California Dreaming – The Search for Culinary Inspiration

Daniella Illerbrand headed for California to get a new perspective, and fresh culinary inspiration.
By Daniella Illerbrand

Inspiration can come from the strangest places and erupt at any time, the journeys you make in life are bound to either inspire you or leave you wanting more. A smell or a taste can trigger deep rooted memories that we had long forgotten even meant anything to us. For me inspiration often come from freedom, not necessarily freedom from responsibilities or freedom from Work or family, but the freedom that allows other people to be completely uninhibited and creative. When I encounter that it makes me feel free, alive and like I can accomplish anything based only on that freedom that I sense in others. I hope that I can keep that childish sense of joy I feel when I come upon something that catches me off guard and that it will always amaze me. Being jaded is so last season; let’s bring some emotions back in the game.

Inspiration also come to me from things that I don’t necessarily think are that great, it sets something off in me and makes me want to explore the possibilities of making things better, a too informal greeting at the door of a restaurant makes me take that with me and do the opposite, a complicated table setting makes me want to simplify. A great idea executed poorly is still a great idea, it just takes some reworking.

For me it was time to see something else, start a new journey and gain back some energy and start to see things from a different view point, so I headed to California.  I started my trip in San Francisco, a city that I previous to this didn’t think to highly of but let me just say that it has completely won me over, I had the great pleasure of dining at Michael Tusk restaurants Quince and Cotogna, both really great places to spend some time at. But it was lunch at Cotogna that totally blew my mind. When chef himself decided to cook us a couple of specialty dishes that he just made up on the spot with produce that just got delivered I once again was reminded of what cooking is all about. This is how a restaurant should be, no fuss, no foams, no lengthy presentations just amazing porcinis or amazing king salmon that right at the time I visited was running in the bay. I started to feel like food was getting interesting for me again on a whole different level, and with great friends with me to share the experience I started to really enjoy myself.

As far as fresh produce comes none of it could be any better than what I experienced at the hands of Michael, and a few of the pasta dishes could easily have been served at any great Italian restaurant of your choice. The ravioli with egg, truffle and brown butter was that rare combination of heavy and light at the same time, and left me wanting more. A pasta vongole would have been amazing had I not had the ravioli before, but that should not diminish its greatness only speak of the tremendous dish that the ravioli was.

Then I also had the immense pleasure of eating at The Slanted Door where a Dungeness crab noodle salad took my breath away, to have Dungeness crab is such a great pleasure and with the bay at your feet sun on your face I thought life couldn’t get any better, that was until I had a taco early Saturday morning at the farmers market! With the juice dripping down my fingers and the heat from chili and coriander waking me up from my morning drowsiness I looked out over the bay where the fog was just lifting enough to see the sail boats that was about to embark on their journey.

I actually prayed that I never had to leave this place; this is why they call it the Promised Land.

But Napa was waiting for me along with some good friends, wine, eats and as it should happen a few revelations on the way.

Going up to Napa and driving over the Golden Gate Bridge is always a magic experience. Every time I enter in to wine country I get a little bit choked up, it’s overwhelming how beautiful this part of the world is and the jasmine was blooming so there was an intoxicating smell in the air. There is inspiration in that alone! As vibrant the nature as vibrant was I starting to feel myself, the magic of California was doing wonders for my soul.

Although I ate so much at Slanted Door believe it or not there was time for dinner and Redwood was our choice this evening. I am a firm believer that with great company your dinner will be great no matter what and that would prove itself this evening.

Redwood is a charming restaurant, but did I mention before that I do get inspiration from things that I do not necessarily think is that great? This was such a time for me. A restaurant as beautiful as this with endless possibilities when it comes to produce, wines, environment should not fail, and neither will Redwood. But that night it was the company that kept me inspired and not the restaurant.

After  a day at the Napa valley Reserve and the blending of my friends wine  we where off to se Tom Futo at his vineyards along with his winemaker Jason Exposto. What a delight and what a beautiful vineyards. The wines are strictly Carneros wines and reflect the terroir of the area. They are bold, juicy with both a good amount of tannins and acidity. And most of all they need age, both the namesake wine Futo and the second label OV are wines that are not meant to be drunk at a tender age, they need to mature and to let the fruit settle in.

