The conviviality — warm, friendly conversation — of the dinner table fueled Scott Ekstrom’s interest in pursuing a career in culinary arts.
Raised by a single parent, his mother, the young native of Lavallette, N.J. did a lot of “cooking, cleaning and taking care of each other” at an early age.
His mother, an art teacher and clothing designer, inspired him and is, undoubtedly, responsible for his interest in creative writing and the arts. In his late teens, Ekstrom walked the artistic path, enrolling in a class for young sculptors in New York’s Greenwich Village.
But any plans he might have had for a future in fine arts came to a screeching halt after a particularly memorable dinner party.
“I have some friends who are Eastern Europeans, and they’re really good cooks,” Ekstrom recalled. “We sat around a communal table for the meal and people really opened up at the end of the meal. It made an impression on me — sharing and making new friends over a meal. I didn’t have that growing up, as it was usually just the two of us.”
Ekstrom knew how to prepare basic dishes for mom, but after that memorable meal, he had a desire to expand his culinary repertoire.
“So I decided to go to culinary school,” he said. “I guess there were a number of things that moved me in that direction, but that night (breaking bread) around the table really got me thinking about cooking” as a career.
That decision not-so-awfully-long-ago put Ekstrom on a career track that now has him manning the stoves at Napa’s Angèle, bringing with him a decade of experience in the kitchens of some of New York City’s best chefs, namely Daniel Boulud and Cornelius Gallagher.
Ekstrom feels he earned a spot in some of the Big Apple’s top restaurants because he made informed decisions when it came time to get a formal culinary education.
While he was accepted at a number of culinary schools, the Jersey Shore native knew he’d have to live within his means and enroll at a campus he could afford.
His choice: the Philadelphia Restaurant School. Ekstrom said the program not only provided a wealth of hands-on training, but also included a week-long, tuition-paid gastronomic tour of France.
“We visited farms, including one where foie gras was produced, attended wine tastings, and also explored on our own,” he said. “In France, the whole family knows how to cook. Your day is centered around meals, unlike our fast-food culture in the United States.
“I remember a few hours I spent in Paris at a brasserie where I enjoyed steak tartare, some really fresh greens and drank Bordeaux wine. That was my introduction to France — and I’ve been back a number of times.”
Perhaps that trip to France was the reason he sought a job with acclaimed James Beard Award–winning chef Jean-Marie Lacroix, formerly of the Fountain restaurant at Philadelphia’s Four Seasons Hotel (and now the Rittenhouse Hotel). That led to an introduction to Georges Perrier, chef/owner of the renowned Le Bec Fin, and a two-year post at then-new Brasserie Perrier in Center City.
It was Georges Perrier who helped Ekstrom with a planned move to New York City. Perrier knew the former chef at Le Cirque, Daniel Boulud, who was opening a new restaurant in the former Le Cirque space on the Upper East Side and recommended Ekstrom for Boulud’s new culinary team.
“I loved the challenge of it — the striving for excellence on a daily basis. It’s something that soon becomes part of a chef’s nature once you’re exposed to that sort of (kitchen) environment,” Ekstrom noted.
He wound up working through all the stations of Boulud’s kitchen, spending four years with the award-winning New York chef.
From there, he joined chef Cornelius Gallagher’s Oceana, one of the Big Apple’s best seafood restaurants. Spending four years as well with Gallagher as both sous chef and chef de cuisine, Ekstrom said he grew as both a chef and a manager while at Oceana.
“I learned there was more to the business than running a kitchen” when he next teamed up with the Morgans Hotel Group. Ekstrom said he was able to sharpen his business acumen while working with one of his chief mentors, Howard Wein.
“But I think it was Daniel Boulud’s overriding advice, sharing and mentoring that made the biggest impact (on the culinary side),” he added.
Coming out West
Now that he was married — wife Sasha is from Las Vegas — and the couple had a 2-year-old daughter named Mila, the Ekstrom family felt the time was right for a move to the West Coast.
“We didn’t own a home, we didn’t have any serious ties (to New York), so we began talking about where we’d like to go,” Ekstrom said. “We didn’t know much about the Bay Area, but we knew San Francisco was the hub of the culinary scene. I wound up taking a job with (chef) Michael Mina in San Francisco.
“We’d come to the Napa Valley on several occasions — even dined at The French Laundry. Every time we came up here we had a really good experience. We met interesting people, they were pleasurable visits and outstanding meals. We felt there was something drawing us here.”
When Ekstrom learned that Bettina Rouas was looking for a new executive chef for the downtown French restaurant, Angèle — which she owns and operates with her father, Claude, a respected member of the Bay Area hospitality industry for more than four decades — he made it known that he was interested.
