Photography by Yuri Krasov
Roughing it at Yosemite has been a favorite pastime of seasoned nature lovers from all over the world for the last 100 years or so. The massive granite mountains, spectacular waterfalls, groves, lakes, and meadows of the paramount national park in Northern California attract hikers, rock-climbers, skiers, and other happy campers all year round. For the rest of us, chicken to slumber in a frost-covered tent or climb Half Dome with a candy bar and a water bottle for nourishment, there is a much more accommodating activity at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel.
Every winter, hundreds of guests come here from near and far, some for ten years in a row, for the annual culinary vacation, Chefs’ Holidays. Coming to Chefs’ Holidays 2012 for the very first time, I signed up for the first session, which started a week after the New Year’s Day. In the round up of eight three-day sessions, California chefs seemed to prevail in the glorious line up, joined by their counterparts from New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and other cuisine centrals.
Staying at the Ahwahnee, filled with the original furnishings, photographs, and artifacts, is a big part of the event. I was immediately smitten with the unique charm and character of the hotel first built in 1927 at the side of a 10-million-year-old rock, and true to the essence of Yosemite – the way it used to be – before it started accepting 10 000 cars a day. From my room view, to the wall and floor details, to the communal spaces with stained-glass windows, aged armchairs, patterned rugs, and roaring fireplaces, to the traditional morning coffee and afternoon tea with fresh-baked cookies – everything seemed to be designed to please and enchant.
The Ahwahnee is a AAA Four-Diamond hotel listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, but it retains its immediate intimacy and a friendly feel, perhaps, unchanged since its early days.
Our Chefs’ session featured Kent Rathbun of Abacus, Jasper’s, and Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen in Texas; Brian Streeter of Cakebread Cellars in Napa, California, and Annie Sommerville of Greens in San Francisco. The distinguished chefs presented their star dishes during culinary classes for the guests, and Chef Rathbun prepared the gala dinner at the session closing. He was doing the first cooking demo of crabmeat and white truffle oil-stuffed deviled eggs spiked with Creole seasoning and lemon juice. Chef Streeter introduced his caramelized onion and walnut biscuits with blue cheese butter. Being a California Wine Country winery chef, he supplemented the tasting of his delectable biscuits with some Cakebread Cellars wines.
Chef Sommerville – a master extraordinaire of vegetarian fare, demonstrated an elaborate step by step preparation of Mexican tartlets with roasted winter vegetables. Rustic cream cheese dough with masa harina was filled with fire-roasted poblano chilies, butternut squash, sweet peppers, onion, garlic, cheddar cheese, herbs and spices. Pumpkin seed and cilantro salsa topped the tartlets. After the classes and Q and As, every guest took home the chefs’ recipes in hopes to recreate them at home.
Our tour of the Ahwahnee kitchen presented a ginormous operation working like a well-oiled mechanism and involving boxes of pomegranates, sticks of butter, vats of muffin batter, and trays of chopped clams and mussels. The five-course gala dinner paired with wines and served by candlelight was yet to come.
By 6 p.m. on the closing night, formally dressed guests started to arrive at the world-famous Ahwahnee dining room. A long-standing hotel rule requires formal wear for dinner, and the guests seem to enjoy and follow it without exceptions. Tables were set with ivory tablecloth and napkins, silverware for every course, and multiple wine glasses.
For the first course, Chef Rathbun treated the foodie crowd with Niman Ranch maple-glazed bacon and scrambled duck eggs. Crispy seared black bass with caramelized cauliflower and persimmon-pomegranate brown butter came second. The third course was a grilled Manchester Farm quail with jalapeno cornbread pudding and pozole tortilla sauce. Cappuccino-cured Cervena venison with white cheddar potato and Abacus house steak sauce compiled the fourth course. For dessert, a chocolate and roasted sweet potato pecan pie was topped with cinnamon ice cream.