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Friday, May. 08, 2009

Brut & Vinegar: Northwest chefs use Venturi-Schulze's Aceto Balsamico and Brut Naturel as inspiration

Sooke Harbour House, Sooke, British Columbia

The case could be made that Edward Tuson deserves to be leading the life of one of those rock star celebrity chefs.

Instead, he's well-grounded with deep roots on Vancouver Island and in control - for the most part - of the remarkable and ever-changing menu at the famed Sooke Harbour House.

It's a lifestyle choice, one of substance over style. And while he's tucked away on the beautiful British Columbia coastline, being the longtime executive chef at one of the world's most acclaimed boutique resorts provides him as much fanfare as he wants.

"I'm not a city person," he said, relaxing on a garden bench and gazing at the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. "I did the city thing, but not for very long. I was born on the island in Nanaimo, and I've been all over the world. But I come back here and go, 'It's really beautiful here.' I don't think I've ever taken that for granted."

For Tuson, 43, there's no better way to appreciate his island than to tour on his Ducati or one of three high-performance Suzuki motorbikes. All it takes is a right-turn from the driveway of his nearby farm, which he shares with his girlfriend and his pigs.

"I'm a motorcycle freak," he said, voicing particularly pride when talking about the 1989 Suzuki GSX-R 750 he's restored. "Out here, you live on the gateway to road-race heaven. All the roads are windy. If I lived in the city, I'd get a million tickets and have to drive 11⁄2 hours to get to a windy road. Here, I can go for a little ride of 30 to 45 minutes before work and have a blast."

His professional surroundings call for a much more leisurely pace. In fact, Sinclair Philip demands it. The ambiance and concept he and co-owner Frederique Philip first began to cultivate at Sooke Harbour House in 1979 is refined to the level that Sinclair served as the first Canadian president in the Slow Food movement - the largest culinary organization in the world. It is dedicated to encouraging local farmers, fishermen and foragers.

"In many ways, Sooke Harbour House is an example of what Slow Food can be in North America," Sinclair said. "About 95 percent of our food is regional, primarily from Vancouver Island. We have a greenhouse. Our garden is certified organic, and we employ a large garden staff. We raise some of our own animals."

Guests come to appreciate the peaceful and comfortable surroundings of the seaside property as well as the effort and the pace of the six-course dinner. If your company is right, you are welcomed to stretch the meal to five hours. Guests of the resort take comfort in knowing their bed is a few steps away.

"We appreciate the food that we eat, and we take time to eat that food," said Philip, nicknamed "His Slowliness" by some in the food community. "We encourage conversation amongst people and a rebuilding of not only our relationships but also the maintenance of the community we live in - both the social community and the food community."

Regional wines have earned the centerpiece on the table, and Philip's restaurant staff features a long list of certified sommeliers.

"When we do our food-and-wine pairing meals, it's generally all B.C. wine," Tuson pointed out. "We're here to showcase B.C. food and B.C. wine."

Food critics are among the believers. The Toronto Globe and Mail referred to the Sooke Harbour House as the nation's best restaurant. Gourmet Magazine rated it "Best Restaurant in the World for Authentic, Local Cuisine."

Philip, the wine director, notes, "At least 85 percent of the wines we sell come from British Columbia. Our Northwest region produces some pretty extraordinary wines and as good as any in the world. When you travel to Italy or France, they drink the wines of their regions and cook with the wines of their region. What grows together goes together."

That's why the two acres of garden are at the heart of the resort, offering sanctuary for guests and producing the palette for Tuson and the wine staff, led by Jean-Nicolas Choquette.

"What's interesting is that you learn to use a plant from the flower to the root," Tuson said. "You can manipulate things in the garden to get flavors and textures of things we're not allowed to use here."

Years of research allow Philip to grow alternatives for various reasons. Exhibit A is citrus fruit. Something as simple as a tuberous begonia stem provides the same acidity a lemon imparts to a dish.

"You won't see a lemon in any of the traditional French cuisine or in any of the recipes until the 1980s," Philip said. "Lemons from California or Mexico come in by truck or plane, which are major sources of global warming."

Only a two-year stint as a chef globe-trotting through Asia interrupted Tuson's 12-year career at Sooke Harbour House.

