Escoffier Questionnaire: Dustin Valette of Valette
RESTAURANT: VALETTE, HEALDSBURG [Opening Spring 2015]
Chef Dustin Valette is a true child of the Sonoma County culinary world and now he takes his place as one of its restaurateurs, something the chef says he has dreamed of since he was 13.
The eponymously named Valette, set to open this spring, is the collaborative effort of Dustin, now 34; his wife, Johanna, and his half brother, Aaron Garzini (a front-of-house veteran). There is a feeling of a royal rite to the opening of what the chef describes as a “hyper sensitive,” locavore, next generation spot in that it will be located in the space that until the very last dinner service of 2014 housed the long beloved Zin Restaurant. Zin’s owners, Jeff and Susan Mall, publicly and graciously passed the mantle to Dustin in their announcement of Zin’s closing on Facebook last November.
Dustin clearly has shoulders capable of carrying on the legacy. Dustin cooked at Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville from 2000 to 2002. For the last six years he has been the chef at Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Kitchen. He is also the reigning Prince of Porc after the 2014 Cochon 555 competition in Napa. The chef also makes his own wine and has been crafting his own charcuterie for years.
A native son, he has been here through Healdsburg’s massive transformations and promises to feed the Healdsburg of today with tradition, with food and drink (Valette will have an extensive artisanal cocktail program), and with camaraderie.
“Everything in the restaurant will have a story,” he says. His enthusiasm is infectious and you can feel the whole town beaming with pride.
Edible Marin & Wine Country: What was the first meal you made that you were proud of ?
Dustin Valette: A ham and cheese omelet when I was 6 years old, standing on a chair so I could reach the stove. It was there that I believe I fell in love with cooking.
EMWC: What was your favorite food as a kid?
DV: Everything! That probably explains why I was not a very skinny kid. I grew up in a French family and the highlight of the day was the whole family sitting around the table eating dinner together.
EMWC: What food do you wish you loved?
DV: Healthier food. Even though I eat a very balanced diet I still love a great charred steak with blue cheese and caramelized onions.
EMWC: What food do you love unreasonably much?
DV: Popcorn! I seriously cannot stop eating it. Last year for Christmas my wife bought me a commercial popcorn maker, so, yeah, pretty sure I have a problem.
EMWC: What do you think is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
DV: Braising, because when you braise something, love goes into it. A good braise takes two days to cook and hours to eat. There’s something intoxicating about the smell of a good braise cooking away in the kitchen.
EMWC: What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
DV: Cacao, both savory and sweet. I’m playing with a new duck dish and the complexity of that little berry is astonishing.
EMWC: What non-culinary influence inspires you?
DV: I love the outdoors and getting away to a quiet place, surrounded by nature, to really clear my head. This is where 90% of my ideas come from.
EMWC: What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
DV: Poke (Hawaiian ahi with soy and raw onions) over wakame (seaweed salad). There’s nothing better than the sweet, salty umami of the ahi with the bite of the raw onion.
EMWC: What is your favorite ingredient?
DV: Acid, in various forms. When a dish has balance, it just pops. I truly feel that it’s one of the most understated components of cooking.
EMWC: What is your favorite hangover meal?
DV: Eggs, sausage, toast and, of course, a Bloody Mary.
EMWC: What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
DV: My hand at opening my own spot! My brother and I have been talking about opening our own place since we were kids. Now, with over 47 years combined experience, the dream is coming true. In March, my wife, my brother and I will open our very first place!
EMWC: What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
DV: The spoon! In my knife roll I have three items: a silver spoon from the ’20s, my one chef ’s knife and a peeler. That’s all I need to cook.
EMWC: Whom do you most like to cook for?
DV: People who have a passion for food. There’s nothing better than to make a dish and have that person understand what the ingredients are and the processes in involved.
EMWC: If you could do one other job, what would it be?
DV: Winemaker. We make a couple hundred cases per year at my house and I just love seeing a raw ingredient transformed into something totally different and then enjoyed amongst friends.
EMWC: What is your favorite midnight snack?
DV: Popcorn! I am seriously addicted.
EMWC: What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
DV: I love Twix bars! For the past couple months I’ve had some uncontrollable love for that crunchy little candy bar.
EMWC: What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
DV: Anything cooked outdoors around a campfire up at Mount Lassen (my childhood camping spot up in the Sierras). The dish would be less important than who is there—family and friends, that’s all I would need. Oh, and a big steak!
