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.

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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!

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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.

Vintners’ Holidays in Yosemite: Managing the Wining & Dining at The Ahwahnee

If you have ever attended Vintners’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite, pat yourself on the back for choosing one of California’s most treasured landscapes to do your wine tasting. Napa Valley notwithstanding, Yosemite Valley offers the National Historic Landmark Ahwahnee hotel as one of the premier venues to taste California wines. Each fall for the past 35 years, California vintners have gathered in Yosemite National Park to share their knowledge (and their wine!) with park visitors. For the past four years, Kathy Langley has managed the Vintners’ Holidays event for The Ahwahnee, and as you may imagine, she really enjoys her work! Kathy shared her views on the event in the interview below.

Q1: How many years have you been involved in planning the event?
A1: Four years as the Food & Wine Events Manager [Kathy worked many years as a concierge at The Ahwahnee involved in the events prior to becoming the manager].

Q2:What makes The Ahwahnee a venue that a wine lover must check out at least once?
A2: Enjoying wine is a good thing. Enjoying wine in Yosemite is a great thing!

Q3:What do you look for when looking for speakers to present their wines?
A3: A variety of wines, grape-growing regions, and personalities

Q4: Do you have a certain session you are looking forward to and what do each have to offer guests?
A4: That’s really a difficult question to answer as each session has something unique to offer. However, at Session 4, Joy Sterling of Iron Horse Vineyards will be pouring their Summit Cuvee in honor of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite. Kevin is a Sonoma County boy, born and raised.

Q5: What is your favorite part of the event?
A5: Getting the first of six sessions started. That’s really seeing the fruits of my labor come to life!

Q6: Do you have a certain wine that is your favorite?
A6: The one in my glass!

Q7: What special memories do you have attending and help organizing the event? A7: Getting to know the vintners and their families. I’ve had the privilege of seeing their children grow up over the years of their visits to Yosemite for Vintners’ Holidays.

Q8: How does the executive chef at The Ahwahnee make it over-the-top when pairing food and wine?
A8: Chef Percy Whatley has an amazing palate and is a real wizard at pairing. The vintners agree, in that their comments with regard to the pairing of the wine is typically, “He nailed it!”

Q9: What makes Vintners’ Holidays different from other wine events?
A9: The opportunity to meet the actual winemakers and proprietors of the wineries. There are very few events that feature the actual winemakers.

Q10: How does the scenery and The Ahwahnee’s history add to the venue?
A10: Tasting seminars are held in the Great Lounge – what a spectacular place to sip wine! Most events of this type are held in hotel banquet rooms – not exactly a warm and fuzzy place to be! Here you sip…look at Half Dome…sip again…look at Yosemite Falls.

Q11: Why do you think it has continued all these years?
A11: The combination of wine and Yosemite with The Ahwahnee as the event venue is pretty hard to beat. Over the course of two or three days, guests run into the vintners in the bar, elevator, hallways, etc. That kind of access is not common at wine events.

Q12: What do you have to say about the judges and speakers this year?
A12: With Peter Marks, Evan Goldstein and Dan Berger, there is plenty of history in Yosemite. They have all participated for a number of years. Fred Dame, who some may recognize from the film “Somm“, was a moderator in the early years of Vintners’ Holidays and returns this year, as he did in 2014.

Q13: And anything else you would like to add?
A13: I can’t wait for the event!

Cocktails at Wawona Hotel in Yosemite

One of Yosemite’s most genteel pleasures is surveying the landscape from a wicker chair on the verandah of the historic Wawona Hotel – cocktail in hand. Not only does the slower pace of Wawona lend itself to reflection, it also lends itself to libation, particularly on a warm summer afternoon. Cocktail service begins in the lobby of this beloved old hotel every afternoon, with plenty of outdoor seating for those inclined to lovely views. This summer season, Wawona Hotel has created some charming additions to the cocktail menu – including appetizers for nibbling prior to dinner in the dining room.

