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Food Ascends To Art

Mention the name Mondavi and you conjure up images of wine, Napa Valley and, perhaps, the iconic Robert Mondavi, who revived the California wine industry in the 1960s. But say “Mondavi” and do you think international food mecca?

Starting in the mid-1970s, if you were a world-famous chef—or were on your way to becoming one—your road took you through the kitchens of Robert Mondavi Winery. The Great French Chefs of France program (later known as Great Chefs at Robert Mondavi Winery) brought hundreds of chefs from around the world to Napa Valley. The chefs not only shared their skills, but also their views on food, wine, art and the intermingling of all three.

But the Mondavi driving this program was not the charismatic founder Robert, who passed away in 2008. In fact, it was not a Mondavi at all, at least not right away.

Margrit Biever Mondavi, who Robert married in 1980, started working for the winery in 1967. She was one of Robert’s first hires at the soon-to-be Oakville landmark. Besides championing the winery’s renowned Summer Music Festival in 1969 and giving a venue for up-and-coming visual artists, Margit had the audacity to invite the likes of Paul Bocuse and Jean Troisgros to cook at the winery and introduce these renowned French chefs to the wines of California.

Since Robert Mondavi never saw an audacious plan he didn’t like, he gave the 40-something Swiss immigrant the OK to invite the world’s greatest chef to his winery. “This was a time when restaurants were still opening cans of corn [in the United States],” said Margrit Mondavi, who provided the translation services between the French chefs and kitchen staff. “To have these men come over was quite incredible. It was a great adventure to see. They were geniuses.”

Forty-two years later, Margrit still works at the winery as the vice president of cultural affairs. She remains the only Mondavi still on the payroll following the $1.3 billion sale of Robert Mondavi Winery to Constellation Brands in 2004. While she does maintain that famous last name, she’s far from a figurehead. The 83-year-old was in Atlanta for Constellation’s East Coast sales meeting this summer with a message for assembled executives and associates: “Sell more wine!”

In addition to cracking the whip, she also patiently and graciously signed copies of her book “Annie and Margrit: Recipes and Stories from the Robert Mondavi Kitchen” (2003, Ten Speed Press, $35), which she wrote and illustrated with her daughter Annie Roberts, the former executive chef at the winery. The book won a 2003 Gourmand World Cookbook Award.

She also came to Atlanta with a newsflash: she will pen another cookbook to be published in early 2010. Earlier this year, she began digging into piles and piles of recipes to produce a book based on the Great Chefs series. In addition to dozens of recipes, the book will recount her experiences hosting the world’s cooking luminaries.

As she devoured her shrimp and grits at the downtown Ritz-Carlton after the sales conference, she explained that Napa was a far cry from the hip destination for food and wine lovers that it is today.

In 1976, Jean Troisgros, one of the founders of the Nouvelle Cuisine movement of the 1970s, was preparing a banquet at the winery when he found that—Catastrophe!—the salmon order was not coming. Margrit escorted Troisgros to the local Safeway grocery store and bought 10 pounds of fish.

“He cooked one and said ‘pas bon’” recalled Mondavi. “I then called Swans [Oyster Depot] in San Francisco, old friends of ours; they had a beautiful fresh salmon, but how to get it to Oakville? It was already mid-afternoon.” Mondavi arranged to put the fish on ice and get it in the backseat of a taxi for the 65-mile trek to the winery. “I paid for fish and fare and Monsieur Troisgros was happy…as were the guests that had it for dinner.”

While the book will be a celebration of the heady days when the California wine began its ascendancy, it will also be a tribute to industry bandleader and Margit’s companion, collaborator and late husband, Robert. While her sparkling blue eyes look directly at you when she talks about most things, she will often look off into the distance when remembering Robert, who died in May 2008, a month short of his 95th birthday.

“I will be lonely forever,” Mondavi said. “I miss him dearly. In his last weeks, there was not too much to live for, but I would have taken care of him for 10 more years, if I had the chance.”