EMWC: What’s your favorite place to go for (and what is your favorite thing to order) …
… a splurge meal?
The French Laundry. I could eat until I popped.
My house. Poached eggs with Hollandaise, which is a true staple in my family. All the important celebrations are focused around soft poached eggs and silky Hollandaise.
Anywhere Yulanda Santos is in the kitchen. Anything she makes is amazing.
… a late night/after work meal?
Globe, in San Francisco, for their Sopressata with Egg, a longstanding favorite of my wife and I.
… a cup of coffee?
The small little Parisian coffee shop that I stumbled into seven years ago and had the most amazing croissant and espresso in my life. If I can’t travel, then The [Flying] Goat in Healdsburg.
… a greasy-spoon meal?
Mel’s Diner in San Francisco for Johanna’s Cheesy Fries.
Our local grocer, Big John’s, for anything fresh.
… kitchen equipment?
JB Prince in NYC. Every time I’m there I’m like a kid at Toys R Us.
… ice cream?
Bill the Kid’s French Vanilla Ice Cream is the best!
Valrhona Chocolate with sea salt is the perfect combination.
And lastly but not leastly … what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
Favorite wine—wow, that’s impossible, though I would have to say Pinot is my favorite grape.
DIVER SCALLOPS AND ‘FRESH BACON’
With Pinot Noir Braised Dried Cherries, Violet Mustard and Fennel Pollen
Recipe courtesy of Chef Dustin Valette, Valette
I love the sweet briny flavor of scallops paired with the earthy flavor of the seared “fresh bacon” and the fruity pop of the tart cherries. Fresh bacon is a play on words, as we braise the fresh pork belly in a broth made with traditional cured bacon and other aromatics, giving it a unique smoky flavor and great depth. The flavors are best if you cook the pork belly the day before you plan to serve the dish.
Yield: This is great as an appetizer for a party or dinner for two! Enjoy!
12 fresh diver scallops (do not use frozen)
2 pounds fresh pork belly, skin removed
1 onion, peeled and cut into eighths
1 carrot, peeled and cut into eight pieces
1 fennel bulb, cut into eighths; reserve the top fronds
5 ounces slab bacon, cut into chunks
1 head of garlic, cut in half
1 bunch fresh thyme
5 ounces dried cherries
3 quarts chicken stock
2 ounces butter
4 ounces Pinot Noir
1 ounce red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon coriander seed, whole
1 ounce violet mustard (Traditional French Moustarde au violette—mustard to which grape must has been added. Available at specialty markets.)
1/2 teaspoon fennel pollen
Kosher salt, to taste
Fresh pepper, to taste
Season the skinned pork belly with salt and pepper and sauté in a large sauté pan until it is golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Remove from pan and place in a deep ovenproof casserole dish. Add the diced bacon, onions, fennel, garlic, carrots, thyme and coriander to the same pan and sauté lightly. Once the bacon and vegetables are lightly colored, add the chicken stock and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes, then pour over the pork belly in the casserole dish. Wrap with aluminum foil and cook at 325° for approximately 3–4 hours, or until the pork belly is tender. Once cooked, refrigerate and allow the pork to cool in the liquid overnight.
Pinot Noir Braised Cherries
In a medium-sized pan, bring the Pinot and red wine vinegar to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and add the dried cherries. Cook for 5 minutes on low. Keep warm until ready to plate and serve.
Scallops and Fresh Bacon
Remove the pork belly from the liquid and slice into 1/2- by 3-inch strips. You should have about 8 to 10 pieces. Season with salt and pepper and keep warm until ready to serve.
Clean the scallops, removing the small muscle on the side, and season with salt and pepper. Place on chilled plate.
In a hot sauté pan, sear the pork belly on both sides, for a total of about 3 minutes, until crispy. Place on a paper-towel-lined plate. Add the scallops to the same pan and sear for about 3 minutes, or until medium rare. Keep warm until ready to serve.
TO PLATE AND SERVE
Place a line of the Pinot Noir braised dried cherries in the center of each plate. Place 2 scallops and 2 pieces of pork belly on top of the cherries, stacking one by one. Place a couple of “dots” of the violet mustard on the right side of the plate and sprinkle the fennel pollen around the scallop and pork belly. Scatter a pinch of the fennel fronds on top of the scallops. Repeat with the remaining 3 plates.