When I was a full-time restaurant critic, there were two things I loved about the job. Not surprisingly, I enjoyed dining out for a living. There are worse ways of putting food on the table than eating food on the table. But just as enjoyable was learning about the sources of inspiration and personal history that commingled to create a chef's vision.
As a rule, chefs are an eclectic, creative and, dare I say, bohemian lot. How and why they stepped into the kitchen is bound to offer up some good stories and, more often than not, some delicious food. As Sonoma County Restaurant Week (March 9–15) kicks off next Monday, we thought we'd check in with some of the participating chefs and ask them what dishes and people had the greatest impact on them. I hope it makes you hungry. If it does, check out the many restaurants offering special meals at great prices for restaurant week right here, www.sonomacountyrestaurantweek.org.—Stett Holbrook
Canneti Roadhouse Italiana
It's just like your Italian grandma used to make is, perhaps, the most overused cliché in food writing, but in Francesco Torre's case, well, what can you do?
"Everyone has a grandma who chefs, and oftentimes, it's just a story they tell. This is a real story," says Torre. His old-school inspiration takes the form of a daily ritual he learned as a child in Italy.
"I put the ragu on at eight in the morning," says Torre, which is just how grandma Fina used to do it back in their small Tuscany town. Torre cooks the meat sauce all day long at Canneti Roadhouse Italiana in Forestville, where his bolognese joins other dishes inspired and inherited from grandma's cookbook.
Torre is a 41-year-old middle child who got dropped off at grandma's and helped her make dinner. These fondly recalled boyhood days inspired him to go to cooking school, he says, as he lays out some other of grandmother's finest from his homeland: the prosciutto ravioli, the pasta e fagioli.
Those days also inspired his Sunday trattoria menu that's all about family and sharing at the roadhouse. Torre mostly works a modern Italian menu that can also transport you to a Tuscan village with all kinds of goodness on the Sabbath.
There's a deep, direct inspiration at work here: Torre wanders the surrounding fecundity of the Forestville eatery for ingredients. They make charcuterie, the bread and the olive oil, and they cultivate a lot of the produce that winds up on the menu. He'll pick herbs for the rosemary focaccia, check in on the sheep on the farm. "I pick wild flowers and wild lettuces every day," he says, "and of course we source a lot of our stuff locally."
Which brings him to his second inspiration: Giuseppina Mosca.
"She changed the course of my life," says Torre, who worked under Mosca at the Michelin two-star Il Bottaccio in Montignoso, Italy before graduating to executive chef—and before emigrating to the United States. "Everything was made to order," he says. "It was difficult but it was the best quality food." —Tom Gogola
Canneti Roadhouse Italiana, 6675 Front St., Forestville. 707.887.2232.
Mateo's Cocina Latina
It's that busy time before dinner service, and Mateo Granados' kitchen is in full swing. Smiling and energetic, he feels at home here after years in fine-dining spots such as 42 Degrees, Masa's, Manka's Inverness Lodge and Healdsburg's Dry Creek Kitchen. Granados came to the United States when he was 23, and his family still lives in Mexico. Not surprisingly, an inspirational dish for him has been Yucatán tamales.
"My mom used to make them for the whole family," he says.
After proving himself in respected, high-end establishments, Granados decided to go back to basics—a farmers market stall, then a mobile restaurant touring wineries—and he found himself thinking of his roots.
"I think I was looking for a personal, comforting food, being homesick, and decided to replicate it. I want to show the world what I loved eating when I was growing up," he says. "The tamales are made with organic olive oil, toasted banana leaves, tortillas and gravy. We serve them with a fried egg. They're amazing."
He's well aware of the cultural and culinary gaps between the Yucatán and the decidedly moneyed Healdsburg, but prefers to celebrate them.
"Cooking tamales at Mateo's taught me consistency is very important, every ingredient matters and the technique has to be precise, otherwise the price of the tamale we charge is not worth it." —Flora Tsapovsky
Mateo's Cocina Latina, 214 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg. 707.433.1520. Joseph Zobel
If you have yet to visit Peter Lowell's in Sebastopol, it's time you did. The strictly organic, rustic Italian menu is far from ordinary. Take such examples as the pizza tedesco with shaved potato, sauerkraut, bacon, Gruyère and crème fraîche, or the gnocchi alla romana with rabbit sugo and wild mushrooms—nothing typical here. The restaurant is farm-fresh (they have their own and draw from a hyper-local roster of purveyors) and proud of it .
Chef Joseph Zobel's culinary education (that's Zobel on the cover) began with mom.
"My main inspiration comes from my mother, who is a great cook," says Zobel.
From mom, he attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and continued to work in the city for eight years for many talented chefs. What dish most inspired him?
"There are so many dishes I love to eat and cook, but the dish that sticks out is a simple roasted chicken. There is something so perfect about a roasted chicken that simultaneously makes me hungry and inspires me." (See the recipe at the end of this article)
Simple doesn't mean easy. "The roasted chicken is very simple, but simple dishes are sometimes the most difficult to execute because they need finesse in the technique. With my food, I try to keep it simple and focus on solid technique while taking some risks with flavor profiles."—Mina Rios
Peter Lowell's, 7385 Healdsburg Ave., Sebastopol. 707.829.1077.