“My wife and I talked it over and felt that Napa was a good place to raise our daughter. I did a tasting with Claude. ... It seemed like a natural fit, with what I had to offer and this well-established restaurant specializing in French cuisine.
“We found a home easily, everything flowed smoothly. ... We felt we were meant to be up here. The really great thing about coming to Napa is the wonderful support I’ve received from the Rouas family. On top of that, we hear from our guests that they’re enjoying the meals we’re serving.
“It makes me want to come to work every day. ... I think that goes for our staff, too, in the kitchen as well as in the front of the house. I’m only successful if the people I work with are happy.”
Asked about his plans for the menu at Angèle, Ekstrom said, “People don’t react well to a lot of change. What’s working well, what our customers like, will continue. I’m from the school of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I’ll be bringing some of my ideas onto the daily menu — slowly.”
On the menu
One of the additions to chef Ekstrom’s appetizer offerings ($9-$16) is as tasty as it is appealing to the eye. Fruits de Mer features a seared sweet scallop with a handful of Savoury clams from British Columbia, with white corn puree and a shellfish nage. He is sharing his recipe with Register readers today.
On board since late March, Ekstrom is in his element with seasonal soups (asparagus, corn) and a healthy salad featuring fava beans, English peas, field greens, apricots, herbed chevre and a Champagne emulsion. The marinated beet salad incorporates fromage blanc and Cara Cara oranges with a toasted almond vinaigrette.
Along with glazed pork belly and crispy veal sweetbreads, first-course offerings include a country paté and oysters on the half shell.
At present, main courses ($24-$34) include a seasonal risotto with summer vegetables and Parmesan cream; whole roasted Wolfe Ranch quail with figs; and glazed pork shoulder with citrus-scented quinoa and lavender honey–roasted peaches.
One dish that will remain for as long as Bettina is in charge is Poulet au Grand Mére, a fricassee of roasted chicken and root vegetables cooked in an individual casserole. Another popular dish at Angèle is the Loch Duart salmon served with lemon and dill crushed potatoes and a black olive jus.
The lipsmacking the other evening was of my own making, after tucking into a plate of braised rabbit served with mixed field greens, tomato confit and Castelvetrano olives, ideally paired with a recently released Ancien pinot noir.
Glazed halibut is plated with butter bean puree, bacon and artichoke barigoule, a delicious braise reminiscent of Provence. Pommes Aligot — potato puree with cheese and garlic blended in — is served with Duo de Boeuf, roasted ribeye and short ribs.
One of the chef’s well-received dishes is braised veal cheeks, served with kohlrabi, leek fondue and pickled ramps. He has also provided Register readers with his recipe for this dish.
Another keeper is on Angèle’s dessert menu — an almond-crusted banana gratin topped with a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. There’s really nothing quite like it on any other menus in the valley. Additional desserts at present are a tart chockful of locally grown strawberries, chocolate pot de crème, plus fromages du jour, ice cream and sorbet.
In addition to Ekstrom, Bettina Rouas has assembled a new team of dining room managers, all of whom have considerable experience in the hospitality industry. Working in both kitchen and front-of-the-house operations since he was 14 is Guy Barstad (The Carriage House, Mustards Grill, Piatti Yountville, Piatti Sonoma and Cole’s Chop House). Also on the team are Joel Tavizon (Bistro Don Giovanni, Julia’s Kitchen at Copia, Cantinetta Piero and Uva Trattoria) and Charlie Crebs (Bistro Don Giovanni, Alexis Baking Company, and, in Oakland, Flora and Garibaldi’s).
Angèle is located at 540 Main St., Napa. Hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. For reservations, call
Seared Scallop with
Savoury Clams, White Corn Puree and Shellfish Nage
Scott Ekstrom, executive chef
4 medium-sized sea scallops
12 pieces Savoury clams
2 ounces sea beans, lightly blanched
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. Wondra flour
1 cup Noilly Prat vermouth
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 shallots, thinly sliced
3 pieces baby fennel, thinly sliced
2 tsp. picked thyme leaves
2 tsp. minced tarragon
2 tsp. minced parsley
2 tsp. minced dill
1 to 1-1/2 cups heavy cream
2 cobs sweet white corn
1 quart milk
2 bay leaves
2 Tbsp. whole butter
2 ounces assorted seasonal herbs, sprouts, and/or leaves for garnish
Salt and white pepper, to taste
To make the nage:
Sweat the thinly sliced garlic, fennel, shallot and picked thyme over low heat in a small saucepan. When vegetables are cooked and translucent, add the vermouth and reduce by half.
