'If I don't allow my cooks to play with all the crayons that we have in our coloring box, then what kind of a jerk am I?"
Art metaphors, I'm quickly learning, come easily to Ruben Gomez, the new executive chef of Corks.
So does humility. "It's not about me, it's about us," Gomez continues. "A kitchen is not something you do alone. My strength is giving the cooks I work with the chance to play and make mistakes. We all need the opportunity to paint what we want to paint."
After working in some particularly hostile kitchens as a youngster (Gomez recounts the tale of a chef who stabbed cooks in the shoulder with a carving fork by way of greeting), he takes pride in creating an environment of collaboration and appreciation. "Some chefs think they're the first person to make chocolate chip cookies," he marvels. "I try to keep my ego out of my cooking."
It's fitting that Corks, the restaurant at Russian River Vineyards in Forestville, would have chosen such a down-to-earth chef. Housed in a restored 19th-century farmhouse with a redwood-shaded outdoor seating area, Corks exudes homey comfort. Eschewing contrivance, the well-loved acreage is charming and inviting. The resident pooch lurks underfoot. A few flowers are ready for deadheading. Thousands of bats have taken up residence in the old hop kiln with a crumbling staircase, where the vineyard's wine ages. A couple of 1930s Chevy pickups (one refurbished, another awaiting its turn) lounge on the property, which slopes downward to some chicken coops and freshly watered vegetable garden.
"My cooks know that if something pops up in the ground," Gomez enthuses of the garden, "then we need to get it on the plate as soon as possible." A fisherman and mushroom hunter in his spare time, Gomez delights in the forage-friendly nature of Sonoma County, a far cry from his native El Paso, where he got his start breading fish during Lent at a seafood joint.
Beginning at the age of 15, Gomez spent nearly two decades working in restaurants—as waiter, dishwasher, bartender, line cook—you name it—while also pursuing his passion for teaching art. But it was Texas, it was the late '90s, and funding for education, especially art programs, was hard to come by.
After moving to San Francisco to attend culinary school, Gomez, like so many of his ilk, was lured north of the Bay by the sheer abundance of locally produced food. "This area is super-saturated with great chefs," Gomez confesses. "The competition is huge. So we don't all get to play. Sometimes you have to wait on the sideline."
Though Gomez has enjoyed stints as executive chef at both the Applewood Inn and Iron Horse Vineyards, where he worked for four years, he's also felt the sting of being let go. "There are no beautiful parting shots when you lose a job," Gomez laughs. And so he's also spent years rustling up catering gigs and picking up vacation shifts and working the line, most recently at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel in Santa Rosa.
"Being able to work on the line is the most important part of being a chef," Gomez tells me. "Maybe it was a step down, but sometimes you gotta get humble. You don't always get a choice about how you make your money."
In characteristically optimistic fashion, Gomez used the experience to refine his Hollandaise sauce and master the art of cooking breakfast for a large volume of people, skills which have come in handy at Corks, where the brunch menu is classic and unpretentious. An assortment of salads balance out the meatier offerings, which include grass-fed steak and eggs ($19) and Ruben's Reuben ($15), with house-made smoked pastrami, house-made sauerkraut and Sriracha remoulade.
The smoked salmon and asparagus Benedict ($16.75) comes with a generous helping of each, and showcases Gomez's rich, silky Hollandaise. Another unexpected treat is the smoked chicken tinga salad tostada ($14.50). Inspired by his grandmother's repurposed leftover Thanksgiving turkey, Gomez's creamy chilled chicken salad blends notes of citrus and chile that pair well with a side of peach salsa. The simplicity of fresh scones (a basket of three for $5)—plumped with sweet dried cherries and slivers of almonds—cannot be beat.
Corks is especially delightful in the honeyed light of late summer. Down at the edge of the vineyards, giant sunflowers bow their regal heads. The tasting "room" (a portable table and chalkboard) is set up in the redwood grove, presided over by a giant unicorn statue whose stained glass horn catches the sunlight. At dusk, diners can watch one of Sonoma County's largest bat colonies swoop outside in search of their own dinner.
And in the kitchen, chef Ruben Gomez garnishes his plates with fresh-picked red radishes. The artist is at work again.