Robert made his money selling wine, but he always advocated that it be enjoyed with good food, so the Great Chefs Series was a natural fit. Not too long after the program featuring famous French chefs started, culinary greats from America and around the world followed. Alice Waters, Thomas Keller, Bradley Ogden, J ean-Georges Vongerichten, Julian Serrano, Roy Yamaguchi and, of course, Julia Child (whbecame a long-time friend of the Mondavis) were regular guest chefs and will be featured prominently in the yet-to-be-titled book.

Robert had an envious record of sumptuous meals prepared by culinary geniuses, but when at home, he had his favorite chef, Margrit, close at hand. His favorite dish? Margrit’s pastina in brodo, a simple recipe reminiscent of the rustic Italian cooking he grew up on. It was comforting for him, especially in his final days. It was also gratifying for Margrit to prepare a tangible expression of the love she had for her life’s companion.

“Like painting and music, wine and food speak to the heart,” Margrit said. “By honoring the world of the senses, of memory and emotions, the rites of the table express our humanity.”

Margrit raises a glass of (surprise!) Mondavi Oakville Cabernet during her pass through Atlanta this summer.

Margrit Biever Mondavi’s Pastina in Brodo

Hands on: 20 minutes Total time: 9 hours Serves: 8

This was one of Robert Mondavi's favorite dishes, reminiscent of the rustic Italian dishes of his youth, as interpreted by Margrit Biever Mondavi.

1 whole chicken, (Rocky Senior, if possible, or a roaster)
1 onion, cut in quarters
4 stalks celery, cut in half
1 carrot, cut in half
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1 bay leaf
Salt and pepper to taste
8 ounces angel hair or other preferred pasta
2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, washed and chopped
Zest of 1 lemon
1 chunk of Parmesan cheese for grating

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, cover chicken, vegetables and bay leaf with cold water. Bring to a rolling boil. Boil for 3 minutes and put on a tight lid.

Turn off heat. Let pot stand covered overnight on the stove.

Remove chicken and vegetables. Turn flame on high and reduce broth by a third to intensify flavors. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add homemade or commercial pasta, such as angel hair, to boiling stock. When prepared according to indications on package, serve in soup bowls. Sprinkle with parsley and lemon zest. Pass the parmesan to grate on soup.

Julian Serrano’s Sautéed Langoustine with “Pisto” and Lemon Oil Vinaigrettte

Hands on: 30 minutes Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes Serves: 6

Julian Serrano is chef at Picasso in the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. Serrano is one of the few chefs in the world to have won two James Beard Awards and has been a guest chef at Robert Mondavi Winery’s Great Chefs series.

1 medium eggplant, peeled, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 yellow squash, quartered and sliced
1 zucchini, 1/4-inch slices
3 tablespoons olive oil, separated
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, 1/4-inch slices
1 red bell pepper, 1/4-inch slices
2 sprigs thyme
1 tomato, diced (reserve 2 tablespoons for vinaigrette)
6 langoustines (substitute U-15 shrimp or crayfish, if necessary)
fresh ground black pepper

For the vinaigrette:
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup aged sherry vinegar
1 1/4 cups extra virgin olive oil

To make the pisto: Quarter the eggplant and season with salt and pepper. Let stand for 45 minutes. Place squash and zucchini in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. In a sauté pan, add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, garlic, onion and peppers. Sweat for 4 minutes. Add squash and zucchini to pan. Season to taste, then add eggplant. Cook until eggplant is just tender. Add thyme and tomatoes. Cook for 1 minute.

To prepare langoustines: Peel langoustines. Place in “corner” of sauté pan immediately after thyme and tomatoes. Splash with the remaining olive oil. Season with salt and pepper.

To prepare the lemon oil vinaigrette: Mix the lemon juice, vinegar and olive oil. Stir in reserved diced tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper.

To plate: Place a 4-inch ring in the center in the center of the plate and fill with pisto. Place langoustine next to the pisto. Drizzle with vinaigrette.

Recipe used with permission.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Warm, Soft Chocolate Cake

Hands on: 15 minutes Total time: 35 minutes Serves: 4

Jean-Georges Vongerichten has a worldwide restaurant empire, but makes time when Margrit Mondavi calls for food demos at the winery. He is renowned for his technical and complex dishes, but the Alsatian native is not opposed to simple inventions like this gooey chocolate cake.

