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
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
Hands on: 20 minutes Total time: 9 hours
This was one of Robert Mondavi's favorite
dishes, reminiscent of the rustic Italian
dishes of his youth, as interpreted by Margrit
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
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
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
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
4 ounces butter, plus more
for buttering molds
4 ounces Valrhona chocolate
2 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons flour, plus more for dusting
vanilla ice cream
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
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
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
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
Copyright by Julia Child.
Used with permission.