Chefs in other parts of the country are often envious of their peers cooking in the Napa Valley. After all, local foods and wines are superlative and bountiful and the climate, balmy. But even in this idyllic setting, spring can be a tease.
“We have a funky weather pattern,” says Victor Scargle, executive chef at Lucy Restaurant & Bar in Yountville, California. “One week it will be 70° and the next, it will turn cold and rainy.” For this reason, farmers really can’t think about planting tomatoes, pole beans, zucchini and other seasonal crops until early May.
Scargle follows the farmers’ thinking with his kitchen’s one-eighth acre garden on the restaurant’s property. “Our chefs are culinary gardeners, tending pole beans, melons, salad greens, summer squash, mulberries, tomatoes and other crops planted farm-style in 12 rows,” he explains. “We fill in with fruits and vegetables from local farms in the Napa Valley and further away in the Central Valley, where produce grows year round.” Small farms deliver to his back door, while large ones work through a produce distributor. The culinary team also shops the Napa Farmer’s Market every Thursday.
Right now, Scargle is excited about the green garlic, red and white spring onions, English snow peas, crimson fava beans and ramps that are coming in. He’s combining several of these ingredients in a spring seafood dish—Alaskan Halibut with braised spring onions, green garlic, pickled ramps and morel mushrooms. “I prefer lighter dishes for spring,” notes Scargle. The vegetables are simply braised in butter and then sautéed with the halibut and a splash of white wine to form a fresh “ragu.”
Scargle’s desire to source seasonally extends to seafood—the halibut runs in the Pacific during these months. And those ramps and morels are collected by local forager Connie Green, who delivers her “finds” to a number of Napa chefs. Another menu item that epitomizes the local bounty and the season is English Pea Soup with tempura fava beans, crimson fava blossoms, Meyer lemon and crème fraiche.
As warmer weather arrives, Scargle will be harvesting several varieties of summer squash from the restaurant’s garden for a signature salad. “I like to shave the raw squash really thin,” he says. “Then I make a pesto with arugula, basil and a splash of apple balsamic vinegar. Serving the squash raw really showcases the different varieties and lets the natural flavor shine through.”