This season we’re going back to our roots in California’s wine country, where the first Williams-Sonoma store was opened. Along the way we’ll be spotlighting the local chefs, artisans and producers who have made the region a top culinary destination and continue to inspire us, in the kitchen and around the table.
As the Culinary Director at the family’s winery, Maria brings her years of restaurant experience (and media acclaim) to the tasting room with dinners for wine club members and other culinary events. On her off nights, she’s still cooking for her family, including the couple’s two daughters.
Here, we ask Maria all about living and working in the wine country, her approach to cooking, and what she loves about her job.
Tell us about your background and how you got started cooking.
I actually got started when I was really young. There were five of us in my family, and my mother was kind of sick of cooking for us kids, because as we got older we all wanted something different. Each night we would get a chance to cook – five of us, five nights, my mother didn’t have to cook and we did. My sister would always do carrot sticks and salad. My brothers would do spicy chicken wings. And I would try and actually make a good meal. I had a feel for it, so I knew that it was something I was good at. In my family, we all had to find something we were good at: my sister was an amazing tennis player, my brother was a soccer player. Cooking was my thing. When you find something you like to do and you’re good at it, it’s positive reinforcement. So I kept cooking.
I cooked in college for my sorority when we didn’t have a cook, and after college when I worked in advertising I did backstage catering for rock n’ roll bands in Boston. It was so much fun. I was going to go to law school, but my father told me I should go to culinary school. I was like, “That’s a choice?” It had never been thrown out before. I was dating a musician in Boston and they wanted to get me away from them – there was an ulterior motive. I broke up with him and moved to the West coast. I went to the CCA (California Culinary Academy), graduated, got a job and started cooking.
Where did you cook?
My first job was at a place called Le Piano Zinc, and it was a great French restaurant. I also worked at the Sherman House, a relais chateau in San Francisco. I was getting tired of San Francisco and wanted to go back East, so I was going to stop in Aspen and go skiing for a season. Then the chef had left at Plumpjack and they came to me. I told them I would do it for six months, then I was out of here. I ended up staying for five years.
What was that like?
It was awesome. We opened up a lot of businesses. But by then I’d had my first child and the commute back and forth from Napa to San Francisco was too much. So I left Plumpjack. Rob said, “Why don’t you come work for the winery?” I was working a little bit for the winery already, organizing the culinary program, but I got more into it after that. Then I wrote my first book, after I had two kids and finally found the time.
We’ve had guest chef events, guest chef dinners, cooking classes, events for our wine club members and people who were at the winery. We do dinners for the wine club members. Food informs the wine, so the gardens are incorporated into what we serve in the tasting room. Food has always been such a huge part of it, and that was even before me – Rob loves food. It’s always been about the food – I just stepped into those shoes.
What are you growing at the winery?
For herbs we have kaffir lime and bay trees. We have tomatoes and squash and eggplant and fennel and leaf lettuces and braising greens – pretty much everything you can imagine. We have fig trees and pomegranate trees and apple trees. Heirloom pears, heirloom apples, cider apples, peaches, pluots, nectarines, plums. For me, a tree is basically worthless unless it produces something to eat.
How did you become interested in gardening?
I’ve always had a garden. When I was a kid I grew watermelon, and a watermelon had cross-pollinated with a zucchini and created the world’s biggest zucchini that looked like a watermelon. My family would eat a slice a night, it was so big. All five of us kids gathered in the kitchen and my father took the “watermelon” and sliced into it and went, “It’s a squash!” We were all completely upset.
What are some of your favorite ingredients to grow and cook with?
I always have pate brisee in my freezer, because then you can basically have a meal. I love making desserts. I started out as a pastry chef and I still love doing that. I make a lot of fresh tomato sauce. When I was growing up we always had tomato sauce on the stove, so when I would come home from school I would dip a slice of bread into a bowl of tomato sauce. That was the ultimate snack that I’ve tried to continue with my kids. I’m definitely into Italian food – manicotti, fresh pasta. That’s a big entertaining thing for my kids: put some pasta dough in front of the machine and let them roll their own meal. I love baking – breads, galettes, cakes.
What about some favorite food and wine pairings for fall?
A: I love Alsatian onion tarts with white wines. Also choucroute – braised sauerkraut and sausage – with all the whites. I think white wine goes better with food overall, but red wine you can’t beat with earthy things, like aged meat. It has that umami thing happening.
Describe a typical day in your life.
Wake up, get the kids to school. Then I usually have to do some writing – food writing, wine writing, recipes, working on a book proposal. Lately it’s been a lot of cooking and prep for events I’m doing. It’s a lot of office work and kitchen work, back and forth.
Do you cook dinner every night?
I try to. I probably cook dinner five nights a week.
What do you cook on a regular night?
Risotto, roast chicken, pasta. Sometimes we just have vegetables and a salad. We usually have pork or steak once a week.
What are some of your favorite varietals?
Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chenin Blanc. Probably Cab Franc, too.
What do you love about your job?
That it’s seamless. It’s not really a job. I don’t think about “going to work.” My life is my work.