It’s not easy to tell if chef Almir Da Fonseca gets more pleasure out of guiding his young charges at the Culinary Institute of America or making diners at Greystone’s Wine Spectator Restaurant smile as they tuck into a plate of his toothsome cuisine.

Wine country visitors and locals alike can find the earnest Brazil native busy from sunup to sundown, working with students and setting the pace for the busy St. Helena restaurant that occupies a substantial portion of the landmark stone building along Highway 29 at the north end of St. Helena.

Da Fonseca has been a culinary instructor at CIA Greystone for the past five years. A few months ago, he stepped into the role of executive chef at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, adding to his duties at one of the country’s foremost centers for culinary education.

Now, in addition to teaching students and playing an important role in conferences and events at CIA Greystone, chef Da Fonseca oversees menus, food preparation and service at the popular Upvalley dining room.

He’s as excited about bringing students into the restaurant operation as he is about feeding guests.

Students enrolled in the CIA’s Associate in Occupational Studies degree program spend the final 12 weeks of the 21-month curriculum working in the restaurant.

The restaurant’s executive chef lights up when he talks about planning dishes for the menu that are not only appealing to hungry diners, but also incorporate a wide range of cooking methods that give students practical experience in food preparation.

“There isn’t one dish on the menu that employs less than four cooking techniques,” he points out. This effort aids him in his quest to provide the undergrads with a solid culinary background, as well as a yardstick for grading them.

For example, the chef is offering as a first course house-smoked California silver sturgeon salad with asparagus, black mushrooms and frisée tossed with mustard paprika dressing. For this dish, he explained, his students must master a wide variety of cooking methods — roasting, curing, smoking, blanching, vinaigrette-making, emulsified dressing–making and pickling.

With some wine courses and tastings on the daily agenda, students are also asked to recommend wine pairings for each of the dishes on the Wine Spectator Greystone menu, Da Fonseca added. Featured wines are, for the most part, from California, and ingredients for most dishes are sourced from local purveyors, he added.

“I think we often find it more interesting to discover why a wine doesn’t work with a dish than to come up with one that does,” he said.

Turning to the daily menu, the chef insists that kitchen philosophy should be clear to diners the minute they sit down. “We don’t need to have everything for everybody every day,” Da Fonseca maintains. But in designing menus, the chef must give a clear indication to customers “what the kitchen is all about. We should be what we think we should be, but never confuse the customers.”

Da Fonseca enjoys telling diners they play an important role in the education of CIA students. “When they’re ordering dishes, they need to know they are engaging students to exercise a variety of cooking techniques ... (and thus) become part of the story as a customer.

“I am really excited to show our students and customers that all of the ideals we teach are not just words and ideas. We are actually putting the ideals to work in our restaurant kitchen. The students are learning that sustainable cookery and using local ingredients can be done in a restaurant, and that solid culinary skills can turn those ingredients into beautiful food.”

Asked if he incorporates his Brazilian heritage in the Wine Spectator Greystone menus, Da Fonseca paused and, with a smile, replied:

“My heritage comes out in the cooking, even if I am not intending to do that. Brazil is where I grew up, where I first learned, and so it will be with me as long as I am in the kitchen.”

The road to Napa

Son of a fifth-generation cattle rancher and sugar cane farmer, Da Fonseca grew up near Rio de Janeiro. He butchered his first animal at age 10 and was interested in meal preparation as a youth. His educational focus was on both farming and cooking, he said.

Sporting shoulder-length hair, he left Brazil with a backpack and a surfboard, headed for San Diego. He told his parents his goal was to become a marine biologist. But the Southern California surf and lifestyle quickly altered those plans.

He was hired on at a restaurant as a dishwasher. “The first time someone was sick, I wound up on the grill,” he recalled.

It was here that his innate culinary talents were recognized by chef Jacques Arpi, who invited Da Fonseca to apprentice at his restaurant in southern France. Da Fonseca wound up spending six years working and training in France and Italy before returning to the United States in 1988.

Da Fonseca has spent considerable time in the Bay Area, cooking at such renowned San Francisco restaurants as Ernie’s in North Beach and Scott’s on Lombard. He also ran culinary operations in Sonoma County prior to joining the teaching faculty at CIA Greystone.

