farm to grist mill

Beyond the Kitchen Brings the Table to the Farm

A farm-to-Bale Grist Mill dinner

Chef Bill Heubel towers over the grill, nearly hitting his head on the green tent covering his makeshift kitchen area. Make no mistake: Chef Heubel is a very tall chef. Taller probably than this very tall chef, and yes, taller even than The Very Tall Chef. This particular very tall chef is nearly hitting his head on a tent because he’s preparing a five-course feast, comprised entirely of ingredients from Napa Valley farms, outdoors at the Bale Grist Mill in Calistoga.

Its the fifth in the series of dinners Heubel calls “Beyond the Kitchen” — pairing local producers (including, of course, winemakers) with locations that connect to Napa’s agricultural heritage. In the past the dinners have been held mainly at farms, but the dinner at Bale Grist Mill is especially poignant because of the now park (which is still a working mill)’s place of importance in Napa. The grist mill and its 36-foot-tall water wheel were built in 1846, and quickly became the center of social life in the agrarian valley, as farmers gathered there to to have their corn and wheat ground and, on occasion to share a table or raise a glass together. The group gathered this weekend to toast the local harvest, in many ways, continues this tradition. The Bale Grist Mill is still grinding wheat and corn by the power of water and stone. And those assembled at that dinner can attest to that fact, since they consumed the product of the spinning water wheel’s work.

 

We have mouth taste and we have moral taste,” writes Adam Gopnik in his book The Table Comes First. “There is mouth taste, how it feels when you eat it — is it salty or sweet or bitter or buttery or somewhere in between with all the fine gradations of lime and lemon and vinegar that mark out the general category of ‘sour.’ But then there is what we might call ‘moral taste’ — the place of the food we eat within the epoch’s style or our own self-image.” The stylish thing today, indisputably, is “local,” “seasonal” and “sustainable,” with added style points for heritage-bred, biodynamically farmed and ethically raised meat and produce.

But all of these words, which are indicative of moral taste, don’t mean a damn thing if the local, seasonal, sustainably raised food you get from your farm doesn’t also taste good in your mouth. Instagram feeds are constantly stuffed with the latest bloody-but-appropriately-nostalgicly-filtered  pictures of quivering hunks of meat with captions like “PORK! Who’s coming to dinner?” That does not look “yum!” The work isn’t done because we picked a tomato grown without GMOs or killed a chicken that lived its life outside the confines of a cage. The point is that the food we are talking about should be treated in the kitchen with as much love by the chef or home cook as it was treated by the farmer in the field. Starting with great ingredients is the most important thing; but let’s not forget the importance of that last little thing. You know, the preparation and cooking thing.

This summer, Chef Heubel, a long-time professional chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone has been reminding residents and visitors of Napa Valley that the reason we eat food that is local, seasonal and raised with love and respect is because it appeals as much to our physical sense of taste as it does to our moral one, — especially when it is in the hands of a chef who knows his art.

All the produce for the meal was supplied by Full Table Farm, just down the street. And every slice of summer melon was plated with the same respect with which it was grown. Heubel pointed out that one reason “local” matters for fruits and vegetables such as the melons used in the second course (and tossed with cippolini onions, feta cheese relish and wild blackberries) is because not everything is hearty enough to be trucked around and sit at the supermarket for days. This may not be true for something like, pistachios or dried cranberries. Harvested that very morning by the husband and wife team that operates the farm these particular melons captured the very essence of a late summer afternoon, and almost could not have been served in any other setting.

But the night’s star was not to be the produce, as fresh and flavorful as it was. It was the humble chicken who stole the spotlight. The Buckeye chicken, that is, raised at the Preservation Sanctuary Learning Center in Calistoga. Douglas Hayes, a former architect, who operates the farm, spoke at length to other guests at his table about the genetic heritage of the Buckeye and other heritage chickens, the importance of feeding birds non-GMO seeds and just what is the most humane way to slaughter a bird. Then Chef Heubel stepped in and told us the reason he likes Hayes’ chickens: because they are delicious. And he was right.

The chicken was served both prepared confit on flatbread with whole wheat milled on premise and with a mousseline of rosemary and kalamata olives; diners walked away saying it was the best chicken they had ever had. Was it because, as Hayes argues, chickens that eat healthy food and are allowed to run around taste better? Or was it the skill of the chef and his troupe of talented CIA students? Did the freshness of the accompanying vegetables and the heartiness of the stone-ground grains make the difference? Yes, yes and yes. But most important, when mouth taste and moral taste aligns, the result is a fabulous, satisfying meal — for both body and mind.

The final dinners in this year’s Beyond the Kitchen series will be held September 15 at Boca Farm and September 29 at Connolly Ranch. Get tickets here.