This past week, I had the pleasure of photographing the June event hosted by Fresh Starts Chef Events, a project to support Homeward Bound of Marin, a homeless shelter in Marin County, California, providing food, shelter and job training for those in need. This month’s event celebrated the bounty of summer with Chef Sondra Bernstein and Chef John Toulze of the iconic Sonoma restaurant, The Girl and the Fig.
Chef Bernstein opened the Girl and the Fig in 1997 and has written two cookbooks, The Girl and the Fig Cookbook and Plats du Jour. When asked how she came up with the name for the restaurant, she said that she’s the “girl” and “fig” is a symbol of passion and represents everything wonderful in the world.
Chef Bernstein and her partner/executive chef John Toulze, who is amazingly self-taught, also operate The Fig Cafe & Wine Bar in Glen Ellen, as well as The Girl Fig Store, a line of gourmet products (my favorite being her jams which pair so well with cheese from Cowgirl Creamery — Did I forget to mention that I recently took a tour of Cowgirl Creamery with little samples of cheese and her delicious jam? — yum!) These two chefs have been cooking together for the past 20 years after working at Viansa Winery, and you could definitely tell that they so enjoyed cooking together and made such a great pair! Chef Bernstein revealed that Toulze was the “Chef” and that she was the “Comic” — too cute!
The menu began with Chef Bernstein demonstrating her Chilled Asparagus Soup with Chervil and Creme Fraiche.
She shared that this was the very first recipe she ever created. And what a great recipe it was! It was a beautiful pale green, perfect for summer, and the touch of creme fraiche gave it a wonderful creaminess. They also shared a great tip to salt both the vegetables and the actual ice water used in blanching to impart extra flavour and a brighter color.
Chef Toulze shared that they have been trying to grow asparagus for a very long time in their garden, but the gophers keep eating them! Through their gardening adventures, they have learned that it’s not about the harvest, but more about the farming process.
The main course, which was prepared by Chef Toulze, was Braised Pork Shoulder with Spring Onion Ragout.
Chef Toulze finished the ragout with a spoonful of honey, which added a delectable touch of sweetness to the dish. I remember Chef Marvin Brandon finishing his braised chicken with a touch of honey as well — I think I’ll have to do that from now on whenever I make a stew or braise of some sort!
Chef Toulze recommended cooking with all your senses and eyeballing as you cook — definitely my kind of cooking! The pork was so tender, and the sauce was very flavourful.
The menu ended with Lavender Creme Brûlée. I loved the hint of lavender in the creamy custard — plus the caramelized sugar crust on top, of course!
A delicious and fun evening, as always! And of all these events I’ve photographed, I’ve never seen so many people approach the Chefs as I did this evening. They received them with such a humble and gracious warmth, spending time talking and laughing with each of them — so kind!
Stay tuned next month for Pastry Chef Marisa Churchill — former Top Chef contestant, Food Network Chef and author of Sweet & Skinny. See you next month!
Lavender Creme Brulee
2 1/2 cups heavy cream
3/4 cup whole milk
3-4 sprigs fresh lavender or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried culinary lavender
8 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar, plus about 4 tablespoons sugar to caramelize
2 tablespoons wildflower honey
1. Preheat the oven to 350 F degrees.
2. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan, and add the lavender. Bring to a boil, and turn off the heat. Let the lavender steep for about 15 minutes or until the milk has a lavender flavour.
3. Meanwhile, beat the egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, and honey until smooth. Whisk this into the lavender-cream mixture. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve and skim off any foam. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
4. Pour the mixture into 6 ramekins or brûlée dishes. Set the ramekins in a baking pan, and add enough hot water to reach halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the baking pan with foil, and bake for 40 minutes or until set.
5. Remove the baking pan from the oven and allow the ramekins to cool in the water bath for 5 minutes. Refrigerate, covered, for at least three hours or overnight.
6. Before serving, sprinkle the tops of the ramekins with a few teaspoons of sugar, and caramelize with a small torch or under a broiler set on high. Garnish each creme brûlée with a lavender blossom.