Pairing Food with Wine: The Art of Creating the Vintners’ Holidays Menu in Yosemite

Each fall, wine enthusiasts gather in Yosemite for Vintners’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee and enjoy educational wine tasting seminars and a chance to meet some of California’s most esteemed vintners. Part of the event includes a five-course gala dinner that highlights the wines of the featured vintners. Since the wines are the star, The Ahwahnee’s executive chef, Percy Whatley, crafts the menu around the wines being poured — not the other way around. Read on to learn more about Percy and how he goes about developing the delicious Vintners’ Holidays menu.


Q: How long have you been creating the menu for the Vintner’s Holidays Gala Dinner?
A: Since I was given the opportunity to lead the kitchen in 2005.

Q: For the Vintners’ Holidays Gala Dinner, you are creating the menu based on the wines that will be served. How does this work?
A: With Vintner’s Holidays, the winemakers give us information about the wine that they plan to pour for the gala meal and we solicit any feedback that they may have regarding what types of food and flavors pair well with the wines. I take that information and create the particular dish for that wine with their expert feedback. Usually the information is specific with regard to a particular ingredient, such as Lobster with a Sauvignon Blanc. This gives me the ability to put some of my personal finesse into the garnishes and other flavor profiles to enhance the wine and food experience. It really is a lot of fun.

Q: What are you looking for when pairing food and wine?
A: There are subtleties in wines that need to be found and engaged with when writing the menus for these dinners. Many of these subtleties are typical of the various wines being poured. Some may be a little more acidic than typical, or tannic, or more “oaky,” or more malo-lactic (buttery). Some wines are blended and are not typical at all. But overall, I am looking for the right degree of lightness or richness to a dish compared to the wine being poured. The garnishes in the dish should complement the center of the plate as well, which in turn will complement the wine and the layers of flavors within the wine’s body.

Q: What are a few of your favorite wine and food pairings?
A: Lamb with Zinfandel, scallops with Pinot Gris, pork belly with Pinot Noir, light buttery pasta dish with Chardonnay. There are a number of other international wines that I like a lot, Albariño, Barolo, Lambrusco, Valpolicella, Vinho Verde, and Malbec to name a few.

Q: Do you think wine is better served with food? Why?
A: Red wines definitely need food, otherwise your palate is tired after one glass. White wines aren’t as tannic and can be enjoyed without food, but food helps your palate process the sensory overload that happens when you drink wine. Whether it is a canapé of pate with your glass of Merlot, or a caviar blini with your sparkling brut, those little bites of food create an entirely different experience on your palate vs. just drinking the wine.

Q: Can you share a few tips on pairing wine?
A: Keep your food simply prepared without overcomplicating the preparation of it. If it is a steak, then simple salt and pepper seasoning, seared or grilled to your desired temperature, and rested well. Enjoy it with wine that is the right temperature, not too cold, not too warm. Let the wine sit in your mouth for a few seconds before swallowing it so you can really get the subtle flavors of the wine. Do this before your first bite of food, then take a bite and repeat.  How was that second sip of wine?
What is most important is to drink wine that you like because if you like it, it is a good wine. Then have food that you like with it. Generally this is what makes a good pairing, especially if you enjoy it with family and friends — that is the true joy of good wine and food!


To taste Percy’s wine and food pairing yourself, join us for Vintners’ Holidays in Yosemite in November or December.

Elizabeth Falkner Brings the Heat to Yosemite’s Chefs’ Holidays

Elizabeth Falkner has been a longtime participant in Chefs’ Holidays and graces the cover of this year’s brochure. We caught up with her this summer to talk about Chefs’ Holidays, her culinary career, and her love for the park.

Before Falkner became a world-famous chef, she was living in San Francisco with a degree in fine art film. But she was always drawn to food and cooking, especially as California was going through what she called a “food revolution.”

“I loved to cook but I didn’t go to culinary school, I just wanted to work in a restaurant,” she said. “It’s so different from film making, which is quite a long process. People were doing really cool things with food. It was a whole scene. It was like an art movement. I couldn’t not get involved with it.”

Falkner worked in a handful of restaurants before opening her own San Francisco pastry shop and restaurant, Citizen Cake. For years she has been an innovative player in fine dining and culinary events across the country. Falkner said she loves culinary travel through food and meeting and working with new chefs.

