Plats du Jour
My Dinner with Sondra
Sondra Bernstein, at left in the girl and the fig, has created not so much a cookbook as a new way of thinking about the food around us, the things we eat, and how we eat them.
First, there’s a baby beet salad daubed with creamy crescenza, the colors magenta and saffron and ruby red.
Then a gem salad thick with citrus and pistachio, a tangle of crisped shallot strands tossed on top.
A jumble of radishes follow, crowded round a pot of salty butter. The roots snap and crunch in the mouth, yanked minutes earlier from the dirt of the garden.
A long plank of charcuterie arrives, looking like art: fig compote with fresh pears fanned wide above it; salami cut thin and paté blended chunky; marbled cheeses dot the length, a long pearly strand of fromage.
Sondra Bernstein surveys the display with the practiced eye of a proprietor: critical, observant, searching for defects. She has an empire to tend and standards to meet. She assesses the food and then her face softens. It is the face of a woman made naked by love.
Food is the great passion of Sondra Bernstein’s life. It drives every minute of her day. From the biodynamic farm that supplies her three kitchens to the freshly inked agreement to stock Williams-Sonoma’s pantry wares, Bernstein thinks about food all day long. How to grow it most naturally, how to prepare it with genius, how to serve it most beautifully, how to prolong that first, blissful bite. But for the last couple of years, she’s been thinking about you, too. She wants to help you make your table look as lovely as hers.
Plats du Jour, Bernstein’s second cookbook, is the love child of her passion and commitment. It’s an art book and a cookbook and a manifesto all in one. It’s a beautiful behemoth with one simple aim: to illustrate how the lush beauty of seasonal French cooking pairs naturally with the Wine Country ethos. The table—to Bernstein—is much more than a platform for sustenance; it is the home’s heartbeat, the cultural core, the foundation for every good thing.
From the French, plats du jour translates as “plate of the day.” It’s a concept that dates back to the 1880s, when restaurants generally served only one meal. Three-course menus were assembled to reflect the best of the season, allowing chefs to comprise plates using peak ingredients.
Bernstein’s bellwether restaurant, the girl and the fig, serves different plats du jour
every week of the year. But the cookbook—designed not for the professional but for the amateur home chef—winnows that number to 28. Organized by the four seasons, there are seven plats for each, every dish a celebration of local abundance.
Aloud, they read like erotica, or they do if you love food: sweet corn madeleines with crême fraîche and caviar, truffled potato-leek soup. There’s a spring cocktail made with bee pollen, and duck seared and slathered with gastrique; there is lavendered crême brulée and pears poached in syrah.
“Eighty-five percent of the recipes are easy,” Bernstein says seriously. With the bright light streaming in the wide plains of scrubbed glass it’s impossible to be sure, but I think Sondra Bernstein may have just winked.
The server arrives again, laden with plates, and behind her a colleague ferries still more. Pan-seared scallops awash in a saffron broth thick with artichoke and clam; a panisse cake so pretty it seems wrong to consume it; rabbit in a juicy slough on a platform of polenta, miniature carrots crossed like little swords on top; a wedge of quiche wafting goodness from ten paces, so decadent it elicits happy groans just on sight.
When Bernstein eats, she does it slowly; each bite an experience in itself. When the food is good, she makes soft little noises. When it’s great, she closes her eyes. Time at the table involves all her senses, much more than just mouth and belly are in play. When she eats she is feeding something bigger than hunger; for Bernstein, a meal is an elemental thing.
Fresh from a trip to Barcelona, Spain, Bernstein spent two weeks eating her way through ten centuries of cuisine. “I like simple. I like rustic. I like texture and color. The best plates balance these elements,” she says. “But I don’t consider myself a chef. I don’t feel I deserve it. The way our chefs work in these kitchens...I couldn’t stand beside any single one of these guys and do what they do.”
The humility is authentic, if perhaps a bit wrong-headed. Bernstein is a legitimate tour de force in an industry thick with rock stars and heavies. Three restaurants, two books, a catering arm, a serious farming operation, a significant pantry product line, 200 employees, and now, suite d, Bernstein’s latest brainstorm. Connected to her catering kitchen on Eighth Street East, suite d is an event space designed to host a broad spectrum of culinary experience. From winemaker dinners to cooking classes and private events, the place is a haven for sensual delights. Stunning art spans the walls and huge doors let in light; all the hardscape is on wheels to allow for morphology. Like Bernstein herself, it’s an evolving idea.
We’ve been eating forever, and still there is more. A platoon of servers arrive now with dessert. There’s a gorgeous crême brulée with a finely glazed shell of sugar; a dense chocolate tort with salted caramel ice cream; there’s a buttermilk panna cotta that makes me homesick for Mom, and a hillock of praline’d mixed nuts.
“So amazing, so unexpected,” Sondra Bernstein says, licking a spoon. She sucks in her breath and let’s out a long, slow exhale. “I know how lucky I am,” she says quietly, a distant look in her eyes. No longer the girl with the fig she started out as, she is now a woman busily inking her next chapter. The book she has written reads like a love letter: to the home she has made and the people she loves, but mostly, and always, to the food.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA