Wine Country Cooking
A Q&A with Executive Chef Robert Curry of Napa’s Auberge du Soleil.
For the past 30 years, Auberge du Soleil has stood sentinel over wine country’s Silverado Trail. The tiered luxury resort is carved into Rutherford Hill, and perched at its apex is the property’s restaurant (a 2011 Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s America’s 100 Best Wine Restaurants pick). Manning the eatery’s kitchen is Robert Curry, who combines classic French technique with locally sourced edibles to create unique dishes, like an asparagus appetizer with hamachi, poached egg and salty Niçoise olive tapenade. The dish follows Curry’s technique for marrying wine with his cuisine. He likes to keep his menu offerings balanced and low in sugar, and his go-to ingredients to achieve this include olives, soy sauce and bacon. Curry also likes to make sure his dishes feature underlying flavors that mirror those of the wines with which they’re being paired.
W.E.: How does cooking in California’s wine country affect your culinary style?
RC: Wherever you are, the beautiful ingredients farmers and ranchers provide have an influence on your food. Here, we get the best products at the height of their respective seasons. And we’re lucky to have so many people in the area who are in the wine and hospitality business. They know what we have available and want to experience it all at its best. It’s a lifestyle here and everyone’s into it, from industry colleagues to farmers and foragers.
W.E.: What’s it like being in a high-profile role at such an establishment?
RC: I feel very blessed to be here—[Auberge du Soleil] is not only beautiful and inspiring, but there’s so much longevity and history. Hitting 30 years was a huge milestone. The property was established by pioneers in the business with the foresight and gumption to open a restaurant up here. It was a leap of faith, and that’s something to celebrate, along with all of the great chefs that cooked here before me. This is the type of place that you work to get to. Even if I had all the money in the world, where I’d want to be is right here.
W.E.: What are the best and most challenging aspects of cooking at such a venerable locale?
The best thing is that, since I’ve been here, every change has been a positive one. There’s no gray area in what we’re doing—we’re constantly upgrading and putting money earned back into the property. As far as the most challenging aspect, there are so many details and small pieces of the puzzle to focus on. It’s all about the finer points. It takes constant attention and a great deal of energy to keep something as prestigious as Auberge du Soleil alive.
W.E.: What are some of your signature dishes that are most special to you?
RC: My Nantucket bay scallops are interesting, but not too crazy. They’re served crudo-style and get big flavor from verjus-poached rhubarb, daikon prepared in seasoned dashi broth and a passion fruit vinaigrette. Then there’s Morrocan-spiced local lamb with potato gnocchi, green garlic shoots, lemon olive oil-roasted artichokes, baby fennel, arugula and olives. The rub on the lamb is a blend of cumin, coriander, cayenne, cinnamon and cilantro, balanced out by honey and lemon juice and zest. Another favorite is my veal sweetbreads with asparagus and black trumpet mushrooms. I serve it with a jus gras, a reduction of roasted chicken poultry stock, kombu and bonito broth emulsified with olive oil.
W.E.: What’s a technique you utilize in your kitchen that home cooks can replicate at home?
RC: Sous vide cooking. Back in the ’80s, we didn’t have thousands of dollars for a thermo-circulator. We’d just wrap proteins in plastic wrap and set them in a bain-marie (warm water bath). Basically, you just put a pot of water on the stove and watch the temperature.