THE BLOG
08/06/2014 08:52 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Love Letters: Yountville

Perry Hoffman first became interested in cooking by helping his grandmother, who, along with her husband, were the original owners of The French Laundry. Since then, he's worked at restaurants throughout California, landing at étoile Restaurant at Domaine Chandon in 2007. He's the youngest American chef to be awarded a Michelin Star and was named one of Zagat's "30 under 30" in 2012. He now lives in Napa where he loves to fish and garden.

How do I love Yountville? Let me count the ways.

For one, there's the astounding backdrop of Napa Valley, this world-renowned winemaking region where my family has lived for generations. The majestic Mayacamas mountains rise in the west; the Vaca range spreads out to the east, and Yountville is nestled into the valley floor, right at the beautiful heart of vineyards that roll out in all directions. And if you hit up Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery on Yountville's Washington Street first thing in the morning, you'll step outside with your coffee and an unforgettable pastry and look up to see a dozen hot-air balloons drifting high over Domaine Chandon across Highway 29.

I love how easy it is to imagine the town's rustic history, too. Many of the buildings date back more than a century, like the ones that house Bouchon Restaurant and V Marketplace, both built in 1870. Today V Marketplace is home fine restaurants and retail shops, but the building was originally established as Groetzinger Estate, the first large-capacity winery and distillery in the valley--complete with its own steam power plant. And the world-famous restaurant French Laundry, housed in a building that dates to 1900, was once actually a French-style steam laundry. After the laundry, the building was used as a boarding house. And in 1974, my grandparents, Don and Sally Schmitt, bought the building, remodeled it, and established the original French Laundry restaurant, which he sold to Thomas Keller in 1992. Did I mention Yountville was in my blood?

Today I work as executive chef at another of the town's amazing restaurants--étoile The Restaurant at Domaine Chandon. My grandfather was involved here, too, as one of the town planners who first declined but then approved the restaurant proposal. Talk about history! The restaurant first opened in 1977, four years after the winery, when the French wine and spirits company Moet-Hennessy wanted a place to focus on pairing sparkling wine and food. At that time gourmet dining was just catching on, and Domaine Chandon marked a real turning point in the culinary development of Napa Valley. The restaurant was renamed étoile in 2004, and in 2007, nearly four decades after my grandfather approved the building proposal, I joined its kitchen team.

My grandfather is as proud of me as I am to work at a place like étoile. Domaine Chandon is the definition of an estate, 300 acres--not just vineyards but an amazing greenhouse and gardens and hillsides and creeks to forage. It's a complete ecosystem. We source produce from our own property to create a menu that intimately reflects the seasons. Mother Nature tells us what to cook. And Tom Tiburzi, our winemaker, and I collaborate every step of the way, selecting the perfect sparkling wine to complement each dish. Sometimes he'll even bring me an ingredient to incorporate, like Rau Rum, a Vietnamese coriander that he germinated from seed. Or he'll bring me lactone from a dehydrated barrel for a uniquely flavored ice cream. Yountville is dream for any Chef, to live and work.

This collaborative spirit really characterizes the rest of Yountville, too. You might think that with so many of the world's finest restaurants in one spot, we'd all be in cut-throat competition. But here's how it goes: if we're in a pinch, say, out of white tablecloths or Pellegrino, we just call up our friends at Bouchon, or Redd, or Bistro Jeanty--Phillip Jeanty was the chef here at Domaine Chandon for many years--or any of our other colleagues across Highway 29, and they help us out. And we do the same for them.

What I love most is that Yountville is still a tiny town. It still feels small no matter how large it looms on the culinary scene. My favorite memory so far? The couple who recently celebrated their 100th luncheon together on our patio at etoile. Once people visit Yountville, they can't help but come back again and again.

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