As the Napa Valley and the broader wine country community emerge from the direct aftermath of the recent fires there is a growing sense of local support that is centered around food and wine. On Nov. 5, The Charter Oak in St. Helena held a charity dinner with all the proceeds going to help support the victims of the fires.
“There are so many people out there that are hurting that it only seems right to do what we can do to help,” said Christopher Kostow, co-owner chef of The Charter Oak and chef at the Michelin three-star-rated The Restaurant at Meadowood.
“This event also helps our team — and some other great local chefs that are also cooking here tonight — get back to work and maybe even have a little bit of fun. It’s been a tough time for everyone.”
Spurred by Kostow and the other co-owner of The Charter Oak, operating partner Nathaniel Dorn, the roughly 300 people who attended the night’s event were treated to multiple courses, each prepared by the who’s-who of Northern California cuisine, including Katianna Hong (The Charter Oak, St. Helena), Curtis di Fede (Miminashi, Napa), Evan and Sarah Rich (Rich Table, San Francisco), James Syhabout (Commis, Oakland), Kyle and Katina Connaughton (Single Thread, Sonoma), Mourad Lahlou (Mourad, San Francisco), Pim Techamuanvivit and Meghan Clark (Kin Khao, San Francisco), Richard Reddington (Redd, Yountville), Stephen Barber (Farmstead, St. Helena) and Wendy Sherwood (La Foret Chocolate, Napa).
Donating vintners included Schramsberg, Cade, Hudson, Kongsgaard, Lail, TOR, Tres Sabores, Cakebread, Dominus, Farella, Parry Cellars, The Wine Stash and Selene.
“We are all in this together,” said Kyle Connaughton, chef and co-owner of Single Thread, a restaurant that recently received a two-star rating from Michelin and a perfect four stars from Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle. “Sonoma was hit hard, too, and we are all helping each other — we’re here to assist in any way we can.”
Perhaps what was most amazing about the event was that all of those who had donated, and most of those attending, each faced their own hardships due to the fires, yet they still made time and resources available in an effort to help others.
“It’s just what people involved with food and wine do — they take care of others,” said Susie Heller, author, producer and consultant for all things food. Heller has written cookbooks and produced TV shows and books with culinary icons such as Jacques Pepin and Thomas Keller.
“For those of us that came through OK, we want to help. I never understood the term, ‘survivor’s guilt’ before, but there’s a piece of me that is like, ‘Oh, that so could have been me.’ But we are lucky because we are a part of this vibrant food community that always steps up at times like this.”
Healing through support
“I think we all just feel the need to be together during this time — it’s healing through supporting one another,” said Bettina Rouas, owner of the Angèle’s eatery on Napa’s waterfront who had come to the dinner with her father, a culinary legend, Claude Rouas, and a few of their friends. “We will all continue to do all we can until we are back to normal.”
Bettina is another example of the outpouring of generosity and selfless acts of kindness that have been rampant since the fires. Even when no income was being generated through the restaurant because the restaurant was closed due to staff being evacuated and heavy smoke in Napa, Bettina still managed to find a way to feed hundreds of first responders and victims of the fire who found themselves homeless and living at shelters. Yet she still felt it important enough to drive Upvalley on a Sunday evening and support a community event put on by other chefs.
“Our regular guests at Angèle’s have been wonderful, and we feel that it has been important to be there for each other,” Bettina said. “But we can’t forget that there is real suffering throughout the region, too.”
Honoring the first-responders
For many, the immediate reaction after the fires subsided was to feel an immense sense of gratitude and a desire to thank and provide support to the first responders for their selfless acts of courage and bravery. Thousands had battled what is being called the worst fires in California’s history, but it could have been even worse without the tireless attention of so many professionals and volunteers. As emotions settle, there is a growing desire to shift attention toward the many locals who have been affected.
“We were fortunate enough to have dinner with many of the first responders,” said Bill Harlan, owner of Harlan Estates, Meadowood, The Charter Oak building and many other iconic locations throughout the Napa Valley.
“Their commitment, pride and can-do attitude were inspiring. We housed and fed many of them at Meadowood while they fought the fires, and when I asked them what we could do for them, their comments were a little surprising to me — they all said, ‘Instead of thinking about what you can do for us, think about what you might do for your community.’ It was a wonderful reminder.”
“I think people who live and work in this part of the world wake up every day and are grateful to be in such a marvelous environment — it’s so beautiful and the community is wonderful,” Heller said. “Kostow is a three-star Michelin chef, but he is down to earth and knows that food is really about bringing people together. That’s what chefs do — they nurture and they give, and so it’s only natural that when people are hurting they step up to help them.”
Finding the silver lining
“As we’re sitting here at this restaurant tonight there are lots of people literally living in hotels and even gymnasiums, and so we are trying to support them somehow and get them back on their feet some way,” said Carlo Mondavi, owner of RAEN Winery and grandson to Robert Mondavi.
“Chef Kostow has brought together a team that is united between Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino and beyond, coming together as one, bonding and taking care of one another. It’s crazy, but maybe that’s the silver lining in all this — a community that has risen up and said, ‘We are going to take care of each other, and especially the people that have fallen.’”
On Dec. 2, Christopher Kostow, Kyle Connaughton, Thomas Keller and Stephen Durfee, along with a dozen other local chefs and vintners, will present a charity dinner at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena to further support relief efforts through the Napa and Sonoma Relief Organization. Donations and more details about the upcoming dinner can be found at napasonomarelief.org.