Picking grapes like a proOn this third day of this year’s version of the American Harvest Workshop we woke early and picked Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Carneros.  We again visited several of Napa’s best artisanal purveyors, including Rhue Bruggeman’s Napa Valley College Potter’s Studio (where I threw one really good bowl and walked away content with my triumph, but click here to see Rhue do it much better), and then toured Cakebread’s winery with head winemaker Julianne Laks.  We cupped coffee with the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company’s Charlie Sange, and I somehow even managed to get in a swim back at the hotel on our only rest break.

I also answered my previous question as to whether I could hang as a sous chef to some serious head chef firepower.  Later that afternoon I helped prepare, plate and organize service for about 70 honored guests at the first of two high-end dinners on Cakebread Cellars’ Pecan Patio.  I wasn’t the best or most important helper, but I hung in there and made a difference.

Cakebread’s head winemaker Julianne LaksHowever, none of that mattered nearly as much as what I learned by simply watching these masters ply their trade under some of the most trying circumstances I could possibly envision.  Imagine being in a completely alien kitchen, not even knowing where the knives were kept, at the same time preparing a gourmet meal for more than five dozen hungry wine-and-food aficionados while dealing with at least 30 well-intentioned but equally clueless amateur helpers.  A daunting task, no?

Yet somehow, against all odds, Jonathan Cambra of the Castle Hill Inn & Resort in Newport, Rhode Island (whom I assisted during most of the day’s apprenticeship blitz), Bryan Caswell of Houston, Texas’s Reef Restaurant, Lindsay Gray of the Tokyo American Club in Japan and David Paul Johnson of David Paul’s Island Grill on Maui, Hawaii pulled it off with dignity and aplomb.

Controlled chaos in the Cakebread kitchenDavid’s primary dish was a case in point.  I remember us all sitting around the lunch table the previous day trying to plan the menu.  Some were struggling with the local ingredient requirements and others had trouble focusing on the wine.  Then David piped his intentions like a burst of sunshine, saying he’d like to try “Rabbit Three Ways.”

I could feel my eyebrows rising, and I knew I wasn’t the only one exhibiting such a reflexive twitch.  It was a daunting statement, to my way of thinking almost reckless.  Why would a celebrated chef put himself out on such a lonely island so far from home, where the only choices were smashing success or abject disappointment?

I needn’t have worried.  Rabbit Three Ways was a triumph, a tour-de-force when paired with Cakebread’s juicy, raspberry-tinged Red Hills Zinfandel.  The confit’s fatty goodness mellowed the wine, the stuffed saddle comforted it, and the liver jumped up and made me say wow.

A triumph of a dinnerIn fact, all of the dishes that night were amazing, a true reflection of each chef’s talent, desire to please and dedication to craft.  And so I yet again learned something new.  Art isn’t art without the possibility of failure.  There is no triumph unless bitterness awaits timidity.

I spend a lot of time around very talented chefs, winemakers, viticulturists and winery owners, and I guess the one thing they all have in common is passion in the face of adversity.  Passion cures a lot of ills, maybe all of them, certainly all of the important ones.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn that lesson one more time.