophie Uong from Oakland’s Picán restaurant. As of this writing, I am not sure of what my entrée will be, except that I know I am going to do something with a duck and I know that it will be awesome.

The James Beard Foundation is on a mission to encourage and preserve our country’s culinary heritage. James Beard, who died in 1985, was a mentor to a generation of chefs. The James Beard Foundation honors the man’s spirit and continues his work through a number of educational programs, culinary competitions, industry awards, scholarships to culinary schools, and sponsoring the historic Greenwich Village’s James Beard House as a culinary demonstration venue for visiting chefs.

It will be great to spend a day with my peers, and I will especially enjoy hanging with Chef David Varley. I played with David in a merry culinary competition tour called COCHON 555 that is held in 10 locations across the country. COCHON 555 was designed to support pasture raised pigs and the small farmers who raise them. The fives in the name come from the number of chefs, number of pigs, and the number of winemakers involved. Each of the five chefs is given a 200-pound family-raised heritage breed pig that he/she will make into entreés and side dishes, with the stipulation that the entire porker, snout-to-tail, be used. Twenty “culinary luminaries” including ranchers and specialists in the pork industry, plus 400 guests help choose “best bite of the day.” The winner, who is crowned the “Prince of Porc,” is qualified to compete at the Grand COCHON event held at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic. The annual competition has been going for five years. David was the first king. The following year my husband, John, and I were crowned King and Queen of Porc.

People are typically unaware of it, but the Celebrity Chef Tour is only one of a number of public service and community outreach events that the food industry supports. I worked with a marvelous nonprofit called Share Our Strengths, which has the compelling tagline No Kid Hungry. The foundation’s complete absence of overhead and administrative costs distinguishes it from many other nonprofit organizations. Every dollar taken in is used to combat childhood hunger. Fundraisers include more than 100 annual regional culinary events called Taste the Nation. A San Francisco event is scheduled for March 27 at the City View Metreon. Members of the Share Our Strengths board — all of whom are professional chefs — were not satisfied simply to raise money. They wanted to do direct service to disadvantaged people, so I helped design a program that would include two hours of instruction, once a week, for six weeks. The program was portable, designed so that the chefs could take it to any senior citizen center or transitional place that had a kitchen. The chefs taught shopping and cooking on a Food Stamp budget. We conducted a pilot program in Washington, D.C. and then taught ten other chefs, in a program that was originally called Operation Frontline. Share our Strengths is still booming.

Back Story
I was born to cook. My favorite toy as a child was an Easy Bake Oven. We still have a picture of me, at five years old, with a birthday cake I had made for my grandpa. That was one of the proudest moments of my life! When I was 11, I became the family cook for my four parents and five siblings.

I was born and raised in San Francisco. My Father and I would go out to eat together every week, beginning when I was in middle school and continuing until I graduated from high school. Each week we would sample the dishes in a different SF Restaurant. As a result, those eight years of dining gave me hefty exposure to premier restaurants and fine chefs. This was during the 70s and 80s when the City featured such culinary luminaries as Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Mark Miller, Barbara Tropp, Joyce Goldstein, and Judy Rogers. It was no wonder that I fell in love with all things restaurant.

Following graduation I attended school at Brown and started on a Pre-Med track. After discovering a phobia to blood, I switched to Pre-Law. During my junior year I took a semester off and spent four months studying at the California Culinary Academy before returning to Brown and eventually graduating with a degree in American History. My goal of resuming my studies at the culinary academy evaporated when I landed a great job as pastry chef at Alforno’s Restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island.

Even though I am an animal advocate, following Alforno’s I worked meat related positions in a number of restaurants. For a time I was a butcher at Oakland’s Baywolf restaurant. In a typical shift I might break down 40 ducks, 30 lobsters, and 50 rabbits. I was able to offset the carnivorous atmosphere at Baywolf somewhat because

at the same time I was a line cook at a vegetarian restaurant in Fort Mason, called (appropriately) Greens.
I moved back to the East Coast for five years, working in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., followed by a seafood restaurant on Nantucket, and then a yacht out of Newport. The East Coast was cool (sometimes actually freezing, of course), but I wanted to move back to the West Coast. I had been conducting a long-distance relationship with a guy in San Francisco. I told him that I had job offers in SanFrancisco and Seattle and asked his advice

about which to choose. He said it didn’t make much difference to him which place I went to, which kind of forced me to chooseSeattle, if for no other reason than to stay away from him. Good riddance, for sure because I met, fell in love with, and married my true soul mate, John.

