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Hitting the reset button: Chef Philip Tessier guides PRESS through a shut-down and a re-opening

Hitting the reset button: Chef Philip Tessier guides PRESS through a shut-down and a re-opening

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St. Helena’s PRESS is among the Napa Valley restaurants that began carefully reopening over the weekend. But just as life has altered for all of us during two months of shelter-at-home, guests may find changes at the restaurant, known for its Cab-loving steaks.

PRESS was about to announce a culinary coup, a partnership with the award-winning chef, Philip Tessier, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down restaurants around the U.S., causing chefs to pivot in a manner worthy of the Bolshoi Ballet as they closed their doors or shifted to take-out mode.

Tessier is the chef who brought glory, both to Napa and the U.S. when he led the first American team to ever win a medal at the Bocuse d’Or, the culinary Olympics, founded in 1987 by French chef Paul Bocuse and held every other year in Lyon, France.

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Tessier had worked in storied restaurants, including Roger Verge’s Le Moulin de Mougins, Eric Ripert’s Le Bernadin, as well as Thomas Keller’s Per Se, Bouchon and The French Laundry. Keller was among those who decided that if anyone could finally win a medal for the U.S. in the international competition, it would be Tessier, who observed the Bocuse d’Or in 2013, led the U.S. team to win a silver medal in 2015, and then coached the team that won the gold in 2017. Tessier chronicled his experiences in his book, “Chasing Bocuse.”

After his triumph in France, Tessier returned to Napa Valley where he consulted on various projects, before deciding his next step would be to open his own restaurant. The Virginia native said he could have gone back to his home state for the venture. But after living 12 years in Napa, his family — he is the father of three — had put down their roots in Napa.

He was searching for a location in Napa in 2019. Finding the high real estate prices challenging, an opportunity to consult came up for PRESS. The popular steakhouse had been taken over by Samantha Rudd, after the death of her father Lesley Rudd, who opened PRESS in 2005, with a goal of creating an unparalleled library of Napa Valley wines and serving food that complemented them.

Sitting in the temporarily deserted restaurant, Tessier reflected that if he had found a site that worked in the city of Napa, his target date for opening would have been April or May of 2020. “I think I was lucky,” he said.

Instead, in June 2019 he began quietly consulting for PRESS. By the end of the year, he was assembling a team of people he had worked with in the past — General Manager Cole Mathers (formerly of Gary Danko), Chef de Cuisine Darryl Bell (Foundry & Lux/Hestan Culinary/Bouchon), and Pastry Chef Ivan Marquez (Broken Spanish/Bouchon/The French Laundry and a previous Zagat 30 “Under 30” pick).

“We had the most amazing February,” Tessier said. “We were on the up and up.”

As PRESS was about to announce Tessier’s new role as chef and partner, COVID-19 hit. Faced with the choice of shutting down entirely until restaurants could reopen or creating a take-out menu, Tessier, backed by the Rudd Foundation, opted for the latter.

“Staying open for take-out or shutting down made little difference to the bottom line,” Tessier said, but he saw the benefits of launching a take-out program.

“It let us keep a core staff,” he said. “We wanted to keep some people employed.” Those still working put tips and other donations in a fund for the 40 furloughed employees. Since beginning their drive-up take-out program, they were able to collect more than $30,000, Tessier said.

“I said, ‘We can do nice food; it doesn’t have to be dumbed-down for take-out,’” he added.

PRESS launched a take-out menu of items that incorporated the flair of a master chef with surprising affordable prices by Napa Valley standards: a Soudough Cubano sandwich with Kurobuta pork loin and shoulder bacon, and a fried chicken sandwich with Parmesan aoili and spicy coleslaw is $9; Salade Niçoise with Seared Ahi Tuna, $16. A combo meal with a sandwich, black truffle fries, a house-made cookie and a beverage is $18. A decadent offering was cream puffs with a chocolate dipping sauce ($6 for two).

In addition, they began creating special weekend menus that Tessier termed “staycations,” taking house-bound residents traveling at least by a menu; these ranged from classic French to a Maine lobster boil.

The third element of the take-out program was the Wine-Thru. In addition to selling wines by the bottle, each week they feature two wines from friends and neighbors. For these, 5-ounce sample bottles are available for $5, to taste the wine — and the fee is added to the fund for PRESS employees.

“It’s been fun learning what we can do,” Tessier said. “The public has been so supportive. People would come through the drive-through and said, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ It’s a good feeling. If we had closed, none of these things would have happened.”

Feed Our Families

Another way the PRESS team has kept busy during the shut-downs is turning their efforts to helping local families in need. As news stories surfaced about those hit hard by COVID-19, including a national story that reported one in five American children going hungry, Tessier led an effort to join with the Boys and Girls Clubs of St. Helena and Calistoga to create “Feed Our Families,” a donation campaign launched on April 22 in partnership with Gott’s Roadside and Brasswood. In the first two weeks, the three restaurants prepared more than 3,000 meals.

New restaurants who have come on board include Farmstead and Charter Oak. Together they have served 7,500 meals to date since starting the project. The restaurants are serving about 1,100 meals a week and are committed to continuing on post-COVID and “for as long there is need,” Tessier said.

