Campfire Time

It was a bender by every definition of the word, but not in the typical substance abuse kind of way, more of an creativity binge. Now, I certainly have no shortage of creative outlet back here at home with Studiofeast, but there’s something really special about the type of lock-in retreat that I had just been on. Something that is difficult to integrate into everyday life and is why we take these trips rather than simply teleconferencing each other.

Going into it, I naively expected that there would be a huge, weekend defining epiphany that would hit me and encapsulate what Eat Retreat meant in one crystal clear thought. I daydreamed on the flight over that it would come mid-bite of something artisinal, heirloom, heritage, or all of the above–literally giving me the pleasure of choking up on the profoundness of it all. Maybe it would come during a bourbon and homebrew fueled fit of drunken englightenment as we raided the ample provisions garage for premium munchies. Or how about during a more mundane moment, like while showering off the smell of fish guts/campfire/chicken fat/jacuzzi water in our lovely, 13 bedroom villa. Even though all three of those things happened, none of them came with that profound lightning bolt I was expecting.

But as I’ve had some distance from the weekend and had time to think and reflect, the real beauty of the weekend revealed itself. It was a slow reveal, because it wasn’t so much a burst of an epiphany as I thought it would be, but it was something that hummed along strongly all weekend and I didn’t realize what it was until it wasn’t there anymore. In the absence of that single magic moment, and now sitting 3,000 miles away from the ranch, I realized that Eat Retreat was actually a long series of small, perfect moments, strung together by an unrelenting air of camaraderie and passion.

Let me explain.

Friday: The Smell of Pig Smoke Was Our Beacon

It was clear once the mobile phone service cut out on the drive up, and then we continued to drive for approximately 45 min further into this Bermuda Triangle of cellular communication that no data roaming plan on Earth could hoist us out of, that we were headed to some idyllic, isoalted location with nothing but charcuterie boards and sustainability treatises to keep us company. Or, it was all an elaborate ploy coordinated by Monsanto and their ilk to trap and silence the nation’s foodie elite; incarcerating us onto some North Korean style forced labor camp where we would be forced to eat Chilean Sea Bass and High Fructose Corn Syrup while spraying hamburger meat with ammonia. It was unlikely, but after an 8 hour flight surrounded by chatty Ohioan Cougars headed out for a wine country weekend and 4 hour drive on 2 hours of sleep, anything is possible in your head.

But Nicola’s (Twilley, from GOOD Magazine, and my carpool pal) and my fears were alleviated though once we cleared the final bend in the road leading up to Anvil Vineyard & Ranch and saw the immaculate house with the telltale sight and smell of a pig roast happening in the courtyard. We were greeted warmly in short order by the co-founders Laura, Kathryn, and Emily, then provided with a nametag (My Name is: Mike / If I were a food, I’d be: PB&J, b/c its sturdy yet fun), a personalized mason jar for drinking, and a lovely letterpressed Eat Retreat notebook that my friend Julie Morelli made in her Letterform company studio. I was able to grab a much needed beer, all chosen by Jesse Friedman of Beer and Nosh, and catch up with the handful of people I already knew going into this weekend. Akiko Moorman of Hapa Kitchen, who I knew from the NYC supperclub circuit was there in the middle of pig duty, along with Marc Matsumoto, founder of No Recipes, who I just met recently in Austin at SXSW. The familiar faces led to the new ones, and I got to meet my Saturday night cooking team, along with the balance of Eat Retreaters all in the matter of minutes.

The night transitioned into a dinner of spit roasted pig and a bevy of sides made from the truckload of produce that Nate & Mirit of Gastronaut catering ordered and hauled up for us. Nate also happened to be my camp pal, which meant he was the lucky recipient of my H&H bagel and home distilled corn whiskey that my cooking partner Derrick made in his Harlem apartment. Eat Retreaters were assigned people to buy $10 gifts for and while I gave something to Nate, the task of buying me a gift fell onto Julie, who brought me a slab of Guanciale from Chicago.

Dinner segued seamlessly into a bonfire where Laura welcomed us again and introduced each person and prompted everyone for a phrase that summed up their food philosophy. Mine was a borrowed phrase from the great Ronald Mcdonald: “Food, Folks, and Fun.” Conversations continued as the night grew chilly and the heat from the fire raged like a salamander while we drank.

