Escoffier Questionnaire: Chef Sean O'Toole of TORC in Napa
RESTAURANT: TORC, NAPA
To truly witness a tomato in its moment, or a mushroom freshly foraged, you must do as little as possible to interfere with its innati perfection. Or so we often think as diners.
There is some truth to this, as anyone knows who has ever made a Capresi salad or eaten a peach seconds before it falls off the branch from its own heady readiness. However, there is also the art of cooking.
Sometimes, this art means doing as little as possible, sometime appearing to have done as little as possible and sometimes knocking your damn socks off with grandeur. But even restraint is technique.
This preamble is a sort of a paean to TORC in downtown Napa. For this issue the Escoffier Questionnaire turns to Sean O’Toole, the chef and owner of the almost 2-year-old restaurant in the former location of Ubuntu.
Sean formerly ran the kitchen at Bardessono in Yountville and has also worked at Quince and for the Mina Group. These are serious kitchens.
TORC has a playfulness—roasted chicken arriving to table with a brida bouquet of herbs and the offer to shave truffles on anything (an invitation that led one regular to co-create an umami-bomb grilled cheesi with Sean). Every dish is also extremely well-crafted, layered in flavor And yet, and yet, each dish remains very respectful of its centerpiece ingredient—the soft-shell crab, the cress, the squab.
Like a Pollock splatter, TORC’s open kitchen and honest integration of flavors invite us to enter the conversation of the meal unself-consciously. But make no mistake, it is the language of a master.
Edible Marin & Wine Country: What was the first meal you made that you were proud of ?
Sean O’Toole: I was a latchkey kid who started to cook for myself from the age of 7. At that point I made my first signature dish, Hamburg Stuff: ground beef, scrambled eggs and Worcestershire sauce, finished with Heinz ketchup. Eventually it evolved with the addition of any random cheese we had.
EMWC: What was your favorite food as a kid?
SO: Prime rib and lobster, for real!
EMWC: What food do you love unreasonably much?
SO: Chicken wings in any format, but especially Buffalo style to number 11 on the heat scale, melt-your-face hot.
EMWC: What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
SO: Cooking vegetables correctly.
EMWC: What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
SO: Anything foraged!
EMWC: What nonculinary influence inspires you?
EMWC: What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
SO: Straus Greek yogurt with berries.
EMWC: What is your favorite ingredient?
SO: Any foraged mushrooms, preferably ones that I found.
EMWC: What is your favorite hangover meal?
SO: Breakfast sandwich at The Fremont Diner in Sonoma.
EMWC: What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
SO: Restaurant Le Chateaubriand in Paris.
EMWC: What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
SO: Microplanes, in any form.
EMWC: Whom do you most like to cook for?
SO: Anyone who enjoys food and does not take it too seriously.
EMWC: If you could do one other job, what would it be?
SO: Hairdresser to the stars.
EMWC: What is your favorite midnight snack?
SO: Cold chicken wings.
EMWC: What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
SO: North Coast Scrimshaw.
EMWC: What’s your favorite place to go for (and what is your favorite thing to order)
... a splurge meal?
The Fremont Diner.
... a late night/after work meal?
In-N-Out Burger, it’s the only thing open in Napa after work.
... a cup of coffee?
TORC—all the free Roast Beach Street espresso I can drink.
... a greasy spoon meal?
The Fremont Diner.
San Rafael Civic Center farmers’ market on Thursdays.
... kitchen equipment ?
JB Prince in New York.
... ice cream?
Humphrey Slocombe, Jake rocks!
I’d rather have perfect fruit.
And lastly but not leastly...
what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
Triath BLONDE ALE available only at TORC Napa, our house brew and very proud of it!
ANDULUCIAN GAZPACHO RECIPE
Recipe courtesy of Sean O’Toole, chef and proprietor of TORC restaurant
YIELD: 12 servings
½ cup red bell pepper, de-stemmed, seeded and julienned
½ cup yellow onion, peeled and julienned
3 garlic cloves, germ removed
1 jalapeno pepper, de-stemmed and cut into halves
¾ cup cucumber, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
¾ cup baguette, torn into 1-inch pieces
½ cup tomato paste
¼ bunch basil leaves
½ cup Pedro Ximinez vinegar
½ cup red wine vinegar
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
2 quarts ripe tomatoes, quartered
Place all ingredients except tomatoes into a large container, pressing down to make sure all ingredients are submerged in the vinegars and oil. Place the tomatoes on top of the other ingredients. Refrigerate and allow to marinate for 24 hours. Blend in a blender, then pass through a chinoise and discard any large solids. Taste and adjust seasoning, adding more salt as needed.
Refrigerate until ready to serve. The gazpacho will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days, and the flavors will continue to develop. Serve chilled.