Reopening

With a green light from the governor to begin in-house dining, PRESS opened on May 22, for limited service, looking ahead to an expanded service beginning on Wednesday, May 27.

“We have been navigating what’s involved in safely reopening,” Tessier said. “The guidelines are in place. We’re taking every precaution. Nobody really knows what is going to happen.

The PRESS bar will be open for cocktails and wines and “market hall-style” seating is available on the patio at 11:30 a.m., as well as indoor seating at 5 p.m. Dining room staff services will be limited to bussing tables, replenishing silverware, and disinfecting surfaces and touchpoints.

PRESS will serve an abbreviated dining room menu, but continue the take-out offerings.

A sample in-house menu includes Chilled Iceberg Salad (Neuskie’s bacon, Roquefort blue cheese, green almonds, Silverado Trail strawberries, avocado puree, garden herbs); Shishito-Dusted Hiramasa (Meyer lemon kosho, grapfruit confit, shaved turnip, spring blossoms); Hand-Cut Steak Tartare (spicy red chili adobo, smoked tomato,spring radish, puffed tendon crisps); Crispy Pig Ears (espelette glaze, garden cilantro); Gently Steamed Alaskan Halibut (Tenbrink Farms petit squash, ratatouille, preserved Meyer lemon);Bacon-Wrapped Filet Mignon (black truffle “fry”, green asparagus, Bearnaise); Pan Roasted Soft Shell Crabs (herb papardelle, roasted artichokes, farm arugula, lobster-piquillo cream); Saffron Rice Pudding (K&J apriums, rose-geranium syrup, anise hyssop); Pavlova (Meyer lemon curd, Jacobsen Farm mulberries, Sicilian pistachios and Profiteroles (whipped Opalys white chocolate, dark chocolate sauce).

“It has been a chance to hit the reset button, using time as that reset,” he said of the shutdown. “I have so many ideas. But one goal is to support local farms. We were able to create a combined vision of what we want to achieve, to move to the next level, be ready with a plan.”

“We have a unique opportunity to define Napa Valley cuisine,” Tessier said. “The restaurant has built a deep relationship with the community. We want to continue that — with a certain level of finesses — not fussy or fancy, but I do have a strong core of French cooking. I see it as adding a layer to who we are — moving from what’s next to what’s new.”

When he represented the U.S. in the Bocuse d’Or, he said, “15% of your score was how well you represent your country’s cuisine. What is American cuisine? I finally realized that American cooking is Americans cooking.”

Napa Valley chefs have weathered wildfires, earthquakes, floods and droughts, and now, COVID-19. “I am encouraged by human nature,” Tessier said. “We will get through this. It comes down to creativity and determination to come out in a better place.”

“I have realized is that what we do is making memories. Whether it’s an elegant dinner or serving a box of cream puffs to a woman and her child riding by on their bicycles or giving a family the one meal they will have that day. It’s what they will remember.”

PRESS is at 587 St. Helena Highway. Call 707-967-0550 for information. For reservations and take-out orders, visit pressnapavalley.com.

Pan-Seared Salmon

Asked for one of his recipes, Chef Phil as he is called, shared one that his family enjoys at home — he said his his son is already a whiz at cooking and preparing this dish. Phil says that pan-searing is a classic technique that is essential to any chef. This recipe yields a crispy skin fillet with a clean roasted flavor and perfectly moist texture.

Yield 2 portions

2 each salmon fillets, 4 oz. each, 1-1 ½-inches thick

1 Tbsp. grapeseed oil, or other neutral oil

¼ tsp. kosher salt

6 turns black pepper

1 clove garlic

1 sprig thyme

1 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. pumpkin seeds

1 Tbsp. apple, small diced (or sub with underripe stonefruit or sliced grapes)

As needed: fleur de sel

Procedure:

Remove the fish from the refrigerator and allow to temper for 20 minutes. Season the salmon with the kosher salt and black pepper.

Place a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Wait for the pan to heat and add the oil after 30 seconds. Allow the oil to heat until it shimmers and a wisp of smoke is visible. Immediately turn the temperature down to medium.

Dry the skin side of the salmon with a paper towel and gently place in the pan skin side down without allowing the filets to touch. Cook the salmon for four minutes on the skin side (do not touch it).

Gently remove the fish from the pan and place skin-side up on a paper towel. Drain the fat from the pan, return the pan to the burner and place over medium-low heat. Add the thyme, crushed garlic and butter and place the salmon back in the pan, skin-side up. Allow the butter to melt (30 seconds) but not brown.

Using a large spoon, spoon the aromatic butter over each fillet a few times every 30 seconds. If the butter begins to brown reduce the heat further.

Cook for 2 ½ more minutes basting frequently.

Remove the fish to a towel-lined tray or plate. Remove the garlic and thyme.

Add the apples and pumpkin seeds and allow to cook for one minute, stirring occasionally and allowing the butter to brown gently (You may need to gently increase the heat).

Place the fish in the center of a dinner plate and spoon the sauce and garnish over it. Season with a small amount of fleur de sel and serve immediately. Serve with a salad or your favorite side dishes.

Satisfy your cravings

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Features Editor

Sasha Paulsen has been features editor at the Napa Valley Register since 1999. A graduate of Napa High School, she studied English at UC Berkeley and St. Mary's College and earned a Masters in Journalism from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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