Time flies!! I just left San Francisco and as I write this, I am on a flight on my way back to Las Vegas.
Overall, the trip was AWESOME! The little things matter – amazing weather, blue skies, sunny days, wonderful hotel, great summit, good food (for the most part), LOTS of good wines, and the most important…good company. I was travelling with my colleague Olivier Dubreuil, our Executive Chef and Maitre Cuisinier de France.
We arrived on Wednesday night, checked in at The Silverado Resort and were welcomed with great landscaping, a golf course view, and the serenity of nature. It was just fabulous!
As we landed pretty late, we rushed to our first BIG restaurant, The French Laundry. I had never been there, but walked in with big expectations. First of all, I haven’t dined at many 3 Michelin Star restaurants (just a few French ones ) plus what I know about Chef Keller is the famous Bouchon, the classic Bistro from Lyon, where the food is as good as any Bouchon Lyonnais.
It starts with the freshly baked bread, butter, the warm pistachios, the charcuterie, the seafood bar, and the list goes on and on. One of my favorites – Simple and delicious consistently.
The French Laundry was a different experience. This place has so many accolades and the world speaks so highly of it. It is somewhat the James Beard house of Napa Valley!
As for me, I found the living room tiny, the table was small, and we were seated in the corner by the staircase heading up…..Yes, it is an old home that was converted into a restaurant (pretty neat so far). I have to say the sense of hospitality at The French Laundry (and all of Napa) was amazing. Everyone made sure we had a great time. We started off with some Krug (can’t beat that); the staff offered to cook for us and picked the wines as well. I just love it when the restaurateurs take control of the experience. We had so many courses. I recall 15 and all of them were excellent. Wines were off the chart: Chassagne-Montrachet “Les Chenevottes” 2004, a nice Barolo, and a Dofi 2007 for the main entrée and cheese.
Everything was almost perfect; however, it was just too much food & wine and thus far, the most expensive meal I ever had.
The following day, we visited Solage. I loved the concept of Solage, their spa and breakfast was amazing (Chef Sharp holds a Michelin star).
The Flavor Summit kicked off in the afternoon where we met the team from Food Arts Magazine and an outdoor reception was hosted by the CIA.
On the same evening, Olivier and I decided to have dinner at Bottega, Chef Michael Chiarello. Simple and affordable Italian dishes were ordered. This was a good surprise – great Italian food (unexpected), good wine list, great Napa vibe, great outdoor setting and good value (Important these days!).
The following day, a tight schedule awaited us at the CIA with several presentations, tastings and conferences to attend to. I must say my favorites were that of Andrew Freeman and Harvey Steiman with Wine Spectator.
After a very long day, we decided to give Thomas Keller another chance and experienced Ad Hoc (took me 2 days to digest both the meal and the check from Wednesday night) for dinner. I liked its concept. I was very impressed with the front staff attitude and the entire team was just amazing. Food was simple, but good, and wine was great (I picked it this time!). We had an amazing outdoor experience! It was indeed Napa on your plate: casual, fresh ingredients, seasonal and set menu.
The last day of the summit came too soon. It was however delightful to see our friend and James Beard Award Chef Julian Serrano in the kitchen for breakfast before heading to class! Julian gave us a demo and allowed us to taste five samples of his food featuring California pistachios, simultaneously paired with Napa wines. A visit to the caves at Dariouch winery, coupled with tastings and a few purchases was also extraordinary. These were my favorites.
The summit was filled with culinary demonstrations, panel discussions, workshops, tasting receptions and seminars from culinary professionals such as Chefs, restaurateurs, bartenders, mixologists, publishers, etc. It was a learning experience. Let me share with you a few topics I truly enjoyed which caught my interest and attention:
Andrew Freeman: The Revolution has begun
Starting a restaurant involves a lot of brainstorming and preparation. To start off, concepts which involve “building your brand and breaking the norms” are key elements to a successful venture. Reconnaissance follows in that we need to know our world. Awareness of the ethnicity and majority of our population must also be considered. What would appeal to our guests?
As an example, with there being 22.8 million Americans who follow a vegetarian inclined diet and 7.3 million Americans who are vegetarian, a healthy type of food offering that will cater to everyone is worth considering.
Think about the following:
• What are the top five restaurants in your market?
• Who is coming to your hotel? If they are not coming, where are they going?
• Know the enemy and prepare for battle!
Competition is intense and there is a need to differ from the rest.
• Is the concept clear, fresh and innovative?
• What is the style?
• Is the experience safe or authentic for the guests?
• Bring local experience to life… with unique service styles, favorite foods, design elements, etc.
Andrew provided the top 12 Marketing & PR Tips:
• Identify the right target markets for your concept.
• Create a separate marketing & PR plan.
• Participate in high profile events.
• Collects contacts
• Maintain street presence with easily visible signage.
