We took the time to sit with Chef Dominic Orsini, Executive Chef of Silver Oaks Winery in Napa Valley and recent author of The Silver Oak Cookbook: Life in a Cabernet Kitchen. Find out how he found his passion for cooking with only the freshest ingredients, and how he’s worked to build a sense of place through his cuisine.
How did you get started in the culinary world?
I attribute a lot of my love and passion for cooking to spending time with my grandparents growing up. My grandfather’s an Italian American who married a Pennsylvania Dutch woman. She spent most of her life trying to prove to her Italian sister-in-laws that she could cook just as well as they could.
My grandparents had wonderful gardens and from a young age, as early as six or seven years old, I remember being at their house and enjoying strawberries right off the vine, corn, tomatoes, plums, fruits – you name it, they were growing it. It was that early appreciation for fresh produce that really made a mark on me.
I ended up remembering that love for food when I was a junior in high school thinking about college. All I had done was worked at restaurants, everything from dish washer to prep cook. I said to my mom, “Hey mom, can chefs make money? Is that a good career?” It was as though I had told my Italian family I wanted to be a priest. They were like, “Oh my God, yes!”
When I found out I was going to go to the Culinary Institute of America, I thought I needed to get a little more experience under my belt. I got a job at a little French bistro in Malvern, Pennsylvania, where I started learning in the pantry station curing my own salmon, making classical salmon blini appetizers. The same pantry station had to make dessert, so I learned how to make crème brulee, German apple cake, how to frost birthday cakes and everything in between. I got my head ripped off by the chef many times for burning bread and stuff like that, but it taught me the long hours, how to burn myself, cut myself. I really appreciated that young experience. The best was how I got a beer at the end of every shift and at 19, you’re like, “Yeah, this is awesome! I want to be a chef!”
From there I went to culinary school and during the wine class, I learned all about Napa Valley, California, and how well known the region was for wine making. At the time this was all new for me, a boy from Philadelphia. I was astonished by how I didn’t know this place existed. I thought in that moment how that must be a great place for a chef to go. I guess I got lucky having a girlfriend at the time who was from here. She invited me to come back with her and the rest is pretty much history. I’ve been here ever since.
What inspires you to use high quality, sustainable ingredients?
During my younger years as a chef, I kind of found it annoying to see canned ingredients imported from Europe on top of ingredients that were not recognized locally. I always saw myself as Italian cuisine leaning, but I felt from the beginning of my life as a chef that I’m an American chef, first and foremost. It always made me cringe that we were bringing all these ingredients from across the ocean.
When I started making my own decisions as a chef, I started looking and trying to source what was available locally, and I wanted to feature those products. I try and source products as locally as possible, to really feature where I am cooking in the world, and then what is being produced in the most sustainable way, like Niman Ranch. Those two factors are of the utmost importance to me.
A chef in France or a small town in Italy or anywhere else Europe or the world, they’re going to give you food from that region or that small town. They’re not going to be importing ingredients from America or importing stuff from Spain to serve in their French restaurant. So I thought, as an American chef, why would I do that? I really want source what’s here and what is the character of this place. That’s been important to me from the very beginning.
What makes what you do at Silver Oak different from the rest of the vineyards in this area?
I was pretty excited when I started at Silver Oak Winery. I learned the history of the brand and all about Justin Meyer, Ray Duncan, and the Duncan family’s approach to making wine. Their approach was about this place and the region the grapes were grown and having an American style. It really fit into what I already wanted to be as a chef. I really jumped on board with that idea and did everything I could to focus on that in my cuisine.
I don’t import Reggiano cheese for our cheese plates or for grating onto my pasta. I use Estero Gold produced out in Valley Ford by Valley Ford Cheese Company. We source all our fruit and vegetable ingredients from the garden at the winery for the dishes we create. We don’t import Prosciutto, we make our own Speck out of Niman Ranch pork. What sets us apart is how we really try to give our customers a sense of what this place is, a sense of everything we do here.
Though, I must say, a lot of it really started with the bread we make here. Right when I started at Silver Oak it was just before harvest, sometime in August. There’s this 20 year Cabernet vineyard on the property that wasn’t producing at its best anymore, and they were going to tear it out. This vineyard was so old that they actually had to prune it differently from all the other vineyards in the area. To me, it struck me as this unique piece of history on the property, a place where Justin Meyer, our founding wine maker had walked through these vineyards and evaluated these grapes. I wanted to preserve it somehow.
So I ran out and harvested several bunches of grapes and put them in a mixture of flour and water. The natural wild yeasts on the skins of those grapes started to eat the sugars and the flour. This mixture started to bubble over a couple of days. I was making a bread starter using a traditional method that goes back thousands of years, it started in the earliest times of bread baking.
Eventually I was able to take the clusters of grapes out of this flour and water mixture and I continued feeding it more flour, more water. Eventually it took on a cycle where every time I fed it, it would rise and fall. Then I would feed it again. After about 2 weeks of establishing this cycle, I now had this living bread starter. We’ve used this to bake our breads ever since.
To me, the idea of buying a yeast to make bread sounded really odd to me, so I wanted to find how to bake bread without it. I use this starter to leaven the bread naturally, I don’t even need to add the yeast. This starter has kind of become this living piece of what we do here at the winery. We use this to flavor the bread, because it has this depth of wild yeast flavor going on, its natural yeast source, and it’s also part of the family. We’ve nicknamed the starter Justin, after our founding wine maker, and so Justin is this living entity that we maintain. It’s part of our family, it’s who we are, and that’s what kind of makes us who we are through what we do.
What do you have on your plate, now or in the future?
Things are very exciting here at the winery. In the immediate future, 2016 harvest is just about over, it’s been a spectacular year. Very even growing season with a nice burst of heat at the end. We’re celebrating the fact that we became the world’s first platinum LEED certified winery in the world, first production winery certified in the world, so we’re using that to sort of catapult us to our next winery, which will open up in late 2017. It’s our Healdsburg winery, where we’ll be making our Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wine. We’re also striving for the living building challenge.
But I’m really excited about our own Silver Oak cook book. It’s called Life in a Cabernet Kitchen. The book basically describes to our readers what life is like at a winery, what happens in the vineyard, in the cellar, in our gardens and in our kitchen. It takes the reader through seasons, starting with Winter, right at the tail end, right when the dormant vines start to sprout out for the first time. Then it takes the reader through the spring time, summer time in Veraison, when the grapes go from green, underripe, to red. We make this fun thing called Ver-jus out of that. We take extra grape clusters and squeeze them, making a sour grape juice that’s the base for vinaigrettes or a food seasoning. Then the book culminates with harvest.
There are a lot of recipes in between, including just some of what we cook here in the winery. Though the picture on the front is the style of food we create here, the book is really filled with home-friendly, home cooked recipes. There are a lot of 1-2 pot meals, not like the dishes I make here that are 25 steps, taking 6-7 pots. We try to keep it nice and simple.
Set in the heart of the Napa Valley, Silver Oak Winery is available on a limited basis for private, hosted wine and food experiences for non-profit and corporate groups. Visit www.SilverOak.com for more information.