That night I met Jeff Potter, who wrote Cooking For Geeks and was telling me about his upcoming forays into television. There was Anna Larsen of Petaluma, CA, who is an Opera singer and fishmonger. Anna sourced the seafood for the weekend, which included the welcoming raw bar and the 90lbs of Black Cod and Halibut that a lone Vietnamese man caught for us in Bodega Bay on his small fishing boat. I talked to Deidre Hopp who works on “The Lexicon of Sustainability,” an encyclopedia of all things sustainable, and was inspired enough by this Saveur article on West Coast cheeses that she sourced a Panini press up to the ranch just to make us an all out assualt of grilled cheese sandwiches the next day. Nate Keller, co-founder of Gastronaut and I chatted about his days as an executive chef at Google, and what it was like to work under Larry and Sergey in a food capacity at the Googleplex.

These intros went on and on througout the night and it was fascinating to put real faces to the avatars and short bios that were posted in March on the Eat Retreat website. Each person came from such a different angle in how they interacted with food, and I was delighted by how outgoing, curious, and genuine everyone was. The night wrapped up with the most gourmet s’mores spread I’ve ever witnessed (no sticks, lemongrass skewers instead) a totally apropos of the landscape performance by Alex Roth‘s (my retreat roommate and owner of a bike powered coffee roasting business called The Pepper Peddler) bluegrass band, some geeking out over bowls of rice about Japanese ingredients, then a very, very long soak in the Ranch’s jacuzzi with 12 others. It was the most entertaining 8 hours of fun I’d had in a while and it set the tone of what was in store the rest of the weekend.

Saturday: A Blitzkrieg of Treats, Talent

Saturday kicked off with the 2nd of 4 weekend meals, planned and executed by camper cooking teams. We had homemade English Muffins topped with roasted pork, curried potatoes and sous vide eggs. Not a bad way to start the day at all. One organizer mentioned how they were slightly concerned by the seating situation in our courtyard for meals, but was quickly relieved once they saw everyone prefered to dine on the lawn overlooking the mountains. And holy shit, the lawn overlooking the mountains. It was like eating brunch in a postcard.

Our Saturday night cooking team rallied after brunch and nailed down a menu. The girls got going on the vegetable prep, dessert, and cocktail while I set up shop in the courtyard and broke down fish with Nate. This gave us a solid vantage point to witness the three ring circus of food workshops and activity that unfolded that day. First, Alex took people to school on the ins and outs of coffee roasting, while showing us how you can do a bang up job with a West Bend popcorn popper to roast your own coffee beans. The poppers are a hot item on eBay, and his model had what looked to be a kerosene lamp top attached to the mouth in order to contain the beans.

This was happening while a whole dissertation on Jam making went on upstairs with Dafna Kory of INNAJam. Dafna runs this Jam company that she founded on a subscription based model, where you buy a year’s worth of Jam delivered to your door with flavors such as: Jalapeno, Fresno Chili, Tayberry, Shiro Plum, and Pluot.

Kelly Landrieu, a community coordinator for the New Orleans Farmers Markets’ MarketUmbrella.org, triathelete, and Gumbo wizard showed the history and process behind Gumbo in the kitchen. She was also allgedly quoted as noting, “you can’t be too drunk while cooking Gumbo.” Amen.

Mirit Cohen of Gastronaut gave a simultaneous Hummus/Yogurt workshop. For the yogurt, she recounted how her and Nate recieved starter from Harold McGee, who in addition to being and overall food legend, was also an advisor to Google on the matter. Harold bequeathed Mirit and Nate some of the yogurt culture from his trip to India, where Harold went to cure some serious GI ailments and found this partiuclar strain of yogurt did the trick. I can personally attest to the radicalness of this yogurt, along with Mirit’s superior hummus.

Upstairs in the carriage house on the back balcony, Jesse Friedman went through the essentials of beer making and how to taste the stuff. He was also responsible for not only picking some really nice local brews that kept everyone tastily oiled up all weekend, but he shared with us his homebrewed pumpkin sour beers, yeast fermented fennel orange soda, and handmade ginger beer. The latter went down especially nice spiked with bourbon.

Rounding out the Saturday activities were some visually focused sessions led by Julie Morelli on Recipe Crafting, and a food photography/styling throwdown with Marc Matsumoto, Wall Street Journal photographer Pablo Abuliak, and food stylist extrodaniare, Tina Bell Stamos. Between those talented artists, and along with the photographic talents of James Collier of Foie Gras and Flannel, Foodspotting prowess of Fiona Tang, and a video from Edible San Francisco Bruce, there was no way we were walking away from the retreat without some amazing food porn.

