escoffier questionnaire

The Escoffier Questionnaire: Chef Ryan Fancher

By / Photography By Erika Cole | February 21, 2018
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Some people are just born to the line. Chef Ryan Fancher of Healdsburg’s Barndiva and Barndiva’s Gallery & Bistro is one of them. “It chose me at an early age,” he says.

Growing up as the only child of a single mom, Fancher learned to be independent relatively early. By high school he was washing dishes and scrubbing floor mats at a steakhouse in his hometown of Santa Barbara, until he worked up the bravado to ask for a cooking job. At Chuck’s of Hawaii, where he cooked in the open kitchen wearing an aloha shirt, he got hooked on the intensity and theatricality of service—how “the lights dim, the curtain goes up and the night begins.”

Fancher worked his way up the fine-dining food chain around Santa Barbara, including a stint at the famed San Ysidro Ranch. He fell in love with the “magical full rivers and foggy mornings” of Northern California’s Wine Country during a stay at St. Helena’s Meadowood, a sister property to San Ysidro. Following his heart, Fancher relocated to Napa, cooking with the notoriously intense and talented Richard Reddington at Auberge du Soleil, then staging at The French Laundry, mostly hanging out with the butcher. The butcher position at The French Laundry does everything but cook meat to order, including making stocks and confit. When owner Thomas Keller sat Fancher down at the end of his stage to offer him a job, he prayed it wasn’t going to be butcher. Naturally, it was.

Thus started his culinary “grad school” of 80-hour work weeks, earning $8 per hour, and the fiery baptism of learning each new position under the watchful eye of Keller, Fancher recounts. Eventually, as a chef de partie, he “got the wind in his sails” and was empowered to write his own menus for his part of the restaurant’s tasting menu—doing so every “night” at 2:30am, after dinner service was completed.

Fancher was part of the crew tasked with opening Chef Keller’s Per Se in New York City, but the fevered anticipation of a new restaurant in the Big Apple couldn’t compete with Fancher’s views of The French Laundry gardens back in Yountville, and he was eager to come home. And after years of working in an environment so frenetic that chefs were taught breathing exercises, Fancher says he was ready to “graduate,” taking on the leadership role in his own kitchen.

As the opening chef at El Dorado Kitchen (aka EdK) in the El Dorado Hotel on the square in Sonoma, Fancher learned how to create order and manage a staff outside of the deeply etched hierarchy at the heads-down kitchens where he came up.

Nine years ago, Fancher arrived at Barndiva, where he now runs two kitchens: the fine-dining side and the speakeasy-ish Gallery & Bistro side, where they play with more straightforward classics including their special Sunday fried chicken (which does involve a sous vide step, so it’s not exactly Sunday at Grandma’s). Owners Jil and Geoff Hales have given Fancher a lot of space to be in a state of continuous discovery. “I get direct feedback, but if I am unhappy with something, it’s my responsibility to do it better or differently.”

Barndiva also has its own small farm, which is planted in an ongoing collaborative conversation with Fancher. “We just love all the little squashes and baby vegetables, and this year we are adding hoop houses,” he says with obvious delight.

Nine years is a lifetime in the restaurant world, and I marvel at his positivity and lack of cynicism. “I have freedom,” he says. And, I would add, the wisdom to appreciate it.

Edible Marin & Wine Country: What was your favorite food as a kid?

Chef Ryan Fancher: Growing up in Santa Barbara, I loved going out for Mexican with my family. The plates were delivered to the table so hot that the waitress told you not to touch them, which, of course, is the first thing you did! As a kid, the experience was a little bit dangerous and colorful, crunchy, salty and so delicious.

What was the first meal you made that you were proud of ?

It’s hard to remember the exact dish, but I started cooking breakfast first, for sure—sunny side up eggs, fresh roasted potatoes, pancakes, egg in a window, sour cream, ketchup, sausage, bacon… Saturday morning cartoons and a big breakfast almost every weekend.

What food do you wish you loved?

Uni. I know it’s a cool ingredient that I’m supposed to be fired up about, but I find it most unpleasant. My now-wife and I ordered an uni roll at a sushi bar once and the sushi chef must have been especially proud of his work because he was closely watching my reaction as I popped a whole piece into my mouth. He’s giving me the “Isn’t it amazing?” nod, and it was everything I could do not to spit out the stinky fish sack explosion of horror in my mouth.

