When Ubuntu opened its doors in downtown Napa in the summer of 2007, not even owner Sandy Lawrence expected the new wine country dining destination to strike such a responsive chord around the nation.
Before Ubuntu was a year old, it had received rave reviews from foodies and critics alike, with the New York Times ranking it at number two on the list of the 10 best new restaurants opening in the United States that year.
Credit was given not only to owner Lawrence and her biodynamically farmed garden — from which restaurant bounty comes — but also to the husband-and-wife chef team that helped launch the place, Jeremy and Deanie Fox.
Although the Foxes have since departed Napa Valley and Ubuntu, they left a creative team in charge — headed up by a dedicated duo who, despite relative youth, have considerable experience in kitchens from Tokyo to Los Gatos, Paris to St. Helena.
While others bandy about terms like “vegetarian” and “vegan,” 26-year-old executive chef Aaron London prefers to call Ubuntu “a ‘vegetable restaurant.’ It’s a term coined here under Jeremy. I think we all feel sometimes that vegetarian or vegan can be a loaded descriptor ... that in some way they allude to an exclusion (of something).
“What we do at Ubuntu is include fruits, vegetables and herbs we grow in our biodynamic garden (northeast of Napa). That’s our world — all new cuisine ... straight-up vegetable cooking.”
London’s sidekick in the dessert department is pastry chef Carl Swanson. A college dropout who discovered his calling in a Bay Area restaurant kitchen, the 28-year-old Los Gatos native is also a disciple of garden-to-table fare.
Swanson’s desserts blend sweet with savory, which, he says, “helps keep it interesting. I love going into the walk-in and looking at what just came in (from the garden). If it looks delicious and smells delicious, why can’t we make ice cream or granité or a custard with it?”
Both London and Swanson have been part of the Ubuntu culinary team since the beginning and both young men got their cooking starts in most interesting fashion.
Smells like teen spirit
There was never any doubt Aaron London would wind up cooking for a living.
Armed with his first cookbook at 14, London whipped up any number of dishes in the kitchen of his Graton home and sought the opinions of all willing to taste his efforts.
London cooked for family, friends, even neighbors — anybody who would eat his food.
“I’d call up a chef down the road (to drop by his western Sonoma County home) so I could ask, ‘How’d I do?’
“It wasn’t long before I had a job as a dishwasher (at a nearby Mexican restaurant), then prep cook, and I’ve been cooking ever since.”
London’s biggest booster is his maternal grandmother who lives in Montreal. “She’s a terrific cook ... I didn’t even know her first name until I was 19 ... she was just Grandma Cook. Her place was where the family gathered. She always had something on the stove and something coming out of the oven, from soup to cookies.”
When he finished high school, London signed up for classes at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. When he completed his first term, London worked (through an apprenticeship program) with noted chef Daniel Boulud at Daniel in New York.
That experience made his blood run hot. “All I wanted to do was cook my ass off ... I dropped out of school and I moved to Montreal where my grandmother lived.”
Over the next three years, he learned to speak French as well as work just about every station offered in the kitchens of two celebrated Montreal restaurants, Au Pied de Cochon and Restaurant Toque.
He returned to the states to complete his formal training at CIA and work at the noted Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York’s Hudson Valley.
An avid bicyclist, London returned to his Sonoma County home to work as a server at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, pedaling the 24 miles to work every day and, when he didn’t get a late night ride, biking home. He says the stint in the front of the house was prompted, in part, by his need to recuperate from a serious accident that left him with 13 screws and metal plates in his shoulder.
But the accident didn’t keep him off the bike. Instead, he flew off to Europe where he spent eight months biking from Paris to Rome, through Switzerland and northern Spain ... “cooking as I went.
“I got a lucky break at L’Astrance in Paris (where he signed on for a brief working stint),” London recalled during a break prior to opening for dinner service the other day. “The saucier got into a fight with the chef (Pascal Barbot) and walked out. So I got his job for six weeks. I turned down an offer to stay longer because I wanted to see as much of Europe as I could on my bike. Also, while I was in Paris, I spent a couple of days a week working for (Michelin-starred) chef Alain Passard at Arpege.”
