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etoile Restaurant receives third consecutive Michelin star

When you're at a wine tasting, it can be hard to find words to describe the elusive aromas and flavors that you're experiencing. Here are some tips on talking about wine that I like to share with my guests when I hold a tasting event here at our winery.

In what is fast becoming an annual tradition, etoile Restaurant—with the release of the 2012 San Francisco Bay Area and Wine Country Michelin Guide—has received a Michelin one-star rating for the third year running. This also marks the sixth time in as many years the restaurant at Domaine Chandon has received a recommendation from the prestigious publication, and further cements Chef Perry Hoffman’s reputation as one of the culinary world’s brightest-shining stars.

“It’s a fabulous recognition of all the hard work Perry and the entire restaurant do on a daily basis,” says Domaine Chandon Estate Director Matt Wood. “Of course,” he adds, “hard work alone is not enough to attain a coveted Michelin star. It needs to be harnessed with creativity, leadership and a sensitivity for superior food and service.”

All of this before Hoffman has even celebrated his 30th birthday. Shortly after the happy news broke, the chef toweled off his hands, stepped out of his ever-busy kitchen, and sat down with us for a precious few moments to discuss what the recognition meant for him and his team.

“We’re all very excited…and relieved.”

Every member of Perry’s kitchen staff, including him, labors all year to create the best possible experience for every diner who passes through their doors. The constantly evolving menu, laser focus on fresh and locally-sourced ingredients, never-ending attempt to delight palates in unexpected ways—it adds up to a labor of love that requires constant diligence.

It’s a good thing, too, since they only get one chance to impress Michelin food critics, who arrive anonymously and without fanfare. “We stress about it, but there’s nothing we can do,” admits Hoffman. “We serve 40,000 guests every year, and just one of those is the person reviewing us, and we have no clue who it is.”

700 moving pieces, one Michelin star

Hoffman’s most admirable skill—seamlessly blending whatever’s in season right now into a cohesive menu, day in and day out—also creates his biggest challenge. While many restaurants have a signature dish, etoile Restaurant strives for something a bit more esoteric. The menu evolves almost daily, the ingredients are wide-ranging and unexpected, and yet it all has to somehow just work.

What Perry and his team set out to do is no small feat. Every dish has to match up to the next. It has to make sense amongst the established dishes and wines. His team has to be able to do it logistically and profitably. There needs to be a perceived value worthy of a Michelin star, and not just with one dish, but all 60 dishes across all four menus. “It can be a puzzle to put it all together, and we have over 700 ingredients and pieces in the kitchen that have to work together to make breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Hoffman explains. “To have someone [from the Michelin Guide] confirm for the last three years that, ‘Yes, you guys are doing a great job’ is just nice.”

Michelin GuideHistory of the Michelin Guide

The Michelin Guide, which originated in France and has been in publication for over a century, is widely recognized as the leading voice in denoting the world’s finest dining establishments.

The guide uses star ratings to identify top hotels and restaurants. For restaurants, stars are awarded for the finest cooking, regardless of cuisine style, based on five criteria—quality of the products, mastery of flavor and cooking, “personality” of the cuisine, value for money and consistency between visits.

He readiadmits, “We’re cooks first, not gardeners.” That’s why he’s so excited to have added a full-time, professional gardener to his kitchen staff. He helps the restaurant’s plots flourish and tending to a new half acre of land etoile Restaurant recently acquired on Chandon’s Carneros vineyard property, dubbed the etoile Kitchen Farm.
We recently caught up with Perry after a garden produce meeting, where he and his team discuss strategy, and map out a harvest and menu plan. “We sit with the gardener a couple days a week, have a schedule made of what the garden’s harvesting and plan our menus around it.”
Home Growing: Better than buying
For freshness and flavor, you simply cannot beat growing your own edible garden, and etoile Restaurant’s diners reap the delicious benefits. “We can grow things we could never buy,” says Hoffman. “For example, we might take carrots and onions out of the ground after only 20 days, so they’re young and miniature. We grow these incredible ingredients and garnishes we’d otherwise have to buy after they’d been stored in greenhouses and traveled from the Midwest.”
True to Chandon’s sustainability ethos, the etoile garden is focused on minimizing waste, and maximizing every resource. “Compost is great for us in the kitchen. We have tons of excess waste—onion peels, potato skins, fava bean shells, which have so much nitrogen—and we have a full compost system. We’re able to return it to the ground, so it’s this great system.”
Tips for the at-home green-thumb
Spring—early to mid-April in particular—is the ideal time of year to prep your garden for a bountiful harvest. Pick your plot of land, clear away the weeds, till a good amount of fresh soil and compost into the ground, and get ready to plant your seeds or starters. Perry has two key pieces of advice for home gardeners: Be patient, and start small.
“Don’t rush. Right now, as much as we want to get a garden planted, it’s raining and there’s just no reason to. The soil’s wet, the rain is coming down and we’d probably lose everything to seed rot. So we’ll wait. And don’t plan too big. Only grow what you’re capable of using. The most frustrating thing is to plant, not have enough time to harvest, and run the risk of wasting a plant.”
Perry’s a big fan of the easily grown home garden staples, such as squash, greens, herbs and tomatoes. But there’s one hardy, versatile veggie many gardeners overlook. “It’s incredibly easy to grow cucumbers. We make little cucumber relishes, cucumber soups, cucumber liquids. Then, if you have too many, you just make pickles.” Perry suggest trellising cucumber plants to keep them off the ground, and adding the cucumbers to any dish you can think of, from sushi to braised rabbit.
One to try
Anyone who has grown squash knows the plant is hearty, and produces abundantly. It can be tough to figure out how to use all the fruits of your labors. Perry’s secret? Don’t cook it at all.
“We’ll shave it paper thin on a mandolin, raw, and dress it with vinaigrette and great Spanish manchego and herbs, with some citrus, and have this great, really refreshing shaved squash salad where it’s all paper thin shaved and completely raw. It’s just a fantastic way to eat squash.”
Find Perry’s Shaved Summer Squash recipe here, and happy gardening!