“I love that environment of cooking with other people to see how they put it together for a really cohesive menu.”

She now lives and works in New York, and after opening nine restaurants in San Francisco and New York City, she’s not attached to a restaurant at the moment. She said she enjoys the freedom this gives her to cook at food and wine events while working on a memoir and other projects.

Over the years that she’s been featured in Chefs’ Holidays, Falkner said she has enjoyed meeting fans, friends and family of the other chefs, and repeat attendees to Chefs’ Holidays. But she said it’s especially fun seeing people experience Yosemite and Chefs’ Holidays for the first time.

“There’s the bonus of being in this beautiful place and getting to have some fun food and chat with chefs. [Chefs’ Holidays] is more intimate than some other cooking events. It’s much more like a getaway or a holiday. It’s a special environment. We all wake up and look outside and go ‘oh my god, I can’t wait to go out there.’ Everyone has conversations about going out later or what they’ve already done. It’s not 24 hours of food and wine.”

Having visited the park as a child and as an adult, Falkner is no stranger to Yosemite, but the park still carries a sense of awe for her when she visits for Chefs’ Holidays.

“It’s just always been really magical and such a beautiful, amazing part of the planet and an amazing part of California. It’s amazing how many Californians haven’t been here. It’s so, so grand and spiritual in the deepest sense. It’s not like anything else.”

Chefs’ Holidays sessions run between January 10 and February 4, 2016. Elizabeth Falkner is the headliner chef for Session 4 on January 20 and 21. Visit our website to learn more or book a package.

Learning to Share: An Interview with Nell Newman and Jesse Cool from Session 5 of Chefs’ Holidays in Yosemite

shareThe remarkable cookbook, Share, gathers together the stories of women in war-torn countries as it explains how food connects people in each country. Interwoven within these stories are recipes from the book’s collaborators, people such as Paul McCartney, Meryl Streep, and Judi Dench.

In January 2015 at Chefs’ Holidays in Yosemite, two of the book’s collaborators will be joining us – Nell Newman, daughter of Paul Newman and head of Newman’s Own Organics, and Jesse Cool of Flea Street Café in Menlo Park. We recently had the opportunity to talk with Nell and Jesse about their experiences working on this cookbook.

How did you get involved with the Share cookbook?

Jesse: I was approached by Lauri Pastrone, the woman who conceived the book and made Share happen through her work with a group of amazing women. Also, I have always had a draw to Africa. Most of my reading for years was about despair turned to hope and love in the midst of the worst of the worst. After meeting Lauri, I sponsored two women in Rwanda and then joined a trip with Lauri and others to go and cook in Rwanda and meet one of the women I sponsored (a few photos in the book are the women I cooked with). You can actually read the story on page 212 of Share.

Nell: My dear friend Jesse Cool asked me if I had recipe to donate to this wonderful book she was helping put together to support the Women for Women International Project, which supports women in war-torn countries.

What does the Share cookbook mean to you?

Jesse: It means love, beauty, joy in the midst of pain and dark injustice, generosity, local and global care for women, and families in need.

Nell: The Share cookbook is a perfect example of how together we can make a change; through food, education, and love for humanity.

What did you learn from collaborating on this project?

Jesse: I met amazingly generous women who are real and care without attachment. It took my personal and businesses beyond my decades of being a local girl to stretch out and reach out to our abundance on a more global level. It helped me and my staff attach more deeply to our own beautiful life and learn how to give to those who have less.

What is your favorite recipe in the cookbook?

Jesse: Well, honestly it is Nell’s olive oil cake. I make it and serve it in the summer with berries and in winter with honey crème fraiche. The first time I had it, Lauri made it for me and I had to take a few slices home to eat as a midnight snake. I love Nell, so it meant even more that it is her recipe and so good. It holds up well for days, and is so yummy.

Any hints about what you’ll be preparing for Chefs’ Holidays in Yosemite this year?

Jesse: In my recipe, I tried to offer something that I felt was more African in feel…that is how I came up with the pork stew.

Nell: I’m definitely making my Orange Scented Almond Olive Oil Cake

Are you excited about coming to Yosemite? Why?

Jesse: My kids have always known Yosemite as their summer and winter and whenever-we-can-steal-a-day-away place to go. We say that it remains the most beautifully moving place on the plant, and I have traveled the world cooking in many amazing places.