London pedaled throughout the Loire Valley (“awesome sauvignon blancs and goat cheeses in Sancerre”) and Burgundy and wound up in Provence where he cooked in the garden-to-table restaurant, La Chassagnette, located in the middle of a wildlife preserve.
His bicycle took him through Switzerland, then into Italy and down to Rome, from where he took an overnight ferry to Barcelona. He spent some time in Catalunya and then hopped a train to Madrid, then another to San Sebastian. It was here in Basque country that he basked in the glories of the region’s cuisine for more than a month.
While he was in Spain, London heard from his father that chef Jeremy Fox — acclaimed for his cookery at Manresa on the Peninsula — would be opening Ubuntu, featuring a menu consisting only of bounty from the garden.
“I applied for the sous chef’s position, but it had been filled. Jeremy hired me anyway as a line cook.” It wasn’t long before the post did open up and London took on the role of sous chef, then executive sous chef and recently, with the departure of Fox, the role of executive chef.
London has cooked in 23 kitchens over a period of 13 years which “has given me a lot of flavor profiles.
“I have always wanted to create a cuisine based on Mother Nature ... cuisine that’s not a copy or variation of something or somebody else ... cuisine that ebbs and flows with the quality of the product.
“Not only does our menu change a lot, so do the dishes. The first harvest (of a vegetable or green) from the garden is not the same as the last ... sometimes not even one from the next. So we are always adapting to the whims of Mother Nature.”
An eye-opening experience
Knocking about Los Gatos, Carl Swanson admits he didn’t have a lot of ambition a decade ago. “I was a college dropout ... not doing much,” he said as he put together a special warm weather dessert for Register readers last Friday.
“I told my dad and friends that I had thought about possibly going to culinary school. So I did it just for a year to get them off my case.”
With some schooling under his belt, Swanson thought he might be inspired if he could hang out with a respected chef from his hometown. He phoned restaurant/chef David Kinch and asked if he could spend a weekend at Manresa just observing.
“I was absolutely amazed,” he recalled. “It was so different from anything else I’d previously seen ... so precise, so professional. They were very busy, but the attention to detail blew me away.”
Swanson wanted a job there so badly he could almost taste it. He got to spend a brief apprenticeship there and then it happened. Chef de cuisine Jeremy Fox (who would leave to open Ubuntu a few years later) called him in to work.
“It was spring so I wound shelling a lot of fava beans and peas, doing a lot of prep work. I remember everyone telling me to speed it up.
“Then one day I got to work with (pastry chef) Deanie Fox (Jeremy’s wife). I got to be part of service ... she let me prep and plate food. It was an eye-opener. I was hooked. She got me to the point I could work the station when she wasn’t there. That was intimidating at first.
“Deanie taught me everything I know (about desserts). In fact, in all of my career, I’ve only spent about 18 months not working with her.”
Swanson was at Manresa for a year before he decided it was time “to see if I could make it in another kitchen.” So he signed on to work at Cyrus in Healdsburg.
“Then I heard Jeremy was opening Ubuntu. He was a great meat cook (at Manresa), so I didn’t believe it at first, that he was going to take charge of a new restaurant that was only serving what was harvested from the garden. But when he offered me a job, I accepted immediately.
“So I was back with Deanie and we went to the garden to get our ingredients. It was cool being part of a brand new restaurant.”
Swanson left Ubuntu for a time to work with Christopher Kostow at Meadowood — “a really talented guy ... I learned a lot from him.” He spent a year at Meadowood during which time he stepped into the role of pastry chef.
All the while he kept in touch with the Foxes, even helping on his days off with offsite Ubuntu events.
Last November, Swanson returned to the Ubuntu fold at Deanie Fox’s invitation. “I felt it was a phenomenal opportunity ... as I wanted to work with Aaron and Sandy again. Little did I know Jeremy and Deanie would be leaving.
“I feel I’ve learned from her and what I do is very close to her in style.”
Swanson put together a refreshingly light dessert for Register readers, a dish that will make it onto Ubuntu’s dessert menu — “or something similar” — soon.
His recipe, basil custard with roasted and raw Silverado Trail strawberries, lime granité and micro basil, is included in today’s paper.
Chef London provided his recipe for Arbuckle grits slowly cooked with goatsmilk whey, fresh ricotta, blackened and braised favas and mint.