If you’ve been to Sonoma then you probably already know that the folks in this corner of America have a peculiarly familiar, almost European relationship with food (and if you didn’t already know, now you do!). At every turn in this slice of Northern California, staggeringly fresh food prepared with elegant simplicity is as much a star attraction as the increasingly celebrated wines the region produces. Whether you visit a roadside food stand, a food truck, a corner café or a Michelin-starred restaurant, you are bound to find some epicurean surprise on the menu that will taunt your appetite and tantalize your senses.
With that in mind, I recently made a visit to the celebrated roadside restaurant, Zazu. Situated amid farms and wineries on a sparsely populated stretch of road in Santa Rosa , Zazu appears simple and unpretentious from the outside. In fact, the parking lot at the restaurant isn’t even paved. However, once inside, Zazu packs a culinary punch that defies its unassuming environs, as does its star of a chef, the diminutive but sparkling Duskie Estes whose masterful culinary skills were seen on season 3 of Food Network’s Next Iron Chef competition series.
Armed with the most magnificent Bellini I’ve ever experienced…which is no small compliment given that I’ve enjoyed the drink everywhere from the famed Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy to the lauded Cipriani in New York City…I sat down for a sunset chat with Chef Estes on a simple, wooden picnic bench plunked down right dab dab smack in front of the garden behind her restaurant. Over that life-changing libation, I chatted with Chef Duskie about her food, her restaurant and her experience onNext Iron Chef.
Speaking of the latter, Chef Estes told me with a mischievous giggle that she had incredulously never seen Food Network’s Iron Chef America series before she agreed to do the show. How is that possible you ask? Because she doesn’t even own a television, a fact that she hid from the show’s producers until days before taping was about to begin .
“I haven’t had a television in nine years,” the chef told me conspiratorially. “So I tried to do Hulu searches and other web stuff but the show is nowhere online. All I can say is that I withheld information throughout the interview process. I never said ‘I’ve never seen the show, I don’t have a TV’ because I was afraid they might cut me. So I didn’t say anything until I had signed the 22-page [contract for the show],” she continued with a laugh.
Such is life on the farm I suppose. That’s right I said farm (and yes we still have those in America). Estes, her husband and two children, live on a working farm in Sonoma County with 120 chickens, two turkeys, four pigs, two sheep, two goats, four rabbits, two dogs, two cats and a hamster, which clearly influences her philosophy about food.
As for her take on food which she describes as “playful Americana”, Estes, who maintains another farm about ten minutes down the road from her restaurant, had this to say about her reverence for the ingredients she uses, “[At the restaurant] there’s a do not waste policy, so we try to figure out how to use everything and definitely cook within season. We do that for vegetables and meats in terms of respect for the life given. We’re real advocates of the snout to tail philosophy of using every part. You have to eat everything. You don’t get to just eat the tenderloin, you have to eat the cheek, the heart, and the ears and so on.”
Our conversation complete, I headed inside to sample Chef Estes’ snout to tail creations and was summarily impressed with each and every dish that came out of the kitchen. I started with the sublime salumi, cured in-house in coordination with her husband John Stewart, who learned the skill with the help of Iron Chef Mario Batali. The starter was an absolute indicator of the quality of the pork dishes on the menu, which reflect the Estes family affinity for the pig. In fact, not only do both John and Duskie both love pork, they also jointly produce their own line of meats, bacon & salumi made from heritage breed, antibiotic and hormone free, and free range pork called BLACK PIG, which has earned raves from the likes of Rachael Ray among others.
With swine in mind, I also sampled Zazu’s BLT pizza, which featured Black Pig bacon, organic tomatoes, arugula and just the perfect amount of cheese on a delicately thin, crispy crust. It was shear heaven and worth every carbohydrate riddled calorie. Chef Duskie occasionally serves this delish treat on her weekly Pinot and Pizza nights where a flight of Pinots is paired with a succession of pizzas. I haven’t personally experienced a Pinot and Pizza night but the word is that they’re fabulous. And after only the briefest introduction to Zazu’s pizzas via that BLT pizza magic, I can’t imagine that the nights would be anything but.
At the end of my meal, I had concluded that the great charm of Estes’ menu is that it’s made up of seasonal, simple and familiar food that has “the volume turned up” to quote Ina Garten. When she simply says “I try to get the best ingredients and …then get out of their way,” Chef Estes is perhaps speaking her greatest truth. And that is perhaps what makes the fare she prepares so soul-satisfying. In a landscape filled with restaurants that work so very hard at making impressions with the kind of cooking that she has described as “precious”, Chef Estes creates hearty dishes that celebrate great ingredients, skillful preparation and pitch-perfect balance. The result is a menu filled with food that can best be described as revelatory.
Bottom line: The expected becomes the unexpected in Chef Duskie Estes hands and nothing but nothing says talent than a feat like that. However I can definitely say after having experienced her food that Chef Estes is without question an Iron Chef in her own right…title or not.
Until next time…Cheers!