"I must return to the mountains—to Yosemite. I am told that the winter storms there will not be easily borne, but I am bewitched, enchanted, and tomorrow I must start for the great temple to listen to the winter songs and sermons preached and sung only there."
John Muir — Letter to Mrs. Ezra Carr (November 15, 1869)
Blend the breathtaking beauty and tranquility of Yosemite's winter landscape, the allure of the grand, historic Ahwahnee Hotel, and the talents of a handful of distinguished chefs sharing delectably innovative cuisine, and behold Chefs' Holidays at The Ahwahnee, a glorious winter tradition celebrating its 28th year. A few hundred dedicated foodies gathered to enjoy this exceptional celebration.
During the month of January, Chefs' Holidays packages offer eight three-day sessions that feature some of the country's finest chefs. The packages include accommodations at The Ahwahnee Hotel or the Lodge at Yosemite Falls, a "Meet the Chefs" reception with wine and hors d'oeuvres, culinary presentations and tastings, a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour and the Chefs' Holiday Dinner Gala in the Ahwahnee's Grand Dining Room. Between events there is ample time to explore the pristine, snow-blanketed valley on foot, on skis, on skates, snowshoes or in a heated motor coach. Any means of transport allow you to more fully appreciate the incredible beauty portrayed by Muir's words and Ansel Adams' photography.
|The Ahwahnee, Yosemite's Grand Hotel|
I willingly threw out the old and rang in the new, packed my sense of adventure and hopped a plane for my first visit to Yosemite for the kick off of the Ahwahnee's 2013 Chefs' Holidays. "Three Friends Cooking" welcomed long-time friends and California chefs Douglas Keane (Cyrus, Healdsburg), Victor Scargle (Lucy, Yountville) and Peter Armellino (Plumed Horse, Saratoga). Food and travel journalist Janice Wald Henderson served as moderator.
At the Meet the Chefs' Reception, given the first evening, guests and chefs mingled by the massive fireplace at the south end of the Great Lounge, sipping wine and nibbling hors d'oeuvres. Later, they spilled into the crescent-shaped Solarium, where five floor-to-ceiling windows frame the winter landscape. The chefs ascended to the balcony to share stories about cooking philosophies, careers and friendships. After the reception, the evening was free for cocktails, dinner, and late-night lingering in the bar.
The next morning, Chef Douglas Keane gave the first culinary demonstration. In 2005, he and business partner Nick Peyton opened Cyrus. Keane's dream restaurant earned numerous accolades for its "contemporary luxury" cuisine, including two Michelin stars and the James Beard "Best Chef – Pacific" award in 2009
Unfortunately, due to a property dispute, Cyrus closed in the fall of 2012. Keane hinted at plans for his next venture, but didn't elaborate. For his first dish, Keane prepared a salad that showcased chunks of Maine lobster, tossed with bean sprouts quickly sautéed in sesame oil and blood orange segments, served over grated daikon and dressed with homemade ponzu. Tasting spoons were passed at the end of the demo, but we would have to wait for the gala to enjoy Keane's second dish, a succulent pan-roasted lobster tail bathed in butter, thyme and garlic and served with cauliflower cream and uni froth.
|Chef Douglas Keane and Moderator Janice Wald Henderson|
The afternoon cooking session featured Chef Scargle, executive chef of Lucy Restaurant at the Bardessono Hotel and Spa in Yountville. His philosophy is ruled by the seasons, and he says "If it's not growing in the garden, it's the wrong time to be serving it." Scargle spends his mornings in Lucy's lush gardens looking for just-right ingredients to put on the day's menu. For the demonstration, he prepared and served tastes of a creamy soup made with sunchokes and garnished with finely diced apple, crème fraiche, chervil sprigs and shaved truffle. The second dish featured Broken Arrow Ranch antelope loin with "Forbidden" rice, red kale, turnips and huckleberry jus. Once again, spectators had to wait for the gala to taste this amazing and visually stunning dish.