Classically trained in French techniques, Da Fonseca nevertheless is devoted to the land where he grew up. He’s a longtime researcher of Brazilian cookery, traveling through the five gastronomic regions of Brazil twice a year working on what he calls “The Brazil Project,” which he hopes to publish in the near future. The Portuguese/Brazilian table has been subjected to a wealth of outside influences, he’s quick to point out.

Because tropical fruit is an important part of the Brazilian diet, chef Da Fonseca was one of the first chefs in the Bay Area to incorporate fruit sauces into the menu, mainly as accompaniment to grilled fish — long before it became a trendy thing to do, he said.

But the most important thing to him is sustainability when it comes to selecting food products, Da Fonseca reiterated. “Being a farmer, sustainability is first and foremost in my kitchen.”

He works with students and advisers on planting and harvesting the CIA garden. By now, about

80 percent of the produce used in the restaurant comes from the garden, located about a quarter-mile from the campus.

In addition, the chef orders whole cattle from Five Dot Ranch and sustainably raised whole hogs from the Gleason Ranch in Sonoma County. This allows him to butcher the animals and use just about every part for dishes served at the restaurant.

Da Fonseca uses his own Mediterranean curing mix to prepare bacon, which is smoked on property and used throughout the menu. Larger cuts are braised, while others made into a Spanish-style chorizo sausage, for example. He is also making charcuterie in house.

The menu

One could tell Da Fonseca and the kitchen teamed up to make good use of the Gleason hog last week. For the restaurant’s new four-course prix fixe menu, the first course featured housemade pork rillette, followed by field greens and pork belly. The main course was a tasty housemade pappardelle with a ragout of pork and mushrooms and Greystone-

garden braising greens. Dessert was an exceptional brûléed pain perdu and chocolate maple mousse with a chocolate bacon cookie.

The prix fixe menu is offered at $40, Sunday through Thursday, with four paired wines for an additional $20, a wine country bargain.

On the daily menu, first courses include seasonal fare like foraged mushroom soup ($11) and beef and pear carpaccio ($12), while entrées ($19-$30) include a spring garden vegetable risotto, pan-seared Pacific cod, pan-roasted black bass with Calabrian chile glaze, bouillabaisse, crispy chicken leg confit, and seared breast of Sonoma duck.

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The restaurant continues to feature its popular “Temptations” offerings — a variety of small bites to be shared at the table, including a head-to-tail charcuterie plate featuring Gleason Ranch Duroc pork ($10 per person).

The pastry chef also offers a “Sweet Finale” of various desserts to be shared by the table (also $10 per person).

The sommelier team at Wine Spectator Greystone offers “Lessons in Wine,” two- or three-ounce pours of four wines to accompany the meal. As an example, one features Old World grapes from New World producers ($15), while another showcases a collection of wines from Sonoma’s legendary Monte Rosso Vineyard ($29).

The restaurant serves lunch and dinner daily. For reservations, call 967-1010.

 

Chocolate Mousse

Almir Da Fonseca, executive chef, Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant

Makes 12 small servings.

24 ounces bittersweet chocolate

2 cups heavy whipping cream

10 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

6 cups whipped cream

Melt chocolate with 2 cups of heavy whipping cream over a water bath.

Set aside.

Whip remaining cream and set aside.

Combine sugar and water over heat and heat mixture to 230 degrees F, stirring often. As you do this, begin whipping egg yolks until frothy. When sugar mixture reaches 230 F, pour in a slow stream into egg yolks while they are whipping. Continue to whip until eggs are room temperature. Fold egg mixture into cooled chocolate and whipped cream mixture. Pipe into martini glasses, or other serving dish, and chill to set.

 

Garden Vegetable Risotto

Almir Da Fonseca, executive chef, Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant

1/3 pound butter

2 pounds Carnaroli or Arborio rice

1 yellow onion, diced finely

1/2 bottle dry white wine, room temperature

4-5 cups vegetable stock, room temperature

1 ounce chanterelle mushrooms

2 ounces zucchini, sliced

1 ounce fresh peas

1/2 cup artichoke hearts

2 Tbsp. Romano beans

1 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. parsley, chopped

3/4 Tbsp. Grana Padano cheese, grated

2 Tbsp. good-quality, whole-milk ricotta cheese

Melt butter in a large sauce pan. Sauté onion until tender. Add rice and sauté, stirring constantly, until rice turns an opaque white color. Add the wine, stirring constantly, until all liquid has been absorbed.

