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.
Any visitor to Sonoma’s historic plaza is likely to make a stop at The Girl & the Fig, the Provencal-inspired restaurant known for its signature cheese and charcuterie platters and emphasis on local ingredients (not to mention the antique bar serving aperitifs and wine flights).
Behind the dishes is proprietor Sondra Bernstein, who fell in love with Sonoma County while on vacation and moved a year later. In 1997, she opened The Girl & the Fig, which is as beloved by locals as it is frequented by tourists. Since then she’s published two cookbooks and launched the FIGfood line of artisan-produced jams, chutneys and compotes for a taste of the “fig experience” no matter where you are.
Here, we ask Sondra all about living and eating in Sonoma, her products, and how to entertain the wine country way.
You have been in Sonoma for 14 years, correct? What inspires you about the area?
Actually this year will be 21 years. Our 16-year anniversary is this summer for the girl & the fig. I came to Sonoma County on a vacation in late ’92, fell in love with the area, and moved early ’93. I opened the first fig in 1997. There is so much to love about this area — the diversity of the land, the beauty, the really nice people — but truly the commitment to agriculture and the passion of the producers, including wine producers, captured my heart.
What does wine country food mean to you?
I would describe wine country food as simply “the best of everything that can be found right in our Sonoma backyard.”
What defines it?
The passionate commitment that our producers, farmers, artisans and winemakers share when working with mother nature. It is contagious because the products are stellar; I feel that maintaining the authenticity of the flavors in our cooking is essential! The beauty of Sonoma is also inspiring, so much so that we need to feed the senses, starting with the eyes. A few buzzwords for me are authentic, seasonal, passionate, terroir, commitment, sustainability and sharing.
How did The Girl & the Fig get its name? Why figs?
The name just kind of happened, but I was sitting under a fig tree when I doodled it on a cocktail napkin. I have loved figs since the first time I tasted one in Italy. There are so many reasons that the fig has become the symbol of the restaurant, but for sure the fact that they are exotic, seasonal, durable, religious and erotic.
What inspired you to start bottling some of your recipes for the FIGfood product line?
Guests were always asking to take a bit home, and after my years at Viansa winery it was evident that guests really do like to take something back to remember a good experience.
Are there any creative uses for your products that we can share with readers?
Our fig condiments were created to be served with our cheese and charcuterie plates. My refrigerator is always stocked with a few jars. When unexpected guests arrive, nothing is easier than spicing up a nibble with figs. Sometimes, it is as simple as crostini or crackers, with a luscious cheese and a dollop of the condiments. Blending the jam with creme fraiche or cream cheese adds another layer of flavor and texture.
A big spoonful of dried fig compote in my morning oatmeal or granola goes a long way for flavor. Grilled cheese sandwiches with some fig jam adds a surprise. Smothering pork chops or a pork loin with apricot-fig chutney prior to grilling or roasting will create a pleasant sweet and savory crust on the meat. Braised lamb and short ribs are easily enhanced with a few tablespoons of fig jam in the sauce.
What are some of your go-to dishes to serve at home?
In the summer my go-to dish is sauteed and browned summer squash, tossed with feta cheese, toasted pumpkin seeds, fresh mint and extra-virgin olive oil, with a crusty loaf of french bread on the side. Also, platters of sliced tomatoes, red onions and burrata. In crab season, it’s fresh-cracked Dungeness crab.
How do you like to entertain?
First off, I love to entertain guests in my restaurants. I like to order a sampling of current dishes for the table to share. Guests always say, “Sondra, that is too much food!” and I will always respond, “Just have a taste — we don’t have to eat it all. I just want you to taste the season and the flavors!” Inevitably the plates are wiped cleaned.
Our menu changes every week, and because of that we are able to offer the best of the season. Knowing when our fisherman has just come back with local salmon or halibut is always a treat; the fish was just caught hours ago. The same goes with our harvests from the farm. It seems like sometimes there is nothing better than a warm, juicy tomato just picked off the vine with a tad of sea salt.
When I entertain at home, it is always family-style, including a cheese course with lots of little bowls of nibbles: marinated olives; of course our fig jam, compote and chutney as condiments; caperberries and cornichons; and thinly sliced salumi. I like to prepare a roast or a whole chicken, simple and seasoned well. Just fresh produce from the farm.
Any tips for pulling off wine country style at home?
Be casual and enjoy the process — engaging in prepping, cooking and setting a beautiful table is a large part of “wine country style.” For wine, serve something yummy that will complement the food and make it taste even better. The experience of gathering and sharing and the act of eating is way more important than the end results. I believe that friends, family and good company are the stars of a successful dinner party. Don’t forget the music!
What’s your favorite part about living and working in wine country?
What is not to love? I am in paradise with so much beauty, delicious products, and passionate people that are, for the most part, really happy. Though there is a lot to running a business, when it comes to showing off the best of Sonoma, it is a joy!