Artwork by Julie Higgins
Sondra Bernstein is not an overnight sensation. But a sensation she is, as the proprietor of three of northern California's dining gems; as overseer of a farm that grows biodynamic fruits and vegetables, as creator of a "branded" line of food products, and as "Mamma Cass" to 200 families in the area. Not only that, Ms. Bernstein was the first to create a wine list of only Rhone style wines from California at a time when she had little money to purchase anything else. A native of New Jersey, Sondra moved to Sonoma after living and working in restaurants in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Frequent travels to France, Italy and Israel stirred her passions and later would inform her unique orientation to food, entertaining and hospitality. In 1997, the first "girl & the fig" restaurant opened to showcase her love of locally grown ingredients and her reverence for French cuisine. Today that has extended to the same restaurant in a new location; a new Italian trattoria-style dining experience known as Estate; and the fig cafe & wine bar in Glen Ellen. At a recent interview, Ms. Bernstein shared that all these efforts, including a new endeavor to make all her own salumi, brings in about $10 million a year.
Ms. Bernstein is fulfilling what most people would consider their ultimate fantasy -- to live in a world shaped by nature, community and commitment. While food factors into every thing she does, Sondra is also driven by a constant urge to create an aesthetic that nourishes everyone around her. Included in that is her desire to have people cook her food at home. It is her newest book, Plats du Jour, that led to our interesting conversation at the James Beard House in NYC just hours before she was to prepare dinner for a packed house. Following on the success of her first book, the girl & the fig cookbook in 2004, Sondra decided to do another one, but this time, self-published a gorgeous, highly-designed and beautifully-photographed homage to "the seasonal changing landscape in the ground, on the tree, in the sea, on the vine, and on the table." It is part cookbook and part travelogue. John Toulze, Sondra's executive chef and business partner, was her right hand on the project and has been at her side for 15 years. From the gooey grilled cheese sandwich, made with local St. George cheese and tomato confit, to the signature grilled fig and arugula salad with pancetta, the recipes really inspire you to get into your kitchen or, better yet, run to Sonoma.
In addition to her new book, chockablock with more than 100 can-do restaurant recipes, Sondra's latest passion, the Farm Project, is designed to see how growing her own produce affects her business, and in what ways. Painstaking work, no doubt, but all part of shaping the edible landscape in which she lives, works, and plays. Her line of food products, needless to say, include lots of figs -- interesting condiments to serve with cheese and salumi, and a wonderful-sounding fig and pistachio cake.
Here's a spring recipe from Plats du Jour, another scrumptuous-sounding cake that would taste delicious with a dollop of her Black Mission fig jam, or fresh figs in season. I wonder if she grows her own.
Rosemary Olive Oil Cake, Lemon Glaze
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-1/4 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1-1/4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 9-inch round cake pan with parchment paper. Beat the sugar and eggs together in a mixer on medium speed for 30 seconds. Add the oil, wine, flour, salt, baking powder, vanilla, and rosemary. Continue to mix 1 minute. Pour the batter into the pan. Bake about 30 minutes or until the cake pulls away from the sides of the pan. Cool 5 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan and cool for 2 hours on a rack. In a small saucepan, cook the lemon juice and powdered sugar over medium heat and stir until smooth. Cool the mixture slightly and pour it over the cake. Cut into wedges and serve with creme fraiche. Serves 8
Rozanne Gold is an award-winning chef and author of "Eat Fresh Food: Awesome Recipes for Teen Chefs;" "Healthy 1-2-3," and "Radically Simple."
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