Add vegetable stock, just enough to come level with the rice. Stir constantly until the liquid has absorbed into the rice. You will need to repeat this until the risotto is creamy and slightly al dente to the bite. Add more vegetable stock if necessary, and cook, stirring constantly until liquid is absorbed, and risotto has reached desired consistency.

Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, add a tablespoon of olive oil and sauté mushrooms, zucchini, fresh peas, artichoke hearts and Romano beans for a few minutes until lightly caramelized. Turn down heat and add butter, parsley and freshly grated Grana Padano cheese.

To serve, ladle risotto into a bowl or onto a serving plate, top with sautéed vegetables, and crown the dish with a dollop of ricotta cheese. You may also drizzle the dish with some good-quality olive oil as a final touch.

 

Braised Gleason Ranch Pork

Almir Da Fonseca, executive chef, Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant

Serves 10.

Marinade for pork

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

1 cup balsamic vinegar

1 Tbsp. ground cumin

1 Tbsp. ground coriander

1 Tbsp. ground paprika

1 Tbsp. ground dry mustard

1 Tbsp. ground fennel seed

1 tsp. ground celery seed

Combine ingredients and cover a 5-pound pork roast in marinade. It is best if you marinate the pork for 24 hours.

Cooking the pork

5 pounds pork butt, marinated for 24 hours (recipe above)

2 medium onions, medium dice

6 carrots, medium dice

3 celery stalks, medium dice

3 garlic cloves, crushed

1 Tbsp. fresh thyme

1 bay leaf

1/2 bottle dry red wine

4 cups veal or beef stock (may need more to cover the pork roast)

Pure olive oil, as needed to sear

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

In a large Dutch oven, heat oil to high. Brown vegetables. Lightly caramelize. Add wine and reduce until almost dry. Add stock, pork (leaving marinade on portions), and herbs.

Bring to a low simmer, cover and cook until tender, approximately 2-1/2 to 3 hours. Remove pork and strain the braising liquid.

Return braising liquid to pot and reduce liquid by half over medium-high heat. Finish sauce with 1 tablespoon butter and 1 tablespoon red wine, and baste pork with sauce immediately before serving.

Serve tender pieces of pork over creamy polenta or cooked pasta, with sautéed greens and mushrooms. Be sure to spoon some of the delicious sauce over the top.

 

Pan-Roasted Whole Fish with Calabrian Chile Glaze and Salsa Verde

Almir Da Fonseca, executive chef, Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant

Serves 2.

2 whole fish, about 1 pound each, preferably striped bass, black bass or petrale sole, cleaned and scored

Salt and pepper, to taste

3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided

1 1/2 cups arugula

Calabrian Chile Glaze and Salsa Verde (recipes follow)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Season fish with salt and pepper. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large sauté pan over medium/high heat until shimmering. Place fish in pan and sear on both sides.

Place pan in oven and cook for 6 minutes. Remove pan, flip the fish to the other side, and smother it with Calabrian Chile Glaze. Return to the oven for another 3 to 6 minutes, or until a meat thermometer reads 135 F.

While fish is baking, toss arugula with remaining tablespoon of olive oil, salt and pepper.

To serve, spread about 1/4 cup of Salsa Verde on the bottom of each serving plate. Put fish on salsa and serve arugula alongside the fish.

Calabrian Chile Glaze

1/2 cup Calabrian chile peppers, sliced fine (These are Spanish-style red peppers usually found in a jar and marinated in oil. If you cannot find them, you could use any lightly spiced red chile.)

1/4 cup shallots, finely chopped

2 Tbsp. garlic, minced

2 Tbsp. chives, chopped

1/4 cup parsley, chopped

1/4 cup lemon zest

1/4 cup lemon juice

3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Add all ingredients to a food processor, or blender, and process into a paste. Alternatively, you could combine all the ingredients in a mortar and pestle, or just chop all of the ingredients and combine. Makes approximately 1 1/2 cups.

Salsa Verde

1/2 small onion, diced

1 bunch parsley (including stems), blanched and shocked in ice bath, chopped

2 anchovy fillets

2 garlic cloves

Zest of 1/4 lemon

2 cups olive oil

1/2 Tbsp. capers, chopped

Salt and pepper, to taste

Lemon juice, to taste (to retain green color)

1 hard-boiled egg, peeled and pushed through a tamis or sieve

Add all ingredients (except the egg) to blender, with onions on bottom, and puree until smooth.

Fold in egg, taste, and adjust seasoning.

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