|Chef Victor Scargle|
On Day Three, the very funny Chef Armellino presented the last of the culinary demos. His Saratoga restaurant, Plumed Horse, presents elegant, modern California cuisine emphasizing fresh, seasonal and sustainably produced ingredients. His signature dishes include Big Eye tuna tartare with caviar and quail egg, and black pepper and Parmesan soufflé, both featured on the Chef’s Grand Tasting Menu. Armellino readily confessed that he is a truffles, caviar and Champagne man as he wowed the crowd with his preparation of handmade cavatelli pasta served with a sauce of wild mushrooms, mascarpone and white truffle butter. His second dish, which I cannot wait to prepare for my next cocktail party, was bite-sized cannoli filled with smoked sturgeon mousse. To mimic dessert cannoli, the ends were dipped alternately in caviar and chopped chives. He enlisted the aid of the Ahwahnee culinary team to whip up 200 of these morsels for us to taste. Pass the Champagne, please.
|Chef Peter Armellino|
Between demonstrations, lunches, cocktails and dinners, I donned my snow boots, coat and hat, grabbed the camera and went off exploring. I was up and out of my warm bed much too early the first morning, hoping to be in the right place at the right time for that perfect sunrise photo. Darkness, freezing temperatures and the aroma of freshly brewed coffee lured me back to the hotel and a warm couch by the crackling fire. The next morning, I was determined to try again. I slept in a bit longer, downed a cup of steamy java and set out on the very icy, four mile round-trip to Mirror Lake. I was thankful to have avoided any bear or mountain lion encounters along the way, but returned slightly bruised and sore just in time for the behind-the-scenes kitchen tour.
"How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over. The highest peaks burned like islands in a sea of liquid shade. Then the lower peaks and spires caught the glow, and long lances of light, streaming through many a notch and pass, fell thick on the frozen meadows."
- John Muir, John of the Mountains (1938)
The impressive 6,500 square foot kitchen is the home away from home in which Executive Chef Percy Whatley, Chef de Cuisine Robert Anderson, Executive Pastry Chef Paul Padua and nearly 60 associates work together. On a daily basis, the staff prepares as many as 1500 meals. The bakers daily make 25 dozen cookies for afternoon tea, and well as 400 loaves of bread. In addition to the Ahwahnee’s signature boysenberry pies and other desserts, the pastry shop creates 300-650 wedding cakes annually.
|Chef Victor Scargle straining his veal stock|
On the third and final night, the majestic Grand Dining Room welcomed guests to an enchanting five-course, knock-your-winter-socks-off candlelit dinner prepared by both hotel and guest chefs. Wines from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast complemented each course. The massive stone pillars, peeled sugar pine columns and immense picture windows have earned the room praise as the most striking in any national park. The service also is impeccable.
|Grand Dining Room|
The meal opened with Whatley’s mosaic salad of beets, chevre, citrus and lardo (fatty Italian bacon) paired with Cakebread Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 Napa Valley. The second course featured Keane’s heavenly pan-roasted lobster tail served on a swoosh of warm cauliflower cream, garnished with uni froth and paired with Treanna Viognier-Marsanne Blend, 2010 Central Coast. Next was Armellino’s rich and succulent filet of California sturgeon topped with a thin layer of roasted mushrooms and paired with Alexander Valley Merlot, 2009 Sonoma County. For the fourth course, Scargle fanned medallions of antelope loin over a bed of nutty, deep purple Forbidden Rice. Complemented by red Russian kale and caramelized Tokyo turnips, and surrounded by a crimson pool of huckleberry jus, the game was paired with Bridlewoood Red Blend 175, 2011 Central Coast. Dessert was artistically presented by award-winning pastry chef Paul Padua, who sweetened the evening with an apricot mille-feuille adorned by tarragon cream, apricot curls and a white chocolate fan. We lingered after dessert to enjoy more wine, conversation with new friends and melodies from the Steinway grand piano. Several of us then retreated to the bar to join the chefs in one last toast to a most memorable winter escape.
|Chef Keane's Roasted Lobster Tail|
|Chef Scargle's Antelope Loin|
|Chef Pauda's Apricot Mille-Feuille|
On the final morning, I begrudgingly packed my bags and checked out, but still had time to savor one more serving of the park’s winter awesomeness during the two-hour Valley Floor Tour. The heated motor coach stopped at Yosemite Falls, Half Dome, El Capitan, Tunnel View and Bridalveil Falls. At each stop, we were able to exit the coach and snap a few photos.
|Valley Floor Tour|
When I left Yosemite, having spent not nearly enough time for a first visit, I reminded myself the mountains will call again, and I will go.