What food do you love unreasonably much?

Nothing beats a freshly made corn tortilla. Made by hand to be eaten by hand, filled with just about anything: chicken Caesar, eggs and potatoes, bacon and tomatoes, tuna salad, egg salad…

What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?

Baking. Making beautiful breads and pastries is a very exact science requiring perfect measurements, temperatures, timing, patience and a depth of knowledge. We are blessed to have Scott Noll leading our pastry program. We are playing around with chestnuts from our farm this season. I learn something every day.

What are you exploring in your kitchen now? We’ve been working on the “perfect” fried chicken all year, and we’ve nailed it. We serve it every Sunday in the gallery bar.

What non-culinary influence inspires you?

My three beautiful little girls. They inspire me to be a better person every day.

What is your idea of a very healthy meal?

Super Sauce: We blend kale, beets, carrot, apple, ice and water in a Vitamix before service every night, in the hopes of staying alert, healthy and balanced despite our extreme beer consumption.

What is your favorite ingredient?

I love to cook fish. To get a whole turbot, sole, rouget, St. Peter’s fish or a beautiful wild King salmon in my hands and break it down is a joy. A perfectly cooked fish with a crispy skin is a luxury and we need to do a better job of protecting them. I’m especially sensitive about how they are sourced.

What is your favorite hangover meal?

Have to say Bear Republic’s classic “just a burger with fries and some hair of the dog.”

What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?

I want to eat dinner at Jacques Pepin’s house! In case I don’t get an invite, I will say Chez l’Ami Louis in Paris. I am dying to try their roast chicken.

What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?

The humble spoon. Spoons are so beautiful and useful. Professional cooks have their own set, some are antique and some are modern, some have colored tape on them so they can be easily identified from across a crowded kitchen and some have initials engraved in them, but they are all cared for lovingly and hand washed and put away at the end of every night.

Whom do you most like to cook for?

My beautiful wife. Cooking is how I got her to fall in love with me and we have a blast cooking together. She is fearless in the kitchen and willing to try anything—music, wine, romance… maybe that’s why we have so many kids!

If you could do one other job, what would it be?

Brewmaster. I love craft beer and would love to brew a killer California IPA or double IPA coming in around 8 or 9%. I wouldn’t mind doing a gastro pub one day, either.

What is your favorite midnight snack?

Cold pizza, preferably Mary’s chicken pesto

What most satisfies your sweet tooth? The ice cream sandwich—whoever created the Bay Area favorite “It’s-It” is a genius.

What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?

The full The French Laundry tasting menu, hands down

What’s your favorite place to go, and your favorite thing to have, for …

… a splurge meal?

Boulevard is worth every penny. I get the tuna tartare and whatever fish they have, which is always something interesting like calamari with oxtail.

… breakfast?

Costeaux French Bakery in Healdsburg for quiche

… pastry?

Downtown Bakery & Creamery in Healdsburg. Their cookies are our preferred source of energy for big bike rides around the valley.

… a late-night/after-work meal?

As a rule, I try not to eat late at night, but on Sundays I make an exception. After work, I’ll take a pile of fried chicken home and my wife, Rebekah, and I will open a bottle of red. It’s the beginning of our weekend.

… a cup of coffee?

Healdsburg’s Flying Goat

… a greasy spoon meal?

I wouldn’t call it a greasy spoon, but for mean burgers and fries I have to go back to the Bear Republic, Just A Burger and a Racer 5 and I am a happy man.

… groceries?

Big John’s Market and Shelton’s Natural Foods Market in Healdsburg

… kitchen equipment?

Trimark Economy Restaurant Fixtures for the big stuff and Williams-Sonoma for cool little things

… ice cream?

Noble Folk Ice Cream & Pie Bar in Healdsburg

… chocolate?

Recchiuti Confections in San Francisco

And lastly but not leastly … what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?

Pliny the Elder from Russian River is good in all seasons, and Lukka Feldman is bottling a killer Syrah for Barndiva made by Eric Sussman of Radio-Couteau.

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