The Escoffier Questionnaire: Robert Nieto
RESTAURANT: JACKSON FAMILY WINES
When I told the tasting room employee at the Kendall- Jackson winery that I was there to meet Chef Robert Nieto, he blinked a few times and then it dawned on him: “Oh, you mean Chef Buttercup?”
I don’t usually call strangers by their nicknames, but I could see that Buttercup has become an identity for the pastry chef. If you think like me, then the answers to your next two questions are: No, his wife doesn’t call him Buttercup; and no, there isn’t an embarrassing story about buttercream.
In fact, the name took hold at Jackson Family Wines and is the result of friendly volleyball trash-talking. So, if you are at Kendall-Jackson and happen to meet the chef who crafted the jewel box of chocolate truffles to pair with your tasting flight, you can absolutely call him Chef Buttercup. For the sake of journalistic consistency, though, here I am reverting to the name his mama gave him.
Despite his endearing nickname, Chef Nieto is one tough cookie, focused and competitive in and out of the kitchen. He is a triathlon and marathon veteran and, in January, is headed with the United States team to the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Lyon, France. The U.S. team has been gathering in Chicago multiple days every month over the past year to test their secret recipes—dozens upon dozens of times. In the categories of chocolate, sugar, ice carving, ice cream cake, chocolate cake and plated dessert, the U.S. team will battle 22 other nations for confectionary triumph. Much like training for a triathlon, it takes a very disciplined mind to master the tiny increments between very, very good and the best.
With a gorgeous kitchen built just a few years ago and Tucker Taylor, formerly of the French Laundry, running the culinary garden at Jackson Family Estates, Chef Nieto has the tools to create the seasonal and hyper-creative sweets that excite him. He is not, strictly speaking, interested in serving you brownie a la mode.
Nieto learned the benefits of obsessive precision in Thomas Keller’s kitchens (“You would cut the masking tape, never tear it,” he remembered), serving as pastry sous chef at Bouchon Bistro in Las Vegas and pastry chef of Bouchon Bistro and Bouchon Bakery in Yountville. With a strong foundation in French pastry, he moved to Michelin-starred Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, and got a knack for molecular gastronomy. Nieto also had a turn at Della Fattoria in Petaluma, creating more earthy, yet still decadent, desserts.
All this experience seems crystallized into his work now, which is refined, intensely flavored and sourced with intention. From the pairings of Partake at K-J to the treats served at events like the winery’s beloved Heirloom Tomato Festival, every facet is met with the drive that brought a young Texan to cook in some of the most acclaimed kitchens in the world.
Edible Marin & Wine Country: What was the first meal you made that you were proud of?
Robert Nieto: When I was about 12 years old I had a bunch of friends over to our house on a night that my parents were out of town. My twin brother and I got into the freezer and pulled out a bunch of my dad’s steaks. We pan-seared the steaks and covered them in ketchup. My friends thought it was the best thing ever!
What was your favorite food as a kid?
Definitely the Happy Meal from McDonald’s. It was a treat whenever my mom took us to McDonald’s, so it was a big deal.
What food do you wish you loved?
Pork belly. It’s on everyone’s menu and I’m always tempted, but it’s just too heavy for me. I can’t eat more than a bite or two before I’m done.
What food do you love unreasonably much?
That would be truffle fries. They are so addicting, I could eat them every day. You’ve gotta have a good aioli sauce on the side, though.
What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
Tempering chocolate. You have to master the temperature and mixing movement. I do my chocolate the old classic way by tempering on a marble slab. Sometimes I feel like it is a lost art. Many chefs use the melter now.
What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
I’m currently exploring the use of molecular gastronomy. It’s fun to use some “science” in the kitchen and see what I can create (hopefully without blowing anything up).
What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
RN: Salad and a lean protein.
What is your favorite ingredient?
The vanilla bean. It’s one of those versatile ingredients which can be used in ice cream, sorbet, sauces, custards, cakes and, of course, on the savory side as well. It adds a nice essence to desserts.
What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
El Celler De Can Roca in Girona, Spain. The chefs are using some very innovative techniques. They have a different way of cooking that no one else is using.
What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
My bowl scraper. I never leave home without it!
Whom do you most like to cook for?
My wife. She enjoys cooking new things at home. We do ramen, paella, pizza, cheese and wine, stir-fry dishes, sushi, tacos, chilaquiles, absolutely anything and everything.
If you could do one other job, what would it be?
A triathlete. I love being outdoors and competing. I’ve done a full Ironman and multiple other triathlons. It would be awesome to do it full time!
What is your favorite midnight snack?
What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
A good oatmeal cookie. I love classic, old-fashioned cookies.
What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
This is morbid to even think about, but I would have to go with sushi. A great variety of sushi coming straight from Japan. When I was in Japan I couldn’t get enough.
What is your favorite place to go (and what is your favorite thing to order) …
… for a splurge meal?
Diavola Pizzeria in Geyserville. I like their Inferno pizza and their char-grilled octopus.
… for breakfast?
Los Arcos in Santa Rosa for a breakfast burrito. I always ask for just eggs, potato, cheese and onion with salsa on the side. You can’t beat it!
… for pastry?
Craftsman and Wolves in San Francisco. I like their pastries because they are so creative.
… for a late-night meal?
Jackson’s Bar and Oven in Santa Rosa. They are open late and have truffle fries!
… for a cup of coffee?
Taylor Maid in Sebastopol.
… for a greasy-spoon meal?
A Chinese food restaurant. I like China Garden in Santa Rosa for takeout.
… for groceries?
Oliver’s. There is one near my house and they have a great selection of cheeses and beer and then plenty of fresh, healthy options.
… for kitchen equipment?
Kamei Restaurant Supply in San Francisco. I could spend all day in there.
… for ice cream?
Fruta on Stony Point in Santa Rosa. They have lots of interesting flavors.
… for chocolate?
Patrick Roger Chocolatier in Paris.
And lastly but not leastly … what is your favorite local beer or wine for the season?
For beer, HenHouse Brewing Company in Santa Rosa makes a great saison. My favorite local wine is Jackson Family La Jota Vineyard Merlot. I just recently tried it and it’s my new favorite.