Additional winter traditions at The Ahwahnee Hotel include Vintners’ Holidays in November and December, Christmas Bracebridge Dinners the last two weeks in December, and New Years’ Eve Celebration packages. Travel to Yosemite from San Diego is either a 7-8 hour drive or a direct flight on Alaska Airlines to Fresno ($120 R/T) and then a 2-hour drive via rental car or Amtrak/bus service.
I cannot wait to prepare and share a few of the recipes from the guest chefs, but I'll to start with the Ahwahnee's signature Sierra Nevada Pale Ale & Fiscalini Farms Cheddar Cheese Soup. After a crisp and brisk walk to Mirror Lake, this soup will warm your body, soothe sore muscles and provide a temporary distraction from your bruised butt. Pair it with a mug of beer or glass of wine, and you will be relaxed and ready for the afternoon cooking demonstration, followed by a nap before dinner.
Begin by preparing the Chive Oil and Sourdough Croutons. Here's Emeril's simple preparation for Chive Oil. I didn't bother with the overnight refrigeration.
PLEASE, do not skip preparation of these homemade sourdough croutons! In fact, I encourage you to crisp up some additional bacon for garnish and use a tablespoon or so of bacon fat when you saute the croutons ;-)
|Ahwahnee Sourdough Croutons|
Onions, garlic, bacon, beer, heavy cream, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, horseradish, and cheddar cheese ...what's not to like?
|Get ready for the heavenly aroma of sauteed bacon, garlic and onions|
Sierra Nevada Pale Ale & Fiscalini Farms Cheddar Cheese Soup
Recipe courtesy of Chef Percy, The Ahwahnee Hotel
½ cup onion, fined diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
6 slices of bacon, diced
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
6 cups vegetable broth (I used chicken broth)
1-12 oz. bottle Sierra Nevada Pale Ale beer
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons prepared horseradish
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 Bay leaves
Salt, to taste
Pepper, to taste
½ lb. grated cheddar cheese
Sourdough Croutons, for serving (recipe follows)
Chive Oil, for garnish
Extra bacon bits, for garnish (optional)
Heat a 6 qt. stockpot over medium heat and add the diced bacon. Cook until bacon is 2/3’s done. Add the butter, onions and garlic and continue cooking an additional 3 minutes or until the onions are translucent.
When ready, mix in the flour to make your roux, cook for additional 3 minutes.
Using a whisk, slowly add the stock and heavy cream until it has all been incorporated.
Bring contents of stockpot to a boil; add the Worcestershire sauce, mustard, horseradish and bay leaves.
Reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the ale and cheddar cheese, whisk soup until smooth and all the cheese has melted and has been thoroughly incorporated.
Remove the bay leaves, adjust the seasoning, and keep hot until you are ready to serve.
Garnish with Ahwahnee Sourdough Croutons and Chive Oil, and extra bacon bits if desired
|Comfort in a bowl|
1 sourdough baguette
1 tablespoon clarified butter (I used bacon fat)
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan Reggiano cheese
Salt, to taste
Pepper to tase
Remove crust from the bread; cut bread into small cubes, 1/2-inch by 1/2-inch, which should yield approximately four cups of bread cubes. Warm clarified butter and olive oil together over moderate heat in a large sauté pan; add garlic and sauté lightly to perfume olive oil-butter blend; remove garlic. Add bread cubes to sauté pan with olive oil-butter blend, then add the parsley, cheese, salt and pepper. Coat all bread cubes evenly. Arrange seasoned bread cubes on a sheet tray, and bake at 350 degrees F until golden brown, approximately 12 minutes.
* Disclosure – The Ahwahnee Hotel provided a media package for my visit. I was not obligated to write any articles about my stay and have in no way been compensated. The opinions expressed regarding my experience are my own.
A condensed version of this article was published by Wine & Dine San Diego on January 29, 2013