Heading back into St Helena and to lunch which turned out to be the absolute highlight of the day and since everything else was so great that would give you an idea of how incredible it was. I know that now everyone is expecting me to have had lunch at the French Laundry or some equivalent to that and I hate to disappoint but we went to my absolute favorite place in St Helena, Gott’s Roadsidenothing gets this girls knees shaking like the Ahi Tuna Poke taco at Gott’s, or the onions rings, or the burger or,, you get the point by now but let me tell you how unbelievable positive that place is, from the staff that exudes genuine pride and love for the ¨fast-food that they serve, to the people that gather there to enjoy themselves.  And to call it fast is really not true because it is more of efficient food as they cook everything to serve.  The revelation for me this time was the Black & White milkshake that put every other milk shake to shame and will from now one be referred to as the ONE. We went to town and ordered up a storm, best was the Taco again and I will say that it is in no means a traditional Mexican style soft taco like I had at the farmers market, but a modern California rendition that I will forever sing the praise of, regardless of authenticity.

Extremely full and satisfied we walked through town and then to sunshine market to stock up on supplies for our afternoon cocktail in the mountains, up at a friend’s vineyard where all you can see is the eagles soar and hear nothing if you choose to.

That evening we were enjoying the company of Chef Kostow and his team at dinner at Meadowood

Meadowood is a restaurant that continues to grow, and to say that when they already have 3 Michelin Stars might seem strange, but it is a young restaurant and they want to keep developing. There is a hunger that I noticed the first time that I met Chef Christopher Kostow, a desire to understand how to master his kitchen and a restlessness that will come in handy when it is time for change. He is someone that will keep looking until he finds exactly what it is that will make him even greater, he is already a chef of many talents and there really is no telling how far he will go. The improvement of his renovated kitchen is immense and would put many kitchens to shame; it finally looks like the kitchen suitable to produce 3 star foods.

On to dinner, the staff was as always delightful and we started on chefs tasting menu. My friend picked out a delightful Riesling to start, and then we opted for a 1996 Clos the Tarte that sadly had seen its glory days and was switched to a 2004 Pommard. The best dishes include a single asparagus cooked to perfection with an array of herbs on top of it, and waguy meat so tender served with a perfect morel. There is no lacking of skills within his team and I can say so for sure as I had the great pleasure of working with them during 12 days of Christmas 2 years ago

Next day was fully loaded with visits to Arujo, Ovid and Colgin, boxed lunches where packed and over to Arujo we went where the ever so delightful Burges spend a very informative hour with us. The beauty of the vineyards at Arujo as it is nestled in a little valley is hard to describe, but you feel like you are in the midst of your own private Eden. We ended the tour in the cellar and tasted through some older vintages and for me a first, the Sauvignon Blanc which I enjoyed far more than I expected. And not at all related to wine but I managed to get my hands on the really spectacular olive oil that they make at the estate. Olive oil is the new little black dress in Napa. Everyone has one.

Off to Ovid, a vineyard I had recently discovered and only tasted younger vintages of previously, I was looking forward to tasting some of the older vintages.  The vineyard is truly state of the art with built in cement tanks and drop crates that goes straight down to the tanks. The young wines are incredibly tight and show a structure that will only improve with time. I was pleasantly surprised when I tried the older vintages of how much the fruit balanced out and how easy it was to love the wines.

We ended the day at Colgin and after the tour of the magnificent private cellar of Joe and Anne we sat on the terrace and enjoyed the spectacular 2004 syrah. The wines of Colgin to me represent a Napa that is somewhat unreachable for a lot of people, and maybe a little mysterious. There is a special air surrounding the vineyards and it is almost like it is vibrating. The wines are so self assured and confident in its style that they will always be in style.

As we drove back to St Helena from our tour that day I couldn’t help but to reflect upon how great it is to be able to whole heartedly dedicate yourself to something that you love, and how few people that actually can do that. I think true luxury is to have the freedom to make that decision.

As I get ready to leave California for this time I have one last stop to make, a single espresso at Blue Bottle Coffee in San Francisco.

As I drink my coffee I end the trip as I started, with the morning fog slowly lifting from the bay. And in that moment inspiration is everywhere.

Daniella Illerbrand

Daniella started her culinary career working on the floor of Aquavit with Marcus Samuelsson, while finishing up her sommelier education at the American sommelier association. She stayed with Marcus at Aquavit for 2 years, and then moved on to Bagatelle in Norway for Eyvind Hellström. After another stint at Aquavit, she met Mathias Dahlgren in Stockholm, and was fascinated by his cooking and restaurant philosophy, She spent 4 ½ years as a General Manager for Mathias Dahlgren, during which the two restaurants Matbaren and Matsalen reached a combined three Michelin stars. Today she runs her own company where she works with chefs including Mathias Dahlgren and help them with projects and development.

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