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Playing Kitchen in Napa Valley, California

Alejandro Benes
Posted: July 30, 2008

I had to wait all week to make it to BakerStreet Tobacconist in the town of Napa. The proprietor, Brenda Roberts, had invited me to a cigar night during which Davidoffs would be featured. I really looked forward to it, but for four days before getting to Napa, a city that is renovating its downtown, I had to suffer mightily.

I had been invited by the National Pork Board (who knew?) to a four-day workshop titled "Culinary Innovations in Pork." The idea was to promote pork, particularly new, less-expensive cuts, for use in restaurants and other food-service businesses. The setting? The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone (CIA) in Napa Valley. Weather? Beautiful. Lots of Zinfandel nearby.

All this made for the perfect moment. So the last thing you wanted was to be somewhere you just can't light up. The Napa Valley, not to be confused with the town of Napa, is such a place. When I asked the guys at the St. Helena Wine Center, which also carries cigars, where one could smoke a cigar around here, they said, "Outdoors."

Don't get me wrong. St. Helena in particular is a fabulous place to spend the day. In just a few blocks, the main strip offers one of my favorite Cal-Italian restaurants (Tra Vigne), one of the nation's best fast-food places (Taylor's Refresher; it won a James Beard award) and, among others, a couple of fine new eateries that are getting raves (Cook; Market). It's just not complete. I sucked it up and told myself I was there to play in one of the best kitchens in the world.


Arriving at the CIA on Monday, all the attendees had dinner in the Wine Spectator Greystone restaurant. I chose the hanger steak, one of my favorites. There would be plenty of pork tomorrow and for days. The evening ran late and the next day was to begin early with "Pig 101."

Tuesday began with a lesson and discussion on how pork was being raised and marketed. We learned to distinguish between different hogs and their virtues once they become meat. We talked about what it means when the pork chop in your supermarket is pale (it will be dry after cooking) and why you should always brine. Yeah, yeah. Then the hog arrived.

Well, actually, it was the carcass of a hog. Without the head. Stephen, from the pork board, expertly proceeded to take the animal apart and show everyone where ribs, among other popular pork dishes, originate. It turned out even some of the food pros had never "deconstructed" a whole hog. They were surprised to find that a baby back rib and a spare rib are all one rib before the butcher gets to it. Minds were blown. Pork was cooked and tasted. Lunch was served.

Here's the beautiful part about culinary schools: you get to eat what the students cook. So after the morning class, we all went to the CIA kitchen on the third floor and lined up for the buffet. I don't remember what we had for lunch, the point being that the baking students had made desserts and among them was a coconut macaroon that qualified as among the best ever created. We all agreed.


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