Nell: How could anyone not be excited about coming to Yosemite! I’ve only been there once before and have never seen it in its winter splendor! I can’t wait!

Interview by Jeanne Haegele

Double Chocolate Bread Pudding from The Ahwahnee

Photo by Brett Archer

Photo by Brett Archer

This dessert from Chef Paul Padua is one of the most popular on The Ahwahnee’s Dining Room menu.

Double Chocolate Bread Pudding from The Ahwahnee Dining Room

1 quart heavy whipping cream
2 pieces vanilla beans pod (split and scraped)
8 ounces granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
7 pieces egg yolk
2 pieces large croissants (baked and sliced crosswise)
2 ounces milk chocolate chips
2 ounces dark chocolate chips

1.In a stainless mixing bowl, incorporate the egg yolk, ground cinnamon, sugar and a cup of heavy whipping cream
2.Split and scrape the seed of the vanilla pods
3.Place pods and beans in a sauce pot and the remaining heavy whipping cream and bring to a boil
4.Pour the hot cream into the egg mixture and stir
5.Arrange half of the croissant slices in a baking dish
6.Sprinkle half of the milk and dark chocolate chips over the croissants
7.Pour half of the hot custard mixture over the croissants to soak.
8.Repeat the layers
9.Bake at 320 degrees for 25 – 30 minutes

Autumn Squash Soup from The Ahwahnee


Executive Chef Percy Whatley shared the following recipe on Sacramento’s Fox 40 Morning Show on November 26, 2013.

Autumn Squash Soup with Cardamom & Ginger
Recipe By: Percy Whatley, The Ahwahnee Hotel, Yosemite National Park
Chef’s Notes: Any Autumn squash can be used in this recipe, but keep in mind that there are different carbohydrate contents to different varieties of squashes. A Kobocha squash, for instance is much more starchy than Butternut, therefore it is always a good idea to have extra vegetable stock on hand to adjust the consistency when finishing the soup.
Yield: 6-8 Servings
1 each 2-3lb Autumn Squash, peeled, seeded, diced
1 medium baking (Russet) potato, peeled, diced
2 Tblsp unsalted butter
1 medium onion, diced
6-9 cups vegetable stock, depending on squash quantity and variety
1 Tblsp Ginger, minced fine
½ tsp Cardamom, ground
Pinch Thyme leaves, fresh

To Finish Soup:
2 Tblsp unsalted butter
½ cup Heavy Cream
To taste Kosher Salt
To taste Black Pepper, finely ground

To Garnish Soup:
6 tsp, as needed Sour Cream
Pinch Chives, fresh, minced

1. In an 6 Quart sauce pan, melt 2 Tblsp butter over medium heat. Sweat diced onions until translucent. Add cardamom and ginger and stir in to release aroma.
2. Add squash, potatoes, 6 cups of stock, and thyme leaves, bring to simmer for 30 minutes.
3. After squash and potatoes are very tender, remove from heat and add cream, season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Blend until smooth adding the other 2 Tblsp butter. Adjust thickness/consistency with more stock if necessary. Readjust seasoning as necessary.
5. Serve with a dollup of sour cream and a sprinkle of fresh chives.

Chef Percy on FOX 40

The Ahwahnee’s Executive Chef Percy Whatley Studies to Become a Certified Master Chef

Chef Percy's Roasted Pork Loin with Chorizo, Sweet Potatoes, Collards and Maple Tequila Glaze. Photo by Teri Marshall.

Chef Percy’s Roasted Pork Loin with Chorizo, Sweet Potatoes, Collards and Maple Tequila Glaze. Photo by Teri Marshall.

In your personal dining experience, you may think you know a master chef or two, but you probably don’t. “Master Chef” is a term that is tossed around rather casually, but the fact is that a Certified Master Chef (CMC) is an actual classification conferred upon those who endure a rigorous eight day long practical exam that tests your culinary knowledge and abilities. Established by the American Culinary Federation in 1981, the CMC program has fewer than 70 classified CMCs, and Delaware North Companies employs one of them  – Chef Roland Henin – to oversee the culinary operations of this international company. Not long ago, The Ahwahnee’s Executive Chef, Percy Whatley, was approached by Chef Roland to embark on this certification course. In his blog entry on website Toqueland, Percy said, “A few years ago, Kevin Doherty, chef of Boston’s TD Garden, which like the Ahwahnee is a Delaware North Companies property, and I were nominated by Chef Roland Henin, our corporate chef and mentor, and a Certified Master Chef (CMC) himself, to be the ‘chosen ones’ and  be supported in the venture of training and developing with the goal of passing the Certified Master Chef exam. The CMC exam takes place over eight days and 130 hours, and includes challenges in disciplines ranging from Classical Cuisine to Buffet Catering to Freestyle to Global Cuisine to Bakery and Pastry. Only 66 people have attained the level of CMC: one is Roland himself, who famously mentored Thomas Keller.”