4 ounces butter, plus more for buttering molds
4 ounces Valrhona chocolate
2 eggs
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons flour, plus more for dusting

To serve:
vanilla ice cream
cocoa powder

Using a double boiler, heat the butter and chocolate together until the chocolate is almost completely melted. While that is heating, beat the eggs, yolks and sugar together until mixture is light and thick. Beat the melted chocolate and butter together. It should be quite warm. Pour in the egg mixture, and then quickly beat in the flour, just until combined.

Butter and lightly flour four 4-ounce molds, custard cups or ramekins. Tap out excess flour. Divide the batter among the molds. (At this point, you can refrigerate the dessert for several hours until you are ready to eat. Bring them back to room temperature before cooking.)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Bake the molds on a tray for 6 to 7 minutes. The center will be quite soft, but the sides will be set. Invert each mold onto a plate and let sit for about 10 seconds. Unmold by lifting up on corner of the mold. The cake will fall out onto the plate

To serve: Dust the plate with cocoa powder and serve with a scoop of ice cream.

Recipe used with permission.

Julia Child’s Chicken Sauté Marengo

Hands on: 40 minutes Total time: 1 hour 15 minutes Serves: 4

Margrit Biever Mondavi and Julia Child became lifelong friends after Child’s early appearance in the Great Chefs series. According to Child, this recipe was born to celebrate Napoleon’s victorious Battle of Marengo.

For the chicken:
3 1/2 pound frying chicken, cut up (or sufficient chicken parts)
1 1/2 cups olive oil or cooking oil (or enough for cooking chicken and garnish)
salt and pepper
1/4 teaspoon thyme
1 bay leaf

For the garnish:
4 slices French bread, 1/2-inch thick
4 very fresh eggs
4 jumbo shrimp in shell
16 small, black Mediterranean-type olives
small handful fresh parsley sprigs

For the sauce:
1/2 cup dry white vermouth
1/2 cup beef broth
3 cups tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped
2-3 tablespoons of tomato paste
2 large garlic cloves, puréed
big pinch saffron

To prepare chicken: Dry the chicken thoroughly in paper towels. In a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan, drizzle enough oil to just coat the pan and place over moderately high heat. When very hot but not smoking, brown chicken on all sides. Remove the breast and wings, lower heat to moderate, cover pan and continue cooking the dark meat 4 minutes on each side. Return white meat to pan. Baste all the chicken pieces with accumulated pan juices and season lightly with salt and pepper. Add the thyme and bay leaf and cook 4 to 5 minutes more until the dark meat is tender when pressed and, when deeply pricked, its juices run clear yellow. Remove the chicken to a side dish and cover while making the sauce.

To prepare garnish: While the chicken is cooking, trim the bread into ovals, 1 1/2 inches by 2 1/2 inches. Pour an inch or so of oil into a 5-inch pan and heat until hot but not smoking. Brown the bread ovals briefly in the hot oil and arrange on paper towels layered in a sheet pan. Into the oil, carefully drop, one at a time, the eggs and shape into an oval against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon for about 30 seconds, or until the white has just set and the yolk feels soft. Using a slotted spoon, remove the egg, drain and arrange on one of the toasted bread ovals. Continue with the rest of the eggs, then add the shrimp to the oil and cook 2 minutes, turning several times. Remove the shrimp, salt slightly and set aside with the eggs. (Preheat the oven to 400 degrees shortly before serving to warm eggs and shrimp briefly.)

To prepare sauce: When the chicken is done, skim fat off the pan juices. Pour in the vermouth and stock, scraping the pan to incorporate any coagulated browning juices and boil rapidly until reduced almost to a syrup. Stir in tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic and saffron. Bring to a rapid boil for several minutes until lightly thickened. Carefully correct seasoning. Return the chicken to the pan, basting it with the sauce. Just before serving, bring to the simmer for several minutes, basting. The chicken is to be reheated only—careful not to overcook.

To serve: Arrange chicken and sauce on a hot platter and surround with eggs-on-toast, shrimp, olives and parsley sprigs.

Copyright by Julia Child. Used with permission.



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