Ramekins Culinary School, Events Center & Inn
Adding New Ingredients to Suzanne’s Visionary Recipe
A formal cooking school in the town of Sonoma? It seems so obvious now, but no one had ever made it happen until Suzanne Brangham came along.
Brangham was well known in wide circles rippling out from San Francisco as a savvy and stylish businesswoman and developer who began renovating buildings with a lease-option on a condo on Nob Hill. She parlayed that single unit into re-dos of 72 mostly Victorians, becoming a building expert in the process, and publishing the bestselling book Housewise: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Buying and Renovating Real Estate for Profit (Clarkson Potter) in 1987. Eventually, she “retired” to Sonoma.
That so-called retirement became another new beginning.
Brangham had already purchased the Victorian now known as The General’s Daughter on Sonoma’s West Spain Street from Bob Cannard Sr., when the Culinary Institute of America (the CIA) selected Greystone, the former Christian Brothers Winery in St. Helena, for its second location rather than a Sonoma Valley address. She had renovated The General’s Daughter, so named because Gen. Mariano Vallejo had built it for his daughter Natalia, and opened a restaurant in the historic home in 1994.
The CIA’s decision provided an opening for Brangham to build a cooking school in Sonoma herself, which she thought would be a great fit for the area, so she purchased the 1.5-acre Vailetti property next to The General’s Daughter and set about doing that.
Always innovative, Brangham decided to build a highly energy efficient, two-foot-thick rammed earth building “with European flavor” in which to teach non-professionals new and better cooking practices.
Specifically, Brangham says Ramekins is “the only rammed earth building in the city of Sonoma,” although there are seven rammed earth homes she built around Sonoma Valley.
Ramekins’ two-story building includes a large commercial kitchen and a smaller demonstration teaching kitchen, a large ballroom for events and a six-bedroom bed & breakfast area upstairs. Guests can’t miss the asparagus-shaped posts on the railing that leads up the stairs.
Williams-Sonoma founder Chuck Williams, a longtime Brangham friend and fan from her San Francisco days, along with Narsai David and other well-known Bay Area food personalities, came to Brangham’s opening party, to which everyone had to wear an apron.
Over the next few years, Jacques Pépin, Thomas Keller, Michael Chiarello, Rick Bayless, Joyce Goldstein, Joanne Weir and Alice Medrich taught at Ramekins, and the cooking school won the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ Best Avocational (non-professional) Cooking School award.
Brangham sold Ramekins to Sarah and Darius Anderson in 2008. According to Sarah, “We want to carry on Suzanne’s vision and continue to carry the torch. We expanded the patio and wall to enhance it and be able to hold events to support the cooking school.”
As Ramekins has evolved under the Andersons’ ownership into a major wine country culinary and events center, the Andersons hope to turn The General’s Daughter, which they now also own (it had been sold separately by Brangham), into a non-professional wine school offering classes about wine, wine collecting and wine pairing with tastings and winemaker dinners. Currently at the General’s Daughter, guests can feast on “Pizza and Pinot,” handmade organic pizzas served with a salad and dessert, accompanied by a glass of Pinot Noir, on Tuesday nights.
Ramekins’ long tradition of attracting top local, national and international chefs to teach its classes and workshops is still in full swing. The school’s upcoming offerings through the summer include Ramekins’ own chefs Lisa Lavagetto and Kyle Kuklewski, as well as John Ash, Linda Carucci, Thomas Estes, Augustín Gaytán, Jill Silverman Hough, Pierre LaGorgue, Ed Metcalfe, Chat Mingkwan, Cristina Topham, Dana Velden and cheesemaker Sheana Davis.
As if they didn’t already have enough on their plates, the Andersons’ Fifth Street Farm has expanded from Sarah’s own small kitchen garden into a full one-acre farm that produces most of the vegetables for Ramekins.
Enter Victoria Campbell, whom the Andersons brought on last year to be the general manager of Ramekins as well as The General’s Daughter. Campbell previously served as culinary director for Levy Restaurants at Sonoma Raceway and as catering manager at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.
Working in what she calls her “dream job,” Campbell and the Andersons have assembled an excellent team with the intention of increasing Ramekins’ class and international travel offerings. They have also expanded Ramekins’ catering reach to include all of the Andersons’ local properties including Sonoma’s Cornerstone and the Tyge William Cellars barn at Cornerstone, Wing & Barrel Ranch, the private hunting club along Highway 37, as well as offsite private events.
Campbell, along with team members Jennifer Hayes and Amber Eilert and the Ramekins culinary staff , now offer classes almost every day.
Campbell notes, “Just this week we hosted special classes for Electronic Arts and Genentech staff , and they loved it. They love to cook.”
The Ramekins team will also collaborate with Sunset magazine on catering and classes once Sunset opens its outdoor test kitchen and test gardens at Cornerstone this summer.
Brangham says people oft en ask her if she is sorry she sold Ramekins, and she says, “No. Never. I love what the Andersons have done and they have taken it all to new levels and new heights. I love it.”
Yes, a cooking school in Sonoma. An enterprise that seems so obvious now that we could hardly do without it, but it might not have happened without Suzanne Brangham’s vision, and the Andersons’ and their team’s ongoing energy and hard work that keeps it thriving and evolving.