With several years of study already under his belt, Chef Percy still must complete one final test in order to be certified at one of two campuses of the The Culinary Institute of America, either in New York or Napa Valley in 2014. In the meantime, you may be the beneficiary of Chef Percy’s ever-growing culinary knowledge during his Master Chef studies, as he oversees and prepares meals for the Signature Food & Wine Events in Yosemite that take place at The Ahwahnee every year: Vintners’ Holidays, Bracebridge Dinner and Chefs’ Holidays. During the fall, Vintners’ Holidays presents wine and the food it pairs with in a celebration that focuses on California winemaking. For the winter holidays, The Ahwahnee Dining Room is transformed into Bracebridge Hall of Merry Old England with a seven course feast and characters filled with song and good cheer. During the depths of winter, you can warm yourself at Chefs’ Holidays where the American culinary scene is showcased at cooking demonstrations and a gala dinner by visiting chefs. Packages including lodging, presentations and gala dinners are available for all three Signature Food & Wine Events.

Wine tasting at Vintners' Holidays. Photo by Chris Andre.

Wine tasting at Vintners’ Holidays. Photo by Chris Andre.

Holiday serenade at the Bracebridge Dinner

Holiday serenade at the Bracebridge Dinner. Photo by Lani Spicer.

Cooking demonstration for Chefs' Holidays. Photo by Chris Andre.

Cooking demonstration for Chefs’ Holidays. Photo by Chris Andre.

Though you can plan to attend an event in Yosemite that features Chef Percy’s culinary creations, you may also be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time for an unexpected treat. This summer the Rotary Club of Yosemite shared a ‘practice’ California Luncheon prepared by Chef Percy that featured two choices: Summer Breeze menu featuring salmon and lobster vol-au-vent with watercress as well as local free-range roasted chicken and peach tart with huckleberry compote, or Plantation Supper menu featuring oxtail soup and roasted pork loin with chorizo and maple tequila glaze.  The Master Chef certification test has no written component – it is simply a measure of the mastery of cooking skills and knowledge. For the Rotary Club luncheon, Chef Percy perused the stores of The Ahwahnee’s kitchen and created the menus that impressed club members with their spontaneity and inventiveness. We wish Chef Percy the best of luck with his CMC test in 2014, but we have a feeling he will pass with flying colors.

Serving the Rotary Club luncheon at The Ahwahnee. Photo by Teri Marshall.

Pastry Chef Paul Padua assists in serving the Rotary Club luncheon at The Ahwahnee. Photo by Teri Marshall.

Chef Percy Whatley and Rotary Club member Teri Marshall.

Chef Percy Whatley and Rotary Club member Teri Marshall.

Mojito Parfait from Ahwahnee Pastry Chef Paul Padua

Photo courtesy of Brett Archer

Photo courtesy of Brett Archer

Just in time for the first day of summer, Chef Paul from The Ahwahnee shares his personal recipe for a super easy summer dessert:

Mojito Parfait with Macerated Berries:
serves 12

Ingredients for the Lime Curd:
3 egg yolks
3 whole eggs
6 oz granulated sugar
5 oz fresh lime juice
zest of one lime
2 oz rum
4 drops mint extract
4 oz butter unsalted
1 pint whipped cream
2 oz powdered sugar

Ingredients for the Rum Macerated Berries:
2 T chopped fresh mint
1/2 pint blackberries
1/2 pint raspberries
1/2 pint strawberry quarters
1 whole orange peeled and cut into wedges
2 oz rum
2 oz powdered sugar

Combine the egg yolks, eggs, sugar, lime juice and zest, 2 oz of rum and mint extract into a 2 quart sauce pot, stir with a wire whisk and cook on medium heat. With a rubber spatula, continuously stir and scrape the bottom of the pot until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Do not boil, or it will curdle. Remove from heat immediately and transfer to a bowl. Place in an ice bath and stir in butter until melted and well incorporated. Set aside to cool.