"One of the reasons I've stayed here for so long is Sinclair trusts what I do," Tuson said. "I have creative freedom within the parameters; the menu is changing all the time, and you never get bored. You are not a robot here.

"Sinclair will phone down and say, 'I think we should use more of this' or 'Maybe we should grow this,' or 'Why don't you do this?' " Tuson said. " 'Use more seaweed and try it in as many ways as we can' is an example. I'll go, 'OK, why not?' "

However, Tuson draws the line at dandelion greens.

"They are the most hideous things that grow here because they are so bitter!" he said.

Wine director and chef collaborated on this unique Match Maker project, which features two products - sparkling wine and a balsamic vinegar - from Venturi-Schulze Vineyards, perhaps Vancouver Island's most famous winery.

What the chef and supervisor arrived at was sablefish brined in vinegar, topped with a brut-affected sabayon, and accompanied by julienned pear, carrot, microgreens and chopped walnuts.

The Venturi-Schulze 2004 Brut Naturel "is very dry and very crisp," Tuson said. "I like the aspect that it's dry, but then I like dry wines. And our sablefish, which is a fatty fish with lots of oil in it? The brut cuts right through the fats. And when I marinated the fish, I found that the vinegar actually firmed up the fish. I was shocked. Usually, vinegar is going to break down something or burn it."

Tuson focused his attention on the pear notes of the wine.

"I thought the best way to make the dish work as a whole was to put some of the brut in the sauce, keep the pear raw and keep the dish light," he said

What confirmed the overall concept was simple experimentation.

"I drank the wine with each of the components by themselves," Tuson said. "If it works with all of these things segregated, I was safe. It was pretty exciting."

Tuson especially enjoyed incorporating the brut. "Sparkling wine makes great sabayon because the bubbles inflate the eggs," he said.

Nothing in this remarkable dish outshined the rest, which is critical when working with the satiny and subtle sablefish. Tuson properly played up on the pear aspects, used the creamy and tender walnuts as bridge, performed as a maestro in balancing the vinegar, and made it all delectable, intriguing and light.

Sooke Harbour House, 1528 Whiffen Spit Road, Sooke, B.C., 800-889-9688, sookeharbourhouse.com.

Recipe: Sablefish Brined with Venturi-Schulze Aceto Balsamico, Topped with Venturi-Schulze Brut Naturel-affected Sabayon

Serves 4

4 5-6 oz. pieces of sablefish (a.k.a. black cod)

1⁄2 cup water

1⁄2 cup Venturi-Schulze Aceto Balsamico

1 ripe Anjou, Bosc or Bartlett pear, peeled and julienned

1 medium-sized carrot, peeled and julienned

2 tablespoons sunflower seed oil or grape seed oil

3 egg yolks

2 ounces non-alcoholic pear cider

1 1⁄2 ounces Venturi Schulze Brut Naturel

1⁄8 cup walnuts, toasted in oven on a baking sheet at 325 °F for 6-7 minutes and lightly crushed

1. Place sablefish, balsamic vinegar and water in a small, non-corrosive bread pan. Marinate the fish for 12 hours in a refrigerator. Turn the fish over after 6 hours.

2. Remove from the marinade and place on a plate lined with paper towels. Place the fish flesh-side down and refrigerate until ready to use.

3. Preheat oven to 400 °F

4. Fill a medium-sized pot two-thirds with water and bring to a boil.

5. While the water is coming to a boil, mix the pear and the carrot in a small bowl. Pour 2 tablespoons of sunflower or grape seed oil into a large skillet and warm over medium high heat.

6. Preheat the oil in the skillet for 3-4 minutes before placing the sablefish, flesh side down, in the skillet; then put it directly in the preheated oven. Cook the fish for 7-9 minutes or until it starts to flake.

7. To prepare sabayon, place the egg yolks, pear cider and the Brut in a medium sized stainless steel bowl. Place the bowl over the now boiling water. Whisk vigorously for 3-4 minutes or until soft peaks form. Then remove from heat.

8. For the plate presentation: Remove the fish from the oven and place each piece of fish in its own bowl, then spoon 2 tablespoons of sabayon onto each piece, place a small amount of the carrot and pear salad on top of the sabayon and sprinkle with toasted walnuts. Serve.

