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Food with a Sense of Place

Napa Valley chef Dominic Orsini walks his gardens to get inspiration for his signature dishes
By
  • Ethan Watters

September 26, 2018

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Story

Dominic Orsini’s first job—at a fast food joint—was hardly a glamorous start in the culinary world. His second stop wasn’t much better: he washed dishes at a small Italian restaurant. Nonetheless, Orsini liked the energy and pace of working in a restaurant. In high school, he decided that college wasn’t for him, so he asked his mom what she thought of him pursuing a culinary career. She couldn’t have been more excited and supportive—but she wanted him to take the choice seriously. “You have to go to the Culinary Institute of America,” she told him.

To get into the CIA, Orsini had to spend a year apprenticing. He found a little French bistro that would take him on as a line cook. “I cut myself, I burned myself, I worked long hours,” he remembers. “I said to myself, ‘I love this.’ And off to culinary school I went.”

It wasn’t until Orsini was at the CIA that his memories of childhood, his grandparents’ backyard gardens in particular, began to change the way he thought about food and cooking. It was as if these recollections, some of his earliest, had laid dormant, like seeds. He recalled the feel of a tomato picked off a vine, the taste of a watermelon on a hot summer day and the sight of a ripe red strawberry peeking out from under an emerald-green leaf.

“It’s funny, there was a period when I forgot about those experiences,” says Orsini. “It was only when I went off to culinary school that it just came flooding back to me.

Those times in the family garden really made a mark on me. Those childhood memories made me committed to growing from my own gardens.

Chef Dominic Orsini

Outstanding in the Garden

Those revelations became the foundation of Orsini’s philosophy about good food: that it’s intimately tied to a sense of time and place. Now executive chef at a renowned winery, Orsini has been given a large garden and encouraged to keep pioneering new ways to connect his meals to the winery and the Napa Valley region. “Food is about context,” he says. “And so my inspiration mainly comes from what’s available from the gardens. What’s in season? What’s the weather like outside? Is it a warm day or is it a cold and chilly day?”

Orsini looks for innovative ways to connect his meals to that context with almost childlike enthusiasm and energy. For inspiration, he walks his gardens to see which herbs, fruits, and vegetables are primed for harvesting. He grows a specific type of corn to create his polenta and mills his own flour. He burns vine cuttings to smoke meats and repurposes cover crops to grow basil for his pesto. Leftover barrel staves fuel his wood-burning oven, and pinot noir and Cabernet leaves get used to braise meats. His is a passion that has, at times, led him almost to mad-scientist extremes.

Not long after he came to the winery, Orsini learned that one of the Cabernet vineyards was going to be removed and replanted. He thought long and hard about how he might honor and preserve the essence of these decades-old plants, and, just before the last harvest, walked out into the rows and snipped a couple of bunches of grapes. He then put them into a mixture of flour and water, where the wild yeast on the grape skins started to feed off the sugars. Over time, he coaxed the mixture into a levain, a French term for a bread starter, that he still uses to bake bread and pizza dough.

Orsini likes the idea that the levain is a living thing that, if cared for, could be used to make bread indefinitely. He even jokingly named the starter Justin, in honor of the winery’s founding winemaker. “He’s a living entity in our kitchen,” Orsini observes. “On a regular basis, you’ll hear people say, ‘Don’t forget to put Justin in the walk-in before you go home. Don’t forget to feed Justin today.’ It’s something that we love and care for.”

In another experiment, Orsini took some of the extra wine used to top off barrels and created a vinegar. He also harvested table grapes on the property in order to begin the long process of creating a balsamic. “A true balsamic, they say, takes twenty-five years,” he explains. “It is something you are making for your grandchildren.”

Orsini has a name for the experience of finding the perfect combination of food, wine, and place: making the angels sing.

Those are the times when a moment crystallizes in your mind, you recognize where you’re at, what’s happening, and it’s a memory that stays with you forever.

Chef Dominic Orsini

At home, with two young boys and a busy working wife, Orsini is more practical about cooking. In his family, he’s known as the master of the “refrigerator surprise”: when his wife tells him there’s nothing in the house to cook, he takes it as a challenge. Those improvisations, he says, have led to the creation of some of the family’s favorite dinners.

To round out his “refrigerator surprise” meals, Orsini says he has no qualms with relying on premade or frozen items. He’s particularly fond of a premade jasmine rice, frozen mashed potatoes, and Hormel bacon bits. “Whenever I’m considering a packaged food, I’m looking at the back and reading that ingredient list,” he says. “I want to know what is in there.” His ideal is an ingredient list that’s relatively short, filled with easily recognizable items.

Homegrown

Orsini now has the pleasure of introducing his sons to his own gardens: the one in his backyard and those at work. For now, they’re only mildly interested. (The cats the winery keeps as gopher sentries get the most attention during vineyard visits.) But he’s witnessed moments that have taken him back to his own childhood: he’s seen his older boy picking and eating alpine berries, and his younger son feasting like a bear cub on a bush of cherry tomatoes. Orsini doesn’t know when or if these experiences will resurface when his boys are grown, but parenting is a little like gardening itself: you plant memories and hope that someday they’ll grow and blossom.