Now, keep in mind all of this is happening somewhat simultaneously over the course of 4-5 hours on a beautiful Saturday. You simply couldn’t walk 12 feet without running into someone handing out samples of Andouille from the Gumbo, a random assault of grilled cheeses that could easily sell for $15/ea in NYC, Bruce appearing out of nowhere with an aged bottle of 25yr old Balsamic and strawberries, Nate improvising and spit roasting the two cases of chickens we accidentally ordered, and so on, and so on.

Saturday was a big day, everyone’s passions were on display in very tangible, edible forms, and the constant energy it created around the ranch is indescribable. This is what I’m talking about when I wonder, “how do I get back to this?” How does one create the environment for this onslaught of creative cross pollination to happen everyday? Is it even possible, or healthy to be this stimulated in an ongoing fashion? It all happened so matter of factly, as if we had no choice that day but to share so much, so eagerly.

Dinner hit, and it was my team up to bat to feed the hungry mass. We were actually quite surprised at how hungry the gang was despite having a Saturday full of no less than a bakers dozen of distinct snacks within reach. Kirsten Bourne, Emily Dellas, and Lauren Ladoceour put out a great duo of Farro Salad w/Asparagus, and a lovely garden salad. Our proteins were a Halibut crudo served four ways that I created and a roasted Black Cod. Kimberly Hasselbrink created a really tasty Pimm’s Cup and Emily closed it out with an Almond Orange Cake that I think I ate 6 servings of. And so Saturday closed off the same as Friday, in front of the campfire with bluegrass in our ears, fine drink in our cups, and hijinx everywhere.

Sunday: Coming Full Circle, With A Pig

We kicked off the day with what I thought was some of the best stuff we ate all weekend. Akiko, Mirit, Elianna, and Maggie sent us all off for the weekend with a bang: Blintzes that make me salivate even as I type this, Savory bread pudding with Gruyere and Trumpet Mushrooms, and the largest single pile of bacon I’ve seen this year. This is on top of a whole spread of INNAJams, Mirit’s yogurt, and Marc’s homemade granola. The meal looked beautiful and was a worthy final one as the campers slowly packed themselves up and begun to say their goodbyes.

Then, Akiko & Nate haul out a pig.

Just as we’re leisurely strolling back from the brunch lawn to pick over the ample amounts of remaining produce, we realize that school is in session once again as Akiko & Nate turn whole pig into pork product in a matter of 40 minutes. A crowd gathers and observes as the two of them, who both have clearly done this in the dozens of times, surely wield boning knives and explain the process. “Find the natural gaps,” “your knife should always be touching bone,” and “you really cant get into the head without a power saw.” An free auction of sorts ensues as the parts are called off by those eager for extending the weekend’s gastronomic bacchanalia with fresh cut pork. In the spirit of this, I portion off the rest of the Halibut as Mirit doles out a jar of that yogurt starter for everyone and offers up hummus to any takers.

A few of us stop in with Laura and Alex to say a few recorded words about the weekend as things wind down. In my video interview with Laura, I mention how I was inspired that weekend by the way everyone had connected despite our disparate approaches to food. How anyone at the top of their game creatively has managed to find a careful harmony between craftsmanship and innovation. I note that you can take anyone who’s great at what they do and if you facilitate a conversation where they really get to understand each other, they’ll find that they have a lot in common in how they deal in their speciality. Even if they have nothing to do with each other. I’ve thought this for a long time and still stand by it, but I failed to note in my video interview why this works time and time again: passion.

Seemingly disparate people who think and create will always get along in situations like Eat Retreat because they are all live lives fueled on passion. This was the unifying theme of Eat Retreat and is what I think sustained the overwhelming serotonin buzz in a way that didn’t explode, but smoldered for a very long time. When you put 30+ passionate creatives in one spot for a weekend, it doesn’t seem like there’s a single climax in the action because the every hour includes a climax. It was particularly evident during Saturday’s workshop sessions, where the buzz of Mirit’s yogurt thing seamlessly daisy chained itself to Alex’s coffee thing, and then to another, and another.

No one here did anything casually back at home–these are seriously focused, ambitious people. Isolating all of that mojo to the ranch and backdropping it with the idylic scenery of Sonoma County created an experience for me that I will not soon forget. The biggest thing I took away from Eat Retreat was not a new skill or technique, but a newly invigorated sense of urgency to sustain the pursuit of a creative life through food.

As for how to “get back,” that will happen through the people I connected with over those three days. I hope these relationships can blossom into collaborations that put great new stuff into the world, food-related or otherwise. It seems criminal to say, but the Anvil Ranch is really inconsequential to the idea of “getting back.” Eat Retreat smolders on with the people and passion within them all.

Eat Retreat Photos on Flickr: