The Tasting Panel magazine

September 2015

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Page 83 of 140

september 2015  /  the tasting panel  /  83 A fter an epic, cross-country culinary journey, Chef Mike Ward has arrived somewhere he can use everything he's learned, exercise his creativity and prepare locally- grown ingredients in an idyllic, wine-country environment. He joined The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards as Executive Chef this summer. "It's a beautiful place," Ward told me as we sat on the restaurant's patio shaded by massive oak trees one recent sunny morning. "There are so many layers of knowledge and experience here. I'm impressed with the team. We grow everything in this amazing half-acre garden [located a couple hundred feet from the kitchen]. We even have our own cattle program." The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards is well-established and known for its ambience, excellent West Coast wine list, elegant service and delicious food—especially their house-smoked pork chops. With the help of the large, well-trained staff, Ward will continue to offer these delights, providing customers with meals that express the tastes of the new California. "I've adapted and updated California cuisine with influences from the breadth of ethnic cuisines this area offers. Our guests deserve variety and a great experi- ence," he told me. "Discipline is always important in the kitchen, and I make sure everything is right, but I'm not overly attached to 'the rules.'" Wente's large, skilled kitchen staff, huge wine list and wealth of lovingly-grown produce give Ward a broad array of tastes and textures to work with: "I've started gradually introducing signature dishes and techniques. We've got a soup with Madras spice and a dish with raw fish, plums and pickled wasabi. I cook what I like to eat, and I like food too much to stick to just one or two cuisines." Longtime customers at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards will still be able to enjoy the signature pork chop and Caesar salad any night of the week. But the rest of the menu will present a frequently changing variety of tastes, in step with today's best trends in Bay Area dining, while offering something for everyone. Ward is a study in the success that hard work, focus and determination can bring. He grew up in a family of farmers and construction workers. He dug ditches at age ten and has been going full steam ever since. As a teenager, Ward worked in the kitchen of a national chain grill. He learned to be fast, to cut, to heat and to plate. He also figured out that he wasn't making "real" food and the customers weren't dining. So, he embarked on a long journey to gain knowledge about the art of cuisine: how to grow fruits and vegetables, how to prepare with imagination and skill. He learned how to pair food with wine and offer diners uniquely memorable experiences. The journey took him from culinary school in Sacramento to Craigie Street Bistro in Boston, where award-winning chef Tony Maws introduced him to the locavore movement and Parisian "slow food." Ward expanded on that concept at Frank McClelland's French fine-dining restaurants in Boston, where his own charcuterie took the spotlight. Manhattan was next. He took a staff position at Chef Terrance Brennan's award-winning Picholine, with its deli- cious and beautifully composed dishes inspired by France, Italy and Spain. From there, Ward looked west again, joining Sacramento's Rio City, a bustling, 400-seat restaurant that nonetheless makes everything fresh and from scratch, then Lounge ON20, where he went modern with molecular gastronomy and other cutting-edge techniques. After working so closely with farmers, and feeling "farm to table" is too often used by restaurateurs who never leave the city, Ward went to work on a farm. "I wanted to understand the lifestyle," he says. "And it gave me insight into produce from the root up." He got back into the kitchen in several top restaurants in Northern California, including El Paseo, the revitalized Mill Valley chop house that's a joint-venture between Sammy Hagar and Tyler Florence. Now, at The Restaurant at Wente Vineyards, Ward can employ all he's absorbed from his vast experience and complement it with wine. He and Sommelier Jorge Tinoco review every dish, discussing possible combinations. "We cook à la minute, and finish with the appropriate oils, vin- egars, butters and special salts. That gives us the opportunity to make adjustments based on the wines ordered and how the ingredients taste that day," he added. "It's great to think about what we're doing here and where we'll be a year from now," he said. "It really excites me. Here at Wente Vineyards, anything is possible." Chef Mike Ward's pork belly paired with a Wente Vineyards Riva Ranch Single Vineyard Chardonnay.

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