Add heavy cream, bring to boil and reduce by half. Strain and reserve.
To make the corn puree:
Cook corn in milk with bay leaves until tender. Strain liquid and reserve.
Cut corn kernels off cob with knife and puree in a blender with the reserved milk, using as little as needed to make a thick, but silky-smooth puree.
Season the scallops and dab the tops into the flour, patting to remove excess. Sauté over medium heat until
1 side is golden brown. Add a nub or two of whole butter, let brown slightly, and lower heat. Flip scallops over to finish cooking on low heat, then remove from heat, but let sit in the flavorful butter.
Place the nage in a medium-sized sauce pan, bring to a boil, add clams and cover. As soon as the clams open up, remove from heat, add sea beans and the freshly minced herbs.
Place a dollop of the corn puree on each plate, followed by a scallop.
Add 3 clams to each plate and spoon the herb-infused sauce over them.
Place pieces of the sea beans around the scallop.
Garnish with assorted greens of your choice.
Braised Veal Cheeks
with Kohlrabi Puree,
Leek Fondue, Pickled Ramps and Squash Blossoms
Scott Ekstrom, executive chef
For the veal cheeks:
12 pieces veal cheeks
2 quarts veal stock (or substitute chicken stock)
1 pint chardonnay
4 Tbsp. whole butter
8 whole cloves garlic, with skin on
6 shallots, sliced
1 fennel bulb, sliced
1 large leek, white part, rinsed in cold water and sliced
3 tomatoes, chopped
1/2 bunch thyme
2 full sprigs rosemary
4 sprigs sage leaves
2 bay leaves
Zest and 8 segments of 1 orange
For the kohlrabi puree:
3 large pieces kohlrabi
1 quart heavy cream
3 sprigs rosemary
For leek fondue:
1 large leek, green part, rinsed in cold water and diced small
2 tsp. whole butter
For the ramps (if not available, substitute spring onion or
even red onion):
1 quart water
1 cup white vinegar
8 pieces ramps
For the veal cheeks:
Preheat oven to 300 F.
Season the cheeks on both sides. Add to sauté pan over medium heat, sear and add whole butter until you get a nice golden brown on both sides. Remove cheeks from pan.
Add the garlic, shallots, leek and fennel to the same pan. Sweat for a few minutes, until translucent; add tomatoes until liquid is somewhat reduced.
Add the herbs and zest, then the wine, and reduce by one-third. Then add the stock. Bring to a boil.
Place the cheeks in a braising pan. Cover with a piece of cheesecloth, and pour braising liquid over the cloth.
Fold the cheesecloth over so that the aromatic vegetables stay separate from the cheeks.
Place in 300-degree oven for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, until tender. Remove the cloth, strain through a chinois over the cheeks and discard the cloth and aromatics.
Remove the cheeks, place flat on a tray and cool until the braising liquid is finished.
Reduce the cooking liquid down to where the liquid is viscous and has a nice body and flavor.
Season to taste. Place the cheeks back in the liquid. Cool until ready to reheat and serve.
For the kohlrabi puree:
Infuse the cream with rosemary over medium heat, to attain a rich aroma.
Add the peeled and quartered kohlrabi. Cook until tender. Strain liquid, then puree the kohlrabi until thick and smooth.
Season to taste.
For the leeks:
Start with a hot sauté pan with a small amount of olive oil.
Shake off any excess water from the rinsed leek and dice.
Be careful and make sure to remove pan from heat for a few seconds before adding the wet leeks, as this may cause the burner to send flames up the side of the pan. Once the leeks have been added, season with salt immediately, place back over high heat and cook briefly, just enough to soften, but still maintain the vibrant color.
Just as the leeks are close to being cooked, add a small amount of whole butter, melt into the leeks, and remove from pan onto a tray with parchment paper. Refrigerate immediately.
For the ramps:
Bring water to a boil, add the vinegar, and season with sugar to maintain a balance of acidity and sweetness to taste.
Pour over the cleaned ramps and refrigerate.
To assemble dish:
Bring braising liquid to a boil and continue to reduce liquid, while basting the veal cheeks until they are hot and glazed with the braising liquid.
Dress the plate with the kohlrabi puree and leeks.
Place veal cheeks over the leeks and spoon some of the sauce over the cheeks and around the plate.
Place the 2 pickled ramps on top of the cheeks, followed by 2 pieces of orange segments.
For garnish, use assorted greens, like watercress or arugula and some squash blossom leaves, and dress with olive oil and Champagne vinegar.