Whip the cream with the powdered sugar until stiff. Fold whipped cream into lime curd. Combine all of the berries and orange wedges with the chopped mint in a bowl. Drizzle the powdered sugar and rum over and toss vigorously. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit to marinate for five minutes.

Layer Macerated fruits and mojito parfait to almost the rim of your favorite summer classy glasses. Decorate with fresh berries, citrus wedges and a sprig of mint. Enjoy!

The Ahwahnee Executive Chef at Central Coast Wine Classic

Chef Percy Whatley

Chef Percy Whatley

Ahwahnee Dining Room Executive Chef, Percy Whatley is excited to be participating in The Central Coast Wine Classic this year July 11 – 14 at the Avila Beach Golf Resort. Chef Percy, along with other prestigious and well-known chefs, will be involved in preparing the Dinner at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, a six-course meal with paired wines from Vintner Dignitaries.

Renowned among true wine insiders, The Central Coast Wine Classic was named one of Wine Spectator’s Top Ten Charity Wine Auctions in America, and features elegant wine seminars, tastings, luncheons and dinners presented by famous vintners and celebrity chefs, as well as distinctive art work from extraordinary California artists.

In addition to the Dinner at Hearst Castle, the $1250.00 per person Patron Sponsorship includes:

  • Barrel Tasting Event featuring yet-to-be-released wines
  • Rare & Fine Wine & Lifestyle Auction & Silent Auction
  • Reserve Tasting Event showcasing the Most Special Wines of 50 California wineries with culinary samplings from fine Central Coast restaurants and live music.

Find out more about the Central Coast Wine Classic, and the other chefs involved in preparing Thursday’s Dinner at Hearst Castle, or make plans to sample Chef Percy’s creations in The Ahwahnee Dining Room.

White Cucumber Gazpacho with Heirloom Tomatoes

Enjoy a delicious Gazpacho from award-winning Chef Percy Whatley and bring a taste of The Ahwahnee Dining Room home with you.

White Cucumber Gazpacho with Heirloom Tomatoes

White Cucumber Gazpacho with Heirloom Tomatoes

T&D Willey Farms Products

Bell Peppers

Yield: 1 qt, serves 4-6
Sliced sourdough, crust removed, torn 1 slice
Whole Milk ½ cup
Yellow onion, diced 2 oz
Shallots, minced ½ oz
Garlic, minced 1 clove
Mediterranean Cucumbers, chopped 1 lb
Lemon Juice 1 Tblsp
Green Bell Peppers, roasted, peeles 1 each
Basil leaves, fresh, chopped 1 tsp
Parslty, fresh, chopped ½ tsp
Cilantro, fresh, chopped ½ tsp
Sliced almonds, toasted ¾ oz
White wine Worcestershire sauce ½ tsp
Sherry Vinegar ½ tsp
Kosher Salt 2 tsp
Ground black pepper pinch
Smoked Paprika, sweet/dulce ½ tsp
Celery Salt ¼ tsp
Cumin, ground ¼ tsp
Olive Oil, extra virgin 3 Tblsp
Water 1/3 cup

1. Soak torn bread in milk until soft.
2. Sweat onions, garlic and shallot in olive oil until translucent over medium heat.
3. Toast almonds in oven until golden brown.
4. Toast cumin, celery salt, black pepper and paprika in a dry pan until smoke develops, remove from heat immediately.
5. Combine all ingredients together and blend until smooth, strain through a sieve.
6. Chill and serve with garnish below.
Heirloom or very ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced 5 oz
Parsley, fresh, finely minced ¼ Tblsp
Sour Cream or Crème Fraiche 2 Tblsp
Olive Oil, extra virgin, for drizzling as needed
Sea Salt, such as Fleur de Sel as needed
Sourdough croutons as needed
1. Combine tomatoes and parsley.
2. Press into a ramekin or similar mold. Unmold in the middle of the bowl.
3. Pour soup around the molded tomatoes.
4. Spoon a little sour cream or crème fraiche on the tomatoes.
5. Sprinkle with salt, add croutons and drizzle a little olive oil. Serve.