Sonoma Chefs Share a Tradition of Inventing from the Garden

Traditions hold strong with French food, but the seasons and the garden sprout endless ways to experiment.

That’s a joy for Chefs Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze of the girl & the fig, a Sonoma mecca for the unfussy but delicious cuisine of Provence.

Chef lifts peppers from pan

Chef John prepares Padron peppers

The pair treated guests at Fresh Starts Chef Events to a summer menu celebrating their 2.5-acre garden at Imagery Winery, where they grow tomatoes, peppers, herbs and more.

Sharing the frustrations of the drought, Chef John commented, “They don’t call it harvesting – they call it gardening!” The year’s tomatoes lagged, but 220 Padrón pepper plants sent loads into the kitchen.

Similar to a Shishito, the Padrón pepper became an appetizer: quickly sauteed whole to a soft crunch and topped with herbed bread crumbs. They’re mostly mild, but beware the occasional spicy surprise.

Chef Sondra Bernstein tops salad with vinaigrette

Chef Sondra completes the salad.

Heirloom Tomato & Watermelon Salad followed as a sweet contrast. “We can’t ever take this off the menu or people beg,” says Chef Sondra, who founded the restaurant in Glen Ellen in 1997 and has partnered with her executive chef ever since.

Heirloom Tomato & Watermelon Salad

Heirloom Tomato & Watermelon Salad with Feta

The vinaigrette, incorporating a yellow tomato whirled in the blender, makes use of “non-perfect” fruit and easily incorporates fresh oregano, chervil or whatever the garden provides.

The main course also adapts to the garden, using a typically Provençal mix of lemon, olives and fennel to top a filet of fresh petrale sole. “It’s a combination of strong flavors that’s really changeable so it can be a year-round dish,” Chef John says.

His tips: use a hot pan, use a low-gluten flour to dust the fish, cook quickly and remove early from the heat as the fish continues to cook.

Chef places fish in the pan

Chef John lays fish into a hot pan.

Petrale sole topped by fennel, olives and lemon

Provencal Petrale Sole with Fennel & Olives

Along with their knowledge, the chefs shared their gourmet products, including fig compote, salted fig caramel, fig cake and a Mission fig shrub, which turns out to be a “drinking vinegar” that seems to mix well with vodka and soda.

“Customers were asking us if they could have a bit of this and that to take home,” Chef Sondra says of the figstore concept. “We wanted to share things. And we always want to experiment, get our hands dirty in the kitchen.”

Black Mission Fig Clafouti with Caramel

Black Mission Fig Clafouti with Caramel

Chef John showed guests how to make caramel, which he drizzled under the Black Mission Fig Clafouti for dessert. It’s another traditional but adaptable recipe – what the chef describes as “basically a fat crêpe.” Use a favorite fruit, add homemade caramel or a spoonful from the girl & the fig jar, and voilà! — contributed by Maura Thurman with photos courtesy of Neely Wang.

Black Mission Fig Clafouti – Serves 6 to 8


For the clafouti:
1⅓ cups all-purpose flour
1⅓ cups sugar
Pinch of salt
2½ cups whole milk
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
6 tablespoons Armagnac or brandy
8 large eggs
12 fresh figs, halved (1 cup rehydrated dried figs, quartered, can be substituted)

For the caramel sauce:
1 cup sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup heavy cream
Powdered sugar, for garnish


For the clafouti:
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Butter a 9-inch cake pan and set aside.

Sift together the flour, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Form a well and using a fork, mix in the milk, melted butter, Armagnac, and eggs. Beat until smooth and strain through a fine-mesh sieve.

Place the figs face down in the cake pan and cover with the clafouti mixture. Bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle of the clafouti comes out clean.

For the sauce:
Heat the sugar in a stainless-steel pan over medium-high heat and stir occasionally until the sugar turns brown, about 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, add the butter, and whisk until the butter has melted. Add the cream and continue to stir constantly until the cream is completely incorporated. (Makes about 1 cup.)

To serve: Slice the clafouti into 6 slices and transfer each slice to a plate. Drizzle the caramel sauce around each slice and dust with powdered sugar. You can also warm the clafouti in a low oven before serving.


About Fresh Starts Chef Events

Fresh Starts Chef Events offers a parade of presentations by celebrity chefs, cookbook authors and artisan producers in The Key Room. Visit the online calendar at for upcoming events. Our list of presenters includes luminaries from the worlds of food, wine and restaurants who share stories, demonstrate techniques and offer tips on making the most of our local bounty. You can register online for upcoming classes or call us for more details at 415-382-3363 x243. Proceeds from our events support shelter and job-training programs at Homeward Bound of Marin; learn more at and
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