Two tasty cheese plates featuring almond-crusted Brie and a sampler assortment are traditional shared plate offerings, but this summer menu also features crispy fried Brussels sprouts(!) and a generous smoked salmon fillet to share. To accompany your apps, choose from Wawona namesake cocktails such as the Wawona Julep or the Washburn’s Old-Fashioned. New this year is the Greens Keeper – a refreshing cucumber and lemon flavored gin-based drink. The season’s best specialty martini may be the PomeGranite Dome (get it?) with Patron Silver tequila and pomeganate juice.

In addition to sipping and snacking, Wawona provides the best old-fashioned entertainment this side of the Yosemite entrance gate, as Tom Bopp plays piano and sings about life in Wawona. Join him for an evening of Wawona history show-tune-style, in the lobby of the hotel.

If cocktail hour is not on your Yosemite agenda, lunch in the Wawona Dining Room may provide a restful break in an adventure-filled day. Lunch specialties include salads, hot & cold sandwiches and burgers along with spaghetti pomodoro and fish & chips.

High Sierra Cooking Camp in Yosemite


If you have ever stayed at a High Sierra Camp in Yosemite National Park, you have been fortunate enough to experience one of the most unique dining experiences in California. Yosemite’s High Sierra Camps provide the backcountry experience without the burdens of backpacking by providing tent cabins with bunk beds, linens, and meals cooked on-site with great care by High Sierra Camp cooks. Five camps: Glen Aulin, May Lake, Vogelsang, Sunrise and Merced Lake, provide access to some of Yosemite’s most breathtaking landscapes during the short summer season in the high country.

Each year, the High Sierra Camp cooks attend a High Sierra Cooking Camp before the summer season begins and guests begin arriving for their backcountry experience. All five camps have their own cooking staff comprised of two camp cooks who split the week for the entire season. With three and a half days on and three and a half days off, the cooks prepare breakfast and dinner meals every day until the camps close down in September. Glen Aulin is the first camp to open each summer and though it has the smallest kitchen, it is usually the site of Cooking Camp. All camp chefs gather at in the camp kitchen during setup and spend time with Ahwahnee Executive Chef Percy Whatley in a communal cooking atmosphere meant to foster ideas, camaraderie and good cooking. Chef Percy has been conducting Cooking Camp since 2002 and prior to that, Delaware North Master Chef Roland Henin conducted the very first Cooking Camp. This year Cooking Camp took place on June 9 and 10, 2015 at Glen Aulin High Sierra Camp.

Cooking Camp Dinner Menu #1
Trout with Caper Brown Butter
Potato & Corn Chowder
Green Salad
Green Beans with almonds
House made dinner rolls
Cream puffs with lemon curd & strawberries for dessert

Cooks are very passionate about their jobs at the High Sierra Camps. They treasure the freedom and creativity of running each kitchen independently as a High Sierra version of Executive Chef. Though the camps have a set menu for the main dish ingredient, how the dish is prepared and which side dishes accompany the main is up to each cook, and they embrace this flexibility wholeheartedly. Food orders are placed a week in advance and fulfilled by mule train delivery from the Tuolumne Meadows Stable (or Yosemite Valley Stable in the case of Merced Lake), so creative menu planning is a must. If, for some reason, the requested menu items don’t make on the mule train, camp cooks test their creative cooking skills by improvising from the pantry. Camp cooks begin their day at 5:45 am to prepare breakfast and continue cooking throughout the day, including making bread from scratch and providing a hot drink service prior to dinner.  Dinner prep begins in the afternoon before finishing the day with final cleanup by 10:00 pm. Box lunches for guests are sandwiches prepared and snacks assembled by camp helpers. With three and a half days off each week, camp cooks make the most of their location in Yosemite’s high country. Next to cooking in the High Sierra, every camp cook expressed a love of Yosemite as the most compelling reason to accept the challenge of preparing meals in such a remote location.

