Justin Wangler, K-J’s top chef, talks tomatoes on the eve of the 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival
Tomorrow, Kendall-Jackson celebrates all things tomato with their 15th Annual Kendall-Jackson Heirloom Tomato Festival, a 5-hour gourmet and sensory extravaganza with samples galore. Kendall-Jackson’s executive chef Justin Wangler will head a culinary team of twenty chefs and a large group of volunteers in preparing for the biggest annual event at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center. Before joining the Kendall-Jackson Culinary Team in 2003, Justin worked at Syrah in Santa Rosa, at Saddleback Cellars and at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley. He attended culinary school in his home state of North Carolina.
I spoke with Justin on Thursday, just before the Chef’s Challenge contenders were slated to arrive at the center to begin preparations for Saturday. This year’s three visiting contenders—Jen Carroll (10 Arts Bistro & Lounge by Eric in Philadelphia), Chris Jacobsen (“CJ”) (The Yard in Santa Monica) and Kevin Gillespie (Woodfire Grill in Atlanta) —have all competed on Bravo’s hit TV show “Top Chef.” Justin was responsible for choosing all of them as well as for inviting the five local chefs—Douglas Keane (executive chef and owner of the two-Michelin-Star Cyrus in Healdsburg, serving from Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg), Paul Monti (Monti’s in Santa Rosa), Josh Silver (Petite Syrah and Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa), Jeff Mall (executive chef at Zin in Healdsburg, and John Ash in Santa Rosa).
First on their activities list was a trip up to Healdsburg to visit K-J’s 5-acre tomato garden, on which over 175 varieties of heirloom tomatoes are grown. The evening would be spent dining at some of Northern California’s finest restaurants including Syrah, in Santa Rosa, where Justin had previously cooked before K-J lured him away. On Friday, each of the guest chefs would be paired up with a sous-chef from Kendall-Jackson’s staff and together they would strategize for the Chef’s Challenge competition. The challenge, which is enormously popular, entails cooking three tomato-based dishes in 25 minutes, also incorporating the contents of a “mystery basket” of local meats and fish. Here’s what Justin had to say on the eve of the big event:
In your opinion, what are the best techniques to capture robust heirloom tomato flavor in cooking?
Justin Wangler: We use lots of different techniques for lots of different tomatoes and I think there are great flavors to be had from all techniques. This year we’ve had a lot of green tomatoes because they haven’t gotten ripe yet, so we’ve been making fried green tomatoes all summer. Also for this event we do some oven-roasted ones where we just toss the tomatoes, kind of like a plum tomato, we slice it in half lengthwise and we toss it with garlic, olive oil, thyme, and rosemary and just put it the oven cut side up and turn the oven on to about 95 degrees and we just leave it overnight and then we come in the next morning and they’re oven-dried tomatoes, which intensifies the sugars. It’s a good technique if you don’t have the best tomatoes.
But my personal favorite way is just raw tomatoes with really nice salt. I like Malden sea salt flakes from Essex: it’s very flaky and looks like snowflakes and has a really crunchy texture. I would imagine any high-end food purveyor would have it.
What are your favorite tomatoes just for eating with some good salt?
Justin Wangler: I’m a big fan of the Cherokee Purple. It’s so sweet and the color is so beautiful. Usually at my house I try to be growing about five different tomato varieties at any given time. I try to do one or two little cherry tomatoes, red or yellow, just for salads or snacking. I try and mix it up. We have so many seeds here, I try and change it up each year. But I always like Yellow Sun Gold, and then we have one called Orange Currant which is super-sweet. Usually I try and do a couple of big tomatoes like the Cherokee Purple, which is good for BLTs. And then every year I try one I’ve never heard of, just for fun. One of my favorites is the Big White Pink Stripe, a yellow tomato that almost looks like it’s tie-dyed inside with pink colors. That’s a fun one. We have 400 seeds on hand, so we try to do new stuff each year.
Which heirloom tomatoes do you prefer for sauces?