• Set up a dedicated phone line and answer that phone.
• Build partnerships to attract an entirely new clientele.
• Create a website vanity page dedicated to your business that is easy to find.
• Promote key personalities.
• Engage with the media.
• Keep your PR team in the loop.
• Engage in social media.
Andrew was great and very upbeat which made the presentation enjoyable. He did leave me with something to think about and to remember….
“Challenge what has always worked.”
“Reevaluate your brand strategy and core beverage program”
“Don’t settle for mediocrity”
Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator: Building a list for all tastes
The message from Harvey was simple and true: all wine lists look alike. Major and recognized brands get the exposure on the wine list. He challenged us during a tasting to use smaller wineries producing better wines than big wineries producing too much of an average quality wines in some occasion. We all agreed during the tasting; however, in my opinion, the American consumers are looking for familiar brands that represent quality, consistency and value and do not venture in unknown or boutique brands. Smaller boutique wineries may have difficulties in handling the volume.
Sunday was our last day and another day filled with tasting: Anthrology and Cask 23rd. We blended some wines and had fun activities. Thanks to Antinori for hosting us. Our trip concluded with a luncheon at The Auberge du Soleil.
As always, when I travel, I try to do and see as much as possible. Although there were some hiccups, the experience overall was amazing. I guess with every success comes some vulnerability.
This was my first time to attend the Flavor Summit and I must say, it truly was a remarkable experience.
Let me take you now to Olivier’s journey to Napa as he narrates…………..
Napa Valley—California’s food and beverage countryside–this year’s host for the Greystone Flavor Summit. The conference was co- presented by The Culinary Institute of America and Food Arts Magazine and focused on the art of flavor in high-quality dining.
During the conference, I met and mingled with high level food and beverage executives from all over the country. This incredible bank of knowledge afforded me the opportunity to hear and share ideas from many backgrounds and experiences. A gathering like this should not be limited to an event once every decade. Everyone was excited and motivated to learn new things, brainstorm with their peers and possibly bring back new concepts to their properties. A casual conversation might be the one bright idea that sparks something original and unusual—a new trend!
During the last 16 years in Las Vegas, it has been my impression that the American dining experience has undergone a transformation. Customers are more interested in higher quality flavors, authenticity, and new menu concepts than ever before. The summit focused a great deal on sustainability, local and organic production and waste minimization. From the tiny restaurant to the massive operations of Las Vegas, these concepts hold true. It is important to try and remember that we must start at the beginning of the chain: local farms, minimal packaging, fresh, and quality products. This can be achieved even in the desert of Nevada. Organic and vegetarian menus have reached an all time high across the country and we have been feeling the push here in Las Vegas. A young generation of clients is bringing a fresh approach to menu design and our menus are starting to show some growth. Small plates, tapas, dietary restrictions, allergies, and organic and vegetarian dishes are no longer a trend or an oddity…they are considered part of the mainstream pool from which we gather offerings to present to the customer.
Let’s not forget that we have a hand in creating the next generation of foodies. It is our responsibility to teach our children about the food in their world, to create an understanding and respect for our planet and its resources. The future of food and sustainability rests in their hands and we need to arm them with the knowledge today to help them appreciate and value food in the right way.
CIA-Greystone was the ideal place to host a summit with regard to the future of food and our industry. Finally, a culinary school that makes us feel as if we landed in a cuisine MECCA and not some night class for a would be cook. The school is a Hogwarts of sorts; a culinary college for those passionate about food and all of its possibilities. Absent in the halls of this stoneclad building were the Next Food Network Star wanna bees. These hallowed halls are reserved for the next generation of culinary thinkers; chefs that think with their hearts and palates. It was a pleasure to attend classes in such a fantastic facility. The kitchens, classrooms and theater are home to some of the most zealous teachers and enthusiastic educators. It reminded of the great culinary schools of Europe—so full of promise.
Outside the walls of Greystone, Napa Valley had a kaleidoscope of culinary delights to offer. I dined at the prestigious 3-star Michelin restaurant, The French Laundry–a 15-course tasting menu with wine accompaniment that included Santa Barbara Sea Urchin and Devil’s Gulch Ranch Rabbit Sirloin. Another evening I was treated to a lovely meal at Ad Hoc in nearby Yountville. Fresh local salad and organic chicken served family style on an outdoor patio. Service was friendly and welcoming and added a great deal to the experience. From these two meals, on opposite sides of the dining spectrum comes the question—is one better than the other because of price or location?
At the end of the day, it is the non food experience that contributes just as much to the pleasure of dining as the actual food. A simple menu, with delicious, fresh products can be just as satisfying, if not more so, than a multi course culinary adventure. It begins and ends with the same principle. A principle that is just as true now as it will be in the future – if you appreciate the flavor, effort and passion put into the making of a meal, it is sure to be a winner.