Guests of the High Sierra Camps are guaranteed meals as part of their camp reservation. Hikers and backpackers can also tent camp next to the High Sierra Camps in campgrounds operated by the National Park Service and still be served a hearty backcountry meal. Tent campers may take advantage of the proximity to camp by purchasing a Meals Only High Sierra Camp reservation. To tent camp, you must have a wilderness permit issued by Yosemite National Park. Please note that in the past, a Meals Only reservation purchase guaranteed a wilderness permit for the holder and this is no longer accepted. You must already have a permit in order to make a Meals Only purchase.

Make a Meals Only reservation this summer: http://www.yosemitepark.com/high-sierra-camp-lodging.aspx

Learn more about wilderness permits in Yosemite: http://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm

High Sierra Camp Cooks 2015:

Ryan Cobble at Glen Aulin since 2001
Caitlin Rea at Sunrise for her third season
John Corry at Sunrise for 13 years, also fill-in cook who has cooked at all camps!
Cody Freeman at Merced Lake for his 2nd season
Zach Jones at May Lake for his 3rd season
Robbie Zukowski at Vogelsang for her 3rd season
Jennifer Shoor at May Lake since 2001 with Brian Schoor her husband and Camp Manager
Paul Lebourgeois at Merced Lake for his 5th season
Mitchell Williams at Glen Aulin for his 3rd season
Lucas Banks at Vogelsang for his 3rd season

 

#YosemiteSocial!

Have you ever attended a social media event? Originally formed as part of the Twitter community and known as as “Tweet-Ups” (a play on meet-up, get it?), social media events have evolved to include users of all social media channels in what are often referred to as “Socials”. This week, Delaware North at Yosemite hosted Yosemite National Park’s first “Yosemite Social”. By invitation, social media influencers and social media representatives of park partners gathered in Yosemite Valley February 1 – 3, 2015 to talk about Yosemite in winter. The original event itinerary centered around winter sports at Badger Pass Ski Area – California’s original ski resort and one of only two located in a national park. Unfortunately, Mother Nature has chosen to withhold snow from the Sierra Nevada this winter and Badger Pass has closed temporarily due to lack of it. So what to do in the Yosemite winter without snow? Yosemite Social learned about activities such as hiking, biking, and ice skating in a snow-free Yosemite winter. Social media users on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can check out the experience by searching for the #YosemiteSocial hashtag on each channel.

In addition to activities, Yosemite Social was hosted at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls with a welcome dinner at The Mountain Room. After dinner entertainment consisted of a Starry Skies Over Yosemite Program, led by Delaware North at Yosemite interpretive guide Cory. Taking Yosemite Social on a cosmic tour of the universe, Cory shared his extensive knowledge of astronomy on a walking tour under the dark night sky of Leidig Meadow. The next day, Yosemite Social took a Bike-to-Hike Tour with Yosemite Mountaineering School Guide Allissa. Using the cruisers from the bike rental operation at Yosemite Lodge at the Falls is an easy way to explore Yosemite Valley with occasional stops for short hikes and iconic vistas. Yosemite Social stopped mid-tour for lunch with freshly-made sandwiches at Degnan’s Deli in Yosemite Village and a meet & greet with Yosemite National Park Service staff. With grand views of Half Dome and Yosemite Falls as a backdrop, Ranger Paul provided insight into the methods and goals of social media for the National Park Service in Yosemite.

Though Curry Village operates seasonally and is often closed during the winter months, Yosemite Social had a special pizza party dinner in the Curry Village Dining Pavilion featuring Pizza Deck pies – a tradition for summer visitors. Along with local beers and a green salad, dinner provided an opportunity to learn about operations at Curry Village – originally established in 1899 by the Curry family – from General Manager Dan Cornforth and Guest Recreation Manager Sean Costello. A short walk from the pavilion provided a winter evening’s activity: ice skating at Curry Village Ice Rink. Not only are rental skates available to circle the ice under Half Dome and Glacier Point during the day, take a break to gather around the fire pit during evening skate sessions with a S’mores Kit for dessert. Ice rink staff will even loan you long-handled forks for marshmallow toasting.