Getting Down to Business
John and I took meat in another direction through Mario, who is a crazy famous New York chef and an incredible restaurateur who owns 14 organic certified Green Restaurants. John had become good friends with Mario at a Food & Wine Magazine’s event in Aspen. John makes some of the best pasta anywhere and Mario began to depend upon John as his prep cook when he needed stellar pasta for a demo. Mario’s father, Armandino, lives in Seattle. After retiring from Boeing he decided to open a salumi shop. Salumi is to salami what kielbasa is to frankfurters. Armandino began selling his salumi for two hours a day, four days a week, at a tiny eatery, with seating for four couples. But even though he had only modest ambitions for his business, his salumi was so marvelous that before long every hipster in the area was crowding into the shop, often waiting for  two hours, or more, to get a slice. John and I were sometimes in that line. Our month-old baby’s initial adventure into the world was a trip to that shop. A critic referred to Armandino’s salumi as “a carnal kaleidoscope, with bits of rosy hues and solid or clear whites, a slice of careful handiwork.” That might be an understatement.

It seems that every chef in the area was clamoring to learn from the master the secrets of his incredible salumi. Armandino wouldn’t teach any of them, however, because the process requires more patience than, in Armandino’s estimation, any of them possessed. John had the patience, however, and finally persuaded Armandino’sson Mario to teach him how to make his dad’s salumi. John would fly back to New York for his lessons. When he made his first successful prosciutto, John had his arm tattooed with a pork-cutting chart, taken directly from Armandino’s logo. Johnalso made such fine bacon that a bacon-ofthe-month club, called The Grateful Palate, asked him for 3,000 packs, which led John, in 2007, to launch the Black Pig Meat Co. John and I hammered out a standard for our bacon and salumi businesses. Every pig we use in our own business must have lived a great life with only one bad day. Our pigsare raised in pastures in an environment of honor and respect. Perhaps they imagine that they are in heaven before the day comes when we actually send them there.

We moved to Sonoma County to be near my parents in 2001 and in August of that year opened a restaurant we called Zazu Kitchen + Farm. The “farm” in the name came from the fact that we began raising pigs in our back yard, just to see how things are done. We’ve continued adding various barnyard animals until today we have more than 100 including pigs, chickens, goats, rabbits, and ducks. We occasionally will have a few sheep and a small flock of turkeys. We save all the scraps from the kitchen for the pigs, so they are eating really good most days. We kept a pig named Lucky as an indoor pet for a year and a half but turned him outdoors for violating our floors.

We also raise produce on the farm including apples, Asian pears, peaches, plums, and pomegranates. The farm has beds of herbs and other plants such as rose geranium, ginger geranium, lemon verbena, anise hyssop, Rosemary, lavender, mint, marjoram, lettuce, chard, figs, persimmons, Meyer lemons, and olives. We raise produce and fruit in two other locations. One of them is on the property of Davis Family Vineyards. We bottle our own olive oil. We have beds of herbs right outside our restaurant doors. Diners are free to harvest ingredients for their own dishes. They are permitted to run outside, for example, and pick a fennel frond to put in their cocktails. Everything we grow is intended for consumption in the restaurant. About a third of the ingredients we use in our dishes are harvested from our own fields, groves, and pens. The rest comes from local famers. We are big advocates of the principle: “Know the face that feeds you.” We try to deal directly; cut out the middleman.

John is our butcher. I usually feed and take care of the animals, and at the end I get to plate the final product. John is in charge of turning them into food. Our 11 year-old daughter, Mackenzie, has turned out to be an enthusiastic and gifted butcher. She has launched Black Rabbit Meat Co. Our older daughter Brydie is 12. At this point her passions run to eating pigtails and stinky cheese.

I am living a magnificent life! I am owner of a notable restaurant in rural Northern California and married to an amazing chef. I love my family, kitchen, animals, plants…. What life could be better than this? And what profession could be better than feeding healthy food to hungry people and watching their faces light up with satisfaction, and sometimes even with pleased astonishment. That’s the best thing of all about the job.

Well, maybe the best part actually is feeding my pigs. Human beings can never display the unbridled passion and unbounded satisfaction that those pigs show while rooting through the slop that we pour into their troughs.

Read 4082 times Last modified on Tuesday, 04 March 2014 20:29
Rate this item
(0 votes)

Subscribe to our virtual magazine


View our Walnut Creek sister magazine