The Escoffier Questionnaire: Sondra Bernstein
THE GIRL & THE FIG AND THE FIG CAFÉ
During the final drowsy nod of summer last year I happened upon the “Fig Rig,” a food truck that was, that day, parked at Petaluma’s The Block. As I ate my perfectly pankoed fried green tomatoes, I marveled at the spectacular consistency of Sondra Bernstein, proprietress of said rig. The iconic Southern dish tasted like it couldn’t possibly have come from anywhere other than Sonoma County—because for the last 20-plus years, Bernstein has been serving food in Sonoma County that tastes “just so.” A living example of ouroborosian cause and affect.
Bernstein is not herself a chef, but you would know her food anywhere. Restaurateur, entrepreneur and benefactor, she is not short of descriptors, even if chef isn’t one of them.
Bernstein opened Sonoma’s iconic the girl & the fig in Glen Ellen in 1997, marking her as part of a pivotal generation in Wine Country cuisine. Bernstein remembers the sense of camaraderie among owners and chefs of like-minded restaurants, including Zin, Syrah, Mariposa and Mustards. “We were all so busy, but we would see each other at wine events,” a culinary culture coalescing around Rhone varietals, hyper-fresh produce and European-inspired but locally produced artisanal products like homestead chèvre.
Sondra came from Philadelphia and says she fell in love with Sonoma County with the zeal of a convert. She met John Toulze, her longtime business partner, while they were both working at Viansa and brought him with her. He was not the chef when he first came, but he wanted to be, and he asked if he could be, and then he was. “He is a natural,” says Bernstein.
Bernstein and Toulze’s 20-year partnership has geological layers to it. “We’ve been to counseling,” says Bernstein dryly. Today, Toulze is the executive chef for the entire fig empire (more on that below) and directs the back of the house, where new chefs’ voices are ever emerging, but Bernstein is still the final taste, the one who says whether a dish tastes like a girl & the fig dish.
And how does that taste? I ask Bernstein.
“I can’t describe it, but I know,” says the Girl. I didn’t want to resort to a list, but it is only by viewing a complete listing that one can really understand the breadth and depth of what Bernstein has created and nurtured, what she has let go of and what she still shepherds. There is the original the girl & the fig, transplanted from Glen Ellen to the Sonoma Plaza; the fig café in Glen Ellen; catering operations; Crisp Bakery in Sonoma; an event space; a line of artisanal retail products; a farm in Sonoma; winemaking in France; a printed newsletter; the FIG (funding imaginable goals) Foundation, which grants money for sustainability efforts; the aforementioned Fig Rig food truck; a charitable project to re-stock home cookbook libraries destroyed in last fall’s fires; and, most recently, the Rhone Room, a “wine studio” located on the farm where you can taste California wines made from Rhone varietals.
It takes over 200 employees to pull all of this off, and much of what Bernstein does on a day-to-day basis looks like the task list of a corporate CEO. But she has not lost touch with the people who help her continue to define the taste of Sonoma County. And she still likes to be the good guy. “I’m a mush,” she says.
Not every project that Bernstein has launched over the past 20-plus years has been successful, or something that she wanted to keep going for the long term (remember the Girl and the Gaucho?), but Bernstein is sanguine about her journey. “You have to cut your losses and keep moving forward.”
What is enduring is that I know what the very last moment of summer in Sonoma tastes like, thanks to Sondra Bernstein.
EDIBLE MARIN & WINE COUNTRY:
What was the first meal you made that you were proud of ?
Sondra Bernstein: I threw a lot of parties when I was a teenager and would always make a bunch of dishes. I can’t recall being proud of any one dish, but I was proud that I could feed a crowd and that they loved it.
What was your favorite food as a kid?
Bologna sandwiches. I wish I knew what mortadella was back then.
What food do you wish you loved?
I really enjoy almost all food, but I don’t care for tongue or some other organ meats.
What food do you love unreasonably much?
Tapioca pudding and custards
What is the most difficult cooking technique to do well?
Baking, as it takes patience, which I seldom have
What are you exploring in your kitchen now?
My cookbook collection
What non-culinary influence inspires you?
Farming—watching the constant change on the farm, the growth of the vegetables and all the birds, bees and butterflies that go along with it.
What is your idea of a very healthy meal?
Vegetables from the farm, with a farm egg
What is your favorite ingredient?
What is your favorite hangover meal?
What restaurant in the world are you most dying to try?
El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, and Aronia de Takazawa in Tokyo, Japan
What kitchen utensil is most indispensable to you?
A wooden spatula
Whom do you most like to cook for?
When I was younger, I would cook for large groups of friends.
If you could do one other job, what would it be?
When I was younger, it would have been a private eye, but as I get older, I am wondering if “retired” is a job.
What is your favorite midnight snack?
My mom’s chicken soup
What most satisfies your sweet tooth?
What would you eat at your last meal, if you could plan such a thing?
A perfect pizza with a perfect crust
What’s your favorite place to go for … … a splurge meal?
Omakase at Sushi Ran in Sausalito
Poached eggs on whatever seasonal set they are offering at Boulette’s Larder in San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Building
A Nutella-filled doughnut from Jen at Harvest Moon at the Friday morning farmers’ market in Sonoma
… a late night/after work meal?
Nothing is open late in Sonoma, so it would have to be La Taqueria or a food truck
… a cup of coffee?
Dutch Brothers (more because of the staff than the coffee)
… a greasy-spoon meal?
Any diner that opened prior to 1960, and usually only when I go back east to visit family
El Molino Central in Boyes Hot Springs has the best chips, guacamole and salsa, for sure, followed with chicken mole enchiladas.
… kitchen equipment?
Sign of the Bear Kitchenware in Sonoma
… ice cream?
Sweet Scoops Ice Cream in Sonoma or Noble Folk in Healdsburg
Volo Chocolate, Jeff and Susan Mall’s new company
And lastly but not leastly … what is your favorite local wine or beer for the season?
I can’t pick a favorite winery, but a Grenache and, of course, rosé. Sonoma Springs “Women are Smarter” beer, or any beer from Napa’s Mad Fritz.