Zephyr Grill & Bar, Kent, Wash.

Nick Musser wears the chef's jacket at three restaurants in two states and three cities.

Such is the life of the corporate executive chef.

"The benefits are that the hours are better, and the days you work are much better," he said.

In other words, nights and weekends off.

However, here's a recent look into his calendar:

-- Ste. Michelle Wine Estates winemaker dinner one week at new Zephyr Grill & Bar at Kent Station.

-- Holiday cooking class at the original Zephyr in Livermore, Calif.

-- Children's cookie decorating class in Seattle at the sister property, icon Grill.

There's also promoting Aroused Americana Cooking, his new cookbook.

"That is all me. The family and I are going to Europe next year on frequent flier mileage," he said with a chuckle.

It doesn't take much Web research to realize Musser is an iron chef with a heart of gold, a 21st century Renaissance man who would make most men appear inferior.

Musser, 42, plays viola in two companies. His community involvement includes Fare Start, Taste of the Nation and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. He regularly appears on Seattle television cooking shows. He takes his son, Xander, 5, and their golden retriever Astro hiking, fishing, skiing and camping.

All the while he's been a pillar of support for his wife, Erin, who publicly battles MS. Is it any wonder why he was chosen as Redbook Magazine's Husband of the Year in 2001?

"We were all over the radio and TV at the time, and I'll admit it was good for my career, but the exposure also has helped my wife and other people with MS," he said.

And this seemingly well-orchestrated career all began in Boise as a boy in the kitchen with his mom.

"I tell people my sister had the Charlie Brown cookbook that I was very enamored with," he smirked. "I remember making little jam tarts with pastry dough. I completely destroyed the kitchen to make this one simple dish, and I never looked back."

For years, though, his goal was to play the viola in a symphony or be a conductor, studying both at Boise State University. To make ends meet, he worked in Boise restaurants. A move to Seattle led Musser to McCormick & Schmick's where his brash interview with acclaimed chef Christine Keff led to a long business relationship. He followed Keff to the Yarrow Bay Grill, then to Flying Fish.

"I can't thank her enough for what she did," Musser said. "Eventually, she told me that I really need to hone in on my own style of cooking and develop that."

It explains his transformation from fusion and Pan-Asian cuisine to a return of sorts to the traditional American comfort food of his youth.

"My folks used to always tease me for putting corn in my mashed potatoes and mixing it up. Now, people are paying me for it," Musser said with a laugh.

In 1998, the icon Grill was about to open in downtown Seattle, and ownership recruited Musser to be the face of their new restaurant. His 10-year anniversary with the company is near, the past six years working for Randy Tei and Rick Winders.

Their concept of a neighborhood restaurant seems to fit nicely at Kent Station, described as a "mixed-use urban village." That explains why free wi-fi is available and lunch is offered from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

And when it comes to the wine list at Puget Sound-area restaurants, he's Washington first and foremost.

"We really try to support the local wineries because they appeal to our clientele, particularly in Kent," he said.

There's an abundance of Ste. Michelle products, but there's also a mix of midsize producers such as Bookwalter, Canoe Ridge, Duck Pond, Goose Ridge and Sagelands. And it's easy to spot prized boutique wines by Matthew Cellars, Sparkman Cellars and Townshend Cellar.

Checking in with Oregon Pinot Noir is Benton-Lane, Duck Pond, Erath, Firesteed and Silvan Ridge.

Wednesdays are particularly inviting for wine lovers because bottles are half-price. And Musser's list of winemaker dinners in the past year has included Nicholas Cole Cellars and Ste. Michelle, so his acceptance as a Match Maker for the Venturi-Schulze Brut Naturel and balsamic vinegar was a snap.

He arrived at Walnut Fried Brie with Balsamic Glazed Pears, which appears on his menus seasonally. It's approachable, versatile and zeroes in on the pear and nutty notes of the Brut Naturel as well as incorporating the balsamic vinegar.

"The brut was dry and it was good, but I had to be careful because the dish couldn't be too sweet or you'd lose the wine, so I brought the pear in a little unripe," he pointed out. "And it was obvious that someone went to a lot of care and effort on the balsamic vinegar. There's a sharp tang to the vinegar, so that's why I balanced it with the cheese, but it still allows the nice wood and full body of the vinegar to show."