Justin Wangler: Definitely the plum and Italian tomato varieties. But what we do is as soon as we start slicing tomatoes we put a nice big container in the fridge and we save all the scraps and we just pile them in there. Then usually about once a week we just toss it with garlic and some herbs and we roast it in the oven and caramelize it and then we puree that in a blender, strain it, put it in a pot and cook it down, and then we can it at the end of each season. So we don’t waste anything. All the tops and bottoms of our tomatoes we save, skin and everything. We just remove the stems with what we call a tomato shark, like a melon baller, because the stems can make it a little bitter.
What are the most unusual or creative uses of heirloom tomatoes you’ve encountered—both successes and failures?
Justin Wangler: Every year for our Chefs Competition I try to make a dessert. One of my favorites was a cherry tomato clafouti–like a pancake batter with cherry tomatoes that’s baked. I served it with a little whipped cream. Actually it’s almost sweeter than with cherries, which are sweet and tart, but tomatoes are just sweet. Also, one year Carrie Brown from Jimtown Store in Alexander Valley made a sweet tomato shortcake. She made these little biscuits and put whipped cream on them and just marinated some really sweet tomatoes with a little bit of sugar and mint and it was really good. And then the John Ash restaurant a couple of years ago did a tomato cheesecake and I think they won that year. Then one year somebody peeled tomatoes, then blanched them, and then took little petals out and dipped them in chocolate, like tomato roses dipped in chocolate. So there’s always fun and really exciting stuff. Every year brings some new items and new things we haven’t seen before so we always look forward to the Tomato Festival to see what people are doing.
A highlight of every K-J Tomato Festival is the pairing of locally grown vine-ripened tomatoes with Kendall-Jackson wines. What do you have planned for this year?
Justin Wangler: We try to create dishes to match the flavors in the wine. This year some of my favorites are Sauvignon Blanc with our fried green tomatoes and then we have a beautiful pasta that we’re pairing with our new Avant Chardonnay.
This year’s dishes prepared by our Culinary team:
Smoked Fennel & Paul Robeson Tomato Soup
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Pinot Noir
Fried Green Tomatoes with Delice de la Vallee
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Sauvignon Blanc
Farfalle with Marinated Yellow Marble Tomatoes & Point Reyes Mozzarella
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Avant Chardonnay
Fresh Baguette with Indian Moon Yellow Tomatoes, Bacon & Beehive Cheese
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay
Herb Roasted Boxcar Willie Tomatoes with Point Reyes Blue Cheese Bruschetta
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Syrah
Smoked Kobe Beef on Fresh Baguette with Bearnaise Aioli & Black From Tula Tomato
Paired with Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon
What’s the best way to care for heirloom tomatoes once you buy or pick them?
Justin Wangler: At my house usually I set them with core side down in a cool dark place. You can put them in a paper bag but you don’t want them touching too close together, you want a little air to circulate so they don’t get moldy.
We’re often told it’s not good to refrigerate them. Is that true, and if so, why?
Justin Wangler: It changes the texture a little bit. If you’re taking the time to grow or buy really good tomatoes, you might as well just leave them out and eat them as soon as possible.
What are you most looking forward to this weekend?
Justin Wangler: The Heirloom Tomato Festival is one of those events where you get to see all your friends from around the county and also meet new chefs from all around the country. I like the interaction with all the guests, and to see how much people enjoy themselves drinking great wine and eating lots of tomatoes.
Any cool tomato tips?
Justin Wangler: We’ve got a slicing technique that you’re going to love.
Details: Saturday, September 10, 2011 • 11am – 4pm, Kendall-Jackson Wine Center
5007 Fulton Road, Fulton, California 95439, information: 707.571.7500
TICKETS– This year’s festival is completely sold out, but make sure to check Kendall-Jackson’s webpage in May 2012 for information and tickets for the 16th Annual Festival in September 2012. Tickets, $65, are pre-sold only (3,000 are available) and will be available online at www.kj.com, or at the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center itself or the Healdsburg Tasting Room.
Directions: From Highway 101 going NORTH, take River Road exit. Come to stop light and turn LEFT going over the freeway. Travel approximately 1 1/4 mile to first stoplight, which is Fulton Road. Turn RIGHT at Fulton Road.
Kendall-Jackson Wine Center is less than 1/2 mile on the LEFT side of the road. (If you go over the Hwy 101 overpass on Fulton, you’ve gone too far.)
From Highway 101 going SOUTH, take Fulton Road exit. The FIRST driveway on the right is the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center.
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