Founding Chef Sondra Bernstein of the girl & the fig in Sonoma and Executive Chef John Toulze cook with an off-the-cuff banter and plenty of jokes, perhaps a reason for the strength of their 17-year partnership at the iconic restaurant.
The award-winning restaurateurs drew a sold-out crowd to Fresh Starts Chef Events – the majority of them first-timers – and charmed everyone by being as modest and friendly as if they were just starting out and hoping to attract customers.
Although serious at first, telling everyone she felt “full of gratitude” for being able to follow her passion and give back to the community with opportunities like Fresh Starts Chef Events, Sondra informed guests that John is the chef and she’s the “comic.” They agree on things like that little-known fact that people burn fewer calories “when you enjoy the food while eating it.”
Both chefs worked at Viansa Winery before Sondra opened the girl & the fig in 1997 and hired John – a self-taught cook. They’ve built a loyal following and drawn acclaim with seasonal menus, including what’s grown in their own gardens — one at the restaurant and the other at Imagery Winery.
Sondra demonstrated a Chilled Asparagus Soup with Chervil & Crème Fraiche, the very first recipe she created. As she cooked, the chefs explained the need to “develop the layers” of flavor, why white pepper works best in the soup (milder flavor and no “black specks”), and the importance of tasting and seasoning before pureeing.
Fresh Starts Culinary Academy students must have learned all this beforehand, because the soup they prepared for guests was velvety and full of flavor.
For the Braised Pork Shoulder with Spring Onion Ragoût, John had several pans going —including separate ones for three types of onions. He recommends “cooking with all your senses” and “eyeballing” as you cook, not “sticking to the recipe religiously.”
“Most of the time, recipes are hogwash,” he says, because every oven, every pan, almost every ingredient will differ from that used for the original recipe—a relief to hear from a pro. This dish is a time commitment—and the culinary students were up to the task.
For dessert, a girl & the fig favorite: Lavender Crème Brûlée. According to John, “The trick with this is the lavender; steep it too long, it becomes lavender soap.” He advises to “taste, taste, taste.” As John proceeded through the steps (and made it look easy), he answered audience questions.
Sondra emphasized that they are “very, very lucky” to work together so well. And how lucky for all us that John decided not to complete his studies in accounting. — Contributed by Carol Inkellis with photos by Neely Wang.
Braised Pork Shoulder with Spring Onion Ragoût – Serves 6
For the ragoût
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound cipollini onions, peeled
3 sweet onions (Walla Walla or Maui), peeled, with root attached and cut in half
½ pound red pearl onions, peeled and blanched
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
For the pork shoulder:
3 pounds pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch cubes
¼ cup olive oil
1 leek, white part only, sliced
1 head garlic, cut in half
4 celery stalks, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons honey
2 medium carrots, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
1 medium yellow onion, quartered
4 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups red wine
6 cups veal or pork stock (beef broth can be substituted)
Salt and pepper to taste
2 bunches baby mâche, for garnish
To prepare the ragoût
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil on medium heat in an ovenproof pan large enough to hold all of the onions. Add the cipollini onions and red pearl onions. Caramelize them until golden brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Place the pan into the oven and roast for an additional 15 minutes or until the onions are soft.
Toss the sweet onions with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste. Place the onions face down on a baking sheet and roast until the onions are soft and browned, about 35 minutes.
Heat the butter in a large sauté pan and add the onions, butter, and thyme. Adjust the seasoning and cook until hot, about 5 to 7 minutes. Keep warm.
To prepare the pork
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Heat the olive oil in a large casserole dish or braising pan over medium heat. Add the pork and sear it until it is well caramelized on all sides. Remove the pork from the pan and set aside.
Add the leek, celery, carrots, onion, and garlic and cook until browned. Add the honey and mix well. Return the pork to the pan and stir again. Add the red wine, bay leaf, and thyme and bring to a boil. Reduce the liquid by half.
Add the stock and bring to a simmer. Cover the pan, transfer it to the oven, and roast for 2½ hours.
Remove the pan from the oven and let it cool for 20 minutes. Remove the pork from the pan and set aside.
Strain the liquid into a medium saucepan and bring to a simmer. Reduce the liquid by a little more than half, skimming the top. Add the pork back to the liquid and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Divide the onion ragoût evenly among 6 plates and top with the braised pork. Garnish with the mâche.