Because sparkling wines of this sort are dry, Musser's dish works either as an appetizer or a light dessert. And because the recipe calls for pears on the crisp side, seasonality is not an issue.

Zephyr Grill and Bar, 240 W. Kent Station St., Kent, WA, 253-854-5050, zephyrgrill.com. e

Recipe: Walnut Fried Brie with Balsamic Glazed Pears

Serves 2

2 firm red Bartlett pears

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1⁄4 cup Venturi-Schulze Aceto Balsamico

1 pinch of salt plus 1⁄2 teaspoon, divided use

1 pinch of ground pepper

1⁄4 cup flour

1 5-ounce wedge of Brie cheese

1 egg

1 tablespoon of milk

1 cup walnuts, finely chopped

3 cups of soybean oil for frying

1. Peel pears and cut in half. Core and slice each half into 6 slices.

2. Place the butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat and melt completely.

3. Place pears in the pan with a pinch of salt, and turn heat to medium low. Cook pears slowly, stirring constantly until pears are just cooked or about 30 minutes. It's OK to let the butter brown a little as they cook.

4. When the pears are just slightly soft, deglaze the pan with the balsamic vinegar and continue to cook, mixing the pears often, until the vinegar reduces to a slightly thick syrupy glaze. Set aside.

5. Mix 1/2 teaspoon salt and pinch of pepper with the flour. Use this flour mixture to dust the Brie until completely coated on all sides. Knock off any excess.

6. Beat egg and milk in a small bowl. Dip Brie into the egg coating completely. Roll the Brie in the chopped walnuts, making sure to cover completely. Set aside.

7. Bring the cooking oil to 350°F over medium heat in a deep-sided sauté pan or in a deep fryer. Carefully drop the Brie into the oil.

8. Fry until golden brown on all sides, or about 3 minutes.

9. Drain and place directly onto a serving platter. Pour warm glazed pears over the brie and serve with fresh slices of baguette.

Venturi-Schulze Vineyards 2004 Brut Naturel, Vancouver Island, $32 CDN (125 cases produced)

Venturi-Schulze Vineyards NV Aceto Balsamico, Vancouver Island, $49 CDN (165 cases produced)

It's all in the family at Venturi-Schulze. Everything is grown on their Cobble Hill vineyard in the Cowichan Valley of Vancouver Island, and the exacting care patriarch Giordano Venturi exerts on the winery begins each morning with his jog - which is three times around their 20-acre vineyard.

This Match Maker project seemed to be an ideal fit for the Sooke Harbour House because Giordano, the winemaker; his wife/microbiologist, Marilyn; and stepdaughter/vineyard manager, Michelle Willcock Schulze, adhere to "natural sustainability." They eschew irrigation and use no herbicides or pesticides.

The 2004 Brut Naturel features a blend of Auxerrois, Pinot Gris and Kerner, and this sparkling wine is guarded by an unpretentious crown cap rather than cork.

"Our Brut Naturel is unique in that I add nothing when I disgorge the bottles, so it has no residual sweetness and no added sulfites," said Marilyn, a native of Australia. "I am not aware of any other bottle-fermented wine in North America that has zero residual sugar."

It is a serious sparkler, bone-dry with notes of pears, freshly baked bread, crushed walnuts and light citrus.

Now, the tale of their intense balsamic vinegar carries a bit of romanticism. Giordano emigrated to Canada from Modeno, Italy, so he crafts vinegars by tradition, slowly simmering juice - primarily from Madeleine Sylvaner - over an open fire. He ages this nectar up to 17 years in Italian barrels made from acacia, ash, cherry, oak and chestnut. However, the "mother barrel" dates to 1970 and each 250-milliliter bottle carries a drop or two of her legacy and others via the solera system. Of the vinegars he recently added to the nursery, he said, "These won't be my problem. They will be Michelle's."

And she earned top marks in her first winemaking course from UC-Davis.

Venturi-Schulze Vineyards, 4234 Trans Canada Highway, Cobble Hill, B.C., 250-743-5630, venturischulze.com.

Eric Degerman is Wine Press Northwest's managing editor. Have a suggestion for a future Match Maker? E-mail him at edegerman@winepressnw.com.