How Napa Ninjas Eat Sonoma’s Lunch

Until recently, I’d never been to St. Helena’s Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant. Were it not for a fortuitous luncheon with a client this week, I might never have learned that the Napa County institution is serving up more than my petite hanger steak with glazed yellow wax beans, toybox cherry tomatoes, pancetta, crumbled gorgonzola and cabernet jus. It’s got a cauldron of doom simmering on the backburner, ready to serve to Sonoma.

Tucked into the northerly wing of the Culinary Institute of America, tomorrow’s chefs are gaining their gustatory gravitas alongside the best of the Napa Valley and beyond. Let one’s mind wonder for a moment, however, and it’s not hard to imagine Greystone as the Hogwarts of haute cuisine, where dark culinary arts are transferred from one generation to the next. Even the building’s name is suggestive of the sort of staid structure one might find in Langley, Va., crossed with the X-Men’s school for Mutant Teenagers. And a spice rack.

The fact that Greystone is part of the Culinary Institute of America, or more precisely – CIA – only adds to the impression that, to them, the difference between saucier and super-spy is academic. Literally. Greystone is a school for secret agents camouflaged in a toque. The evidence is obvious. The on-campus restaurant is a mere typo away from having the word “spectre” in its name. Need I remind you that SPECTRE stands for “SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion,” the very agency that’s been trying to kill James Bond all these years?

Consider this: Uber-chef Julia Child’s supposition that one’s first lesson in the kitchen should be “how to use a knife” takes on new meaning when one considers she was a member of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency (one can imagine the CIA uses such instruments for more than deveining shrimp). Need I say more?

Prior to meeting my wife, my kitchen drawers consisted of little more than a Swiss Army knife. My culinary weaponry has since grown into a full-blown arsenal, but I’ve had little occasion to purchase any throwing-stars or blow-darts – standard equipment in Napa, I suspect. I wouldn’t be able to find such tools of death in Sonoma anyway. If you want to raise eyebrows at the Sign of the Bear Kitchenware, go ahead and ask for throwing-stars. A search online at our namesake corporate kitchen store, Williams-Sonoma, yielded only “star anise” and “Star Wars Pancake Molds,” which could be considered lethal, at least to one’s love life – if you’re male, single and own some.

That said, I suspect one might find all manner of stainless steel pokies from any kitchen store in Napa. They’re that serious. Why else would they stock “Food and Wine” and “Soldier of Fortune” magazines side by side in those places? “The Art of French Cooking” sharing a shelf with “Cooking to Kill: The Poison Cookbook” by Ebenezer Murgatroyd? Puh-lease.

And this, methinks, is the primary difference between Napa and Sonoma on the dual fronts of wine and epicurea. Sonomans are satisfied with wine country living as is. Napa won’t be satisfied until it achieves world domination (and the perfect soufflé). Thus, we must be vigilant, Sonoma. We must discipline our minds, bodies and palates so that we too are lean, mean, gourmet machines.

To wit, our local culinary school, Ramekins, might consider including a hand-to-hand combat course with its “chewy gooey, crispy crunchy cookie” class. Chewy gooey can only get you so far, but an organic, herbal pepper-spray class – now that’s cooking with gas. I mean, what are going to do when the ninjas come? You know what Napa does? They go to Sonoma because they ARE the ninjas. They’re coming. We’ll be ready. Napa can eat our lunch but we’ll take it to breakfast.

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