In theater, the fourth wall is a term describing the invisible barrier that exists between actors on stage and the audience. In restaurants, this wall, most often, is not imaginary, but a real one separating the kitchen and its staff from the diners. You, the diner, are seated, peruse a menu, maybe ask a few questions of a server, make a choice, and hope that when it arrives, you won’t look at what the others have and wish you’d ordered that.
All of this has changed at the new restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa. The reinvented space that once was Julia’s Kitchen is now simply The Restaurant. The space has been warmed up with apricot-colored walls, and giant-sized images of utensils (from the collection donated to the CIA by Chuck Williams, founder of Williams Sonoma) and it’s lightened by a wall of glass doors that look out at olive trees and the Copia garden.
And the other wall, the fourth wall, has all but disappeared, replaced by an adventurous approach to dining that brings the diners and the chefs who cook their food face to face.
Here’s how it works: when you arrive you are given a single piece of paper that lists the dishes chefs will be preparing that night and, on the back, the beverages, wines, beers, and cocktails available by the glass.
Behind a long counter, these chefs are at work at their stations, assembling their particular dishes. In short order, one will carry over a tray with the ones that would be starters for a meal — maybe rosemary flatbread with a choice of three spreads, or “truffles” made of chick peas, filled with house-made mozzarella.
You can scrutinize the dish, ask the chef questions, and then take it or not. If you do, the chef makes a little mark on your menu. If it’s not what you have in mind for dinner, no worries, the chef will move on and soon another one will bring more choices: fois gras mousse or a salad of Romaine hearts, chestnut soup, smoked salmon and caviar cream blinis.
Meanwhile, a manager is directing traffic, determining which table might be ready for a new set of offerings, maybe roasted winter squash willed with burrata, roasted oysters, or a bowl of Washington mussels in bouillabaisse broth with a grilled baguette.
The next set of dishes might include rainbow trout, rack of lamb, steak, chicken. A changing menu of desserts wraps up the evening.
All of this unfolds like superb theater, quietly, flawlessly, and vastly entertaining.
Creating a culinary adventure
Directing this new culinary enterprise is Christophe Gerard, a chef with a keen sense of adventure.
A native of Chartres, France, Gerard earned his culinary certificate from the Centre de Formation d’Apprentis “Les Chaises” and subsequently worked at renowned restaurants in France (René Delplanque’s Relais des Hussards in Coulombs, and the Michelin three-star Taillevent in Paris), New York (Lespinasse at the St. Regis, Café Pierre of the Pierre Hotel, and René Pujol) and Florida (Dux at the Peabody in Orlando and 1220 at the Tides in Miami Beach).
In 2002 he came to Napa to open Angéle, quickly named by Food and Wine Magazine as one of the top new bistros in North America. He went on to open the avant-garde 55 Degrees in Sacramento, but was soon lured back to the Napa Valley where he worked at Francis Ford Coppola’s estate winery, Rubicon Estate and the Farm at the Carneros Inn.
An enthusiastic world-traveler when he is not behind the stoves, Girard directs a staff of nearly 30. Part of his job is developing a seasonal, market-driven menu, but this, he stressed, is a collaborative effort.
Another part is getting everyone, diners and cooks, comfortable with the new approach to dining.
For some chefs used to working quietly and invisibly, Gerard said going out into the dining room can be a formidable challenge. One he described as looking visibly terrified, initially. “So I said, just relax, enjoy yourself, have some fun. Now, he is great.”
“I tell them, have fun, but still, make sure it’s done the way it has to be done,” the French chef said.
The response from diners has been positive, he said. “We’re offering them a different experience.”
“Some people will say, ‘Ah, it’s like dim sum,’” he said, “but it’s not. If you are in a dim sum restaurant, and you turn down too many dishes, they won’t come back. But we will.”
And for those who wish to simply order from the menu, they will accommodate them too. “I want people to be happy,” he said.
A market driven menu
We dropped by on a recent cold, rainy night to see how this new dining adventure unfolds. Although most of the seating is at tables or in booths, we opted to sit at the bar for ring-side seats overlooking the chefs’ stations.
Here we could watch them, step by step, preparing plates of charred carrots, drizzled with cumin, or fingerling potatoes with chorizo. In the background, in an unusual vertical rotisserie, a pineapple was roasting, spinning slowly upright on a spit.
Two dishes, the whole roasted chicken (also done on the rotisserie) and a 16 ounce Akaushi New York strip steak, are designed to be shared but we found that all the portions were generous and easily shared, if you are inclined, as we were, to take one of everything.
The prices for the dishes and the drinks are reasonable enough to encourage adventuring.
We sampled the chickpea truffles ($7), a wonderful combination of cruchy crust and warm, melting interior; the veloute of roasted chestnut which is poured over julienned celery root and apple ($9); the fire-roasted cauliflower garnished with capers chips, raisins and dill; rainbow trout, filleted and sprinkled with pistachios, and finely shredded Brussels sprouts in sage ($19), brown butter and the porcini crusted hanger steak that is served with bone marrow ($21).
We stopped saying yes here in order to have a dessert of roasted pineapple and a cranberry-apple crumble. You can also finish your meal with a visit from Bessie, the rolling cow cheese tray.
Drinks are also poured from a cart. A 2015 Codax “Burgans” Albariño ($10 a glass) was my choice for the night, but I’ve also enjoyed the La Follette pinot noir ($14) and the Gérard Bertrand Crémant de Limoux ($12). You can also choose from the cocktails ($10-$15), beers on tap and in bottles, ($6-10) and non-alcoholic cocktails for $4.
All of this while watching chefs at work. Edible theater — does it get any better?