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.
Stephen Barber has what most chefs would consider a dream job. As the Executive Chef at the St. Helena restaurant Farmstead at Long Meadow Ranch, Stephen has access to the 650-acre ranch’s organic and sustainably produced ingredients, including heirloom fruits and vegetables and grass-fed beef. From there, he and his team create seasonal farmhouse fare that’s become a favorite for locals and wine-tasting visitors alike.
We asked Stephen all about how he got started in the kitchen, what a typical day at work looks like, and the food he cooks at home with his wife. Read on to hear what he had to say.
Tell us about your background and how you got started cooking.
My background is rooted in Southern food, and what we’re doing here at Farmstead brings California seasonal sensibility and Southern roots together. I like tradition as well — the tradition of barbecue, and food that tells a story. That’s where I look for inspiration.
Working at City Grocery for John Currence was a big influence. I got a taste of Southern food — a mix of Mississippi, New Orleans, a little Carolina cooking all in one spot. It all started out with shrimp and grits. At City Grocery we used to mark on a poll beside the saute station a notch for every shrimp and grits that was sold. It was totally full by the time I left there.
I went from there to Miami and worked for a chef named Norman Van Aken, who was the king of Caribbean flavors and New World cuisine. That was interesting and fun; he took a more high-end, fine dining approach with degustation menus, all plated.
How would you describe the menu at Farmstead?
Our style is to use great ingredients and try not to mess with them too much, to treat them with respect. That should equal good flavors if we do everything right. Of course, there’s more to it than just good ingredients; we have to balance flavors and use proper techniques. But we can walk outside and pick corn, then put it on our wood grill that’s burning oak, and you’ve already got something great.
That’s the advantage of having things that are fresh and readily available. We raise our own beef, produce our own olive oil, and we have over 10 acres of gardens and more than 200 fruit trees in our orchard. We’re kind of spoiled. The first thing I did this morning was give the chickens water, collect their eggs, and pick five gallons of padron peppers.
How does having access to those ingredients influence your cooking?
We have to react and let the gardens tell us what to cook, as opposed to ordering everything. We go outside, talk with our gardener, walk through the fields, and anticipate what’s going on that week and the next week. That’s what’s fun about this process. If the gypsy peppers are going nuts, I’ve got to turn my gears to think about what I’m going to do with them.
To be truly farm to table, you have to be very flexible and know what’s going on in your garden. I love picking fava beans before they’re mature, then frying the pods and eating them whole. Recently I was planning to take those to the James Beard house for a dinner, but we weren’t able to harvest them. I’m calling every produce company around and asking for them, but no one has them that size — it doesn’t make sense to sell them like that. It’s something you can only do in your own garden.
You’re known for working with live fire and smoking meats. What interests you about those cooking techniques?
These old techniques of cooking barbecue — the meats, the smoke, the fire kissing the steak, the fat dripping off, the aroma — it gets into people’s heads. People want to see their food being prepared, slowly roasting or on a rotisserie. There’s something primitive about these cooking methods. They gather people around, and it ends up being something really special. People feel like they’re a part of it because they can smell and see it. It’s a fun way to cook. It’s like camping, but I’m getting paid for it.
How would you describe the food in wine country? What is unique about it?
In Napa Valley, you’re always going to get the best of what’s in season. People and restaurants focus a lot on dishes that will pair well with the best wines from Napa, too.
Take our burger — everything on that burger is made in house. We make the pickles, the buns, it’s our beef, and we make our own mustard and ketchup. You put that up next to our Cabernet and you’ve got a match made in heaven. You can’t get that kind of pairing anywhere else.
Our steaks as well — there’s something special when you’ve got a dish that you can really have control over from start to finish, then pair it with a wine that’s from your property as well. That’s specific to Farmstead, but all over wine country, people are well-versed in making suggestions for pairing their favorite wines with their favorite dishes on a menu. You have a lot of people who are passionate about the business here, which leads to a better understanding of wonderful pairings and experiences.
In Napa, you have a great mix. You can dine at The French Laundry or Taylor’s Refresher, and you’re going to have a great time at each one. They’re very different, but they are still based on great quality. If it’s not great quality, it’s not going to last here.
How does wine influence your menu?
Depending on the steak cut or the time of year, I’ll do a chimichurri sauce with the piece of meat or a smoked tomato bearnaise or hollandaise to pair with a bigger Cab. We just started keg programs, where we’ll have our Sangiovese or Ranch House Red in kegs; I’ll do meatballs from the wood oven to pair with those for happy hour. Combining all of our wines, our beef, our produce, our olive oil — that’s where we really hone in on making a focused experience.
What’s a typical day at Farmstead like for you?
I get in, get the smoker going, feed the chickens and make sure they have water, then take a walk through the garden. I bring people out to help me harvest, then adjust the menu for the day and get to work on those dishes. I expedite lunch service; all of the dishes are going through my hands. In the afternoon I get a little bit of paperwork done in my down time. Then I go into dinner and expedite dinner service.
How would you describe the atmosphere?
We’re busy (knock on wood). There’s really good energy, and every night there’s something going on. Tuesday is fried chicken night, which is dear to my heart. On Wednesday we have a creole-themed feature menu with gumbo and red beans and rice. We have fun with it.
It’s also a family restaurant. We have large parties and community tables, and live music outside on Fridays with a band playing old country classics. There’s a big bar outside, and it gets packed.
The atmosphere is really fun, laid-back and casual, but we take how we produce the food and how we act as a company very seriously. We’re certified organic, and we try to use sustainable practices everywhere we can. People who work here are very proud because they know what kind of work goes into what we do. It’s more than just calling up and having things delivered; it’s traceability. Everyone knows where the squash came from. These are the things that set us apart and show the family’s commitment to all of these practices. It makes my job easy.
Do you cook and entertain at home? What are some go-to dishes?
I do! My typical meal is a roast chicken. I also grill a lot so I don’t make a mess in the kitchen. I’ll smoke a whole chicken, and sometimes I’ll do fish — always very simple preparations.
We have a nice garden at home that I’m able to pick from as well. For the last couple of Sundays it’s been grilled or smoked chicken with grilled zucchini, cherry tomatoes and basil from the garden, with roasted pepper for a little heat.
When we entertain, I’ll take a big tri-tip and put a nice rub on it and smoke it, then grill some peaches and add fresh ricotta and basil — and you’re in business.
What do you grow at home?
We have zucchini, eggplant, padron peppers, a little bit of okra, butternut squash and tomatoes.
I also have a lot of farmer friends, and I get a CSA box from another farmer just to keep up with the different varieties available and to see what we might want to grow. It’s fun to see what other people are doing.
How can people pull off wine country food at home? Any entertaining tips?
On these hot summer days, it’s always about having some great rosé, getting the grill going, visiting the farmers’ market and using what in season and fresh.
What do you love about living and working in the wine country?
I love that people are centered in a place that is so focused on food and wine. There’s a reason there are so many great restaurants here. People come here expecting great wine, great food, and great experiences, and I love that we have everyone’s attention already. They are here for that. It pushes everyone to get to that next level; you can never be complacent.
Being a chef in Napa, our availability of great product is kind of unmatched. They say New York is more technique-driven and on the west coast there’s not as much technique involved in manipulating the food. But here, our growing seasons are long, we have the wine, and all of the agriculture. It’s a pretty awesome place to be a chef.