On the last day of the event Yosemite Social joined The Ahwahnee‘s General Manager, Brett Archer, for breakfast in the Ahwahnee Dining Room. Since Chefs’ Holidays at The Ahwahnee was still in full swing for its last sessions, Yosemite Social also participated in an exclusive Ahwahnee Kitchen Tour for a close up look at baked bread, desserts and the hardworking kitchen staff in this historic hotel. Many architectural elements are original to the hotel opening in 1927, including giant Hobart stand mixers haven’t been available in decades. Each winter in January and February, Chefs’ Holidays hosts famous chefs from around the country for cooking demonstrations, historic kitchen tours and a gala dinner in the Ahwahnee Dining Room.

Sincere thanks goes to the participants of the first ever Yosemite Social: Annie from NatureBridge, Amber and Noel from Yosemite/Mariposa County Tourism Bureau, Trevor from Tenaya Lodge at Yosemite, Annie from Outdoorsy Mama, Kim from Yosemite Sierra Visitors Bureau and travel photographer Zach Glassman. Would you like to attend a Yosemite Social? Look for future event announcements on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

6 Ways to Enjoy Winter in Yosemite

1. Ice Skating

Where: Curry Village Ice Rink in Yosemite Valley
When: November through February 29
How: Skate rentals available – and don’t forget the s’mores kits for the fire pit!

2. Skiing, Snowboarding and Snowtubing

Where: Badger Pass Ski Area
When: Mid-December through March
How: Lessons, rentals, and dining available

3. Chefs’ Holidays

Where: The Ahwahnee
When: January and February
How: Dine with famous chefs and attend cooking demos in an historic national park lodge

4. Ostrander Ski Hut or Glacier Point Ski Hut:

Where: Backcountry lodging along the Glacier Point Road
When: Mid-December through March
How: Not accessible by vehicle in winter, you can snowshoe or cross-country ski to Yosemite’s ski huts

5. Snowshoeing

Where: Badger Pass Ski Area
When: Every day when enough snow covers the ground, evenings during the full moon
How: Rent snowshoes at Badger Pass Ski Area on your own, join park rangers or Delaware North at Yosemite interpretive naturalists on guided walks (snowshoes included)

6. Camera Walks

Where: Yosemite Valley
When: Several days a week in winter, find the schedule in the Yosemite Guide
How: With instructors from the Ansel Adams Gallery

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

Boysenberry Pie at The Ahwahnee in Yosemite

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The Ahwahnee has been serving Boysenberry Pie in Yosemite National Park for over 50 years! Boysenberries – a cross between raspberry and blackberry – make a delicious summer dessert pie especially when served with vanilla ice cream. If you can’t join us in Yosemite for pie this summer, we have included the recipe below. However, we think Boysenberry Pie tastes best when consumed with a view of Yosemite from The Ahwahnee Dining Room.

The Ahwahnee Boysenberry Pie

Makes: One 10” pie

Pie Filling
1 ½ lbs. Frozen Boysenberries
¾ C Sugar
1 ¼ oz Clear Instant Gelatin
Pinch of Salt

Method:
In a sauce pan on a low heat add frozen boysenberries and slowly cook for 5 minutes.  In a bowl combine sugar, gelatin and salt and mix.  Add sugar mixture to sauce pan.  Cook for another 5 minutes.  Stir often to avoid burning.  Set aside and let cool.

Pie Dough
9 oz Flour (AP Flour)
Pinch of Salt
1 ½ T Sugar
4 ½ oz Soft Butter
1 ½ oz Cold Water (very cold water)

Method:
In a food processor add flour, salt, sugar and softened butter.  Turn on and mix ingredients until they are evenly distributed.  Then add water all at once.  Turn off food processor as soon as the dough binds and comes away from the sides of the bowl.  Roll into a ball and refrigerate for one hour.  Roll out dough on counter top and form rolled out dough into 10 inch pie pan.  Preheat oven to 350’F and bake pie shell for 5 minutes.  Roll a top for a the pie and cover with a towel.  Place filling in shell and place top on pie egg washing the pie rim to seal.  Cut 4 slit in the top of the pie and egg wash the top.  Place in the 350’F and bake until golden brown (around 15 to 20 min).  Cool and serve.