ST. HELENA — Trevor Kunk never met a vegetable he didn’t like.
Sure, he’s executive chef at an American steakhouse. But that doesn’t mean he’s all steak and no sizzle.
Taking charge of the kitchen at Press in St. Helena a few months ago where quality is king, Kunk made it his mission as well to bring both color and nutrition from the garden to diners’ plates.
A native of Sarasota, Florida, Kunk had spent the past decade in New York City, cooking at the roundly praised Blue Hill Restaurant. For seven of those years, he served as chef de cuisine. There, he readily admits, produce on the daily menu was dictated by the whims of Mother Nature.
Now, running the kitchen at Press, he has not one but two substantial garden plots — one in St. Helena, another up on Mount Veeder — to draw on. He’s as happy as a deer without fences.
Kunk’s goal at this farm-driven steakhouse is to increase the focus on local, sustainable produce raised by gardener Omar Morgan. “Press is a modern steakhouse which some chefs might consider limiting,” says Kunk. “Others, like me, feel it’s a foundation to build on. We get the best meats in the country (from San Francisco butcher Bryan Flannery) and what we don’t grow we get from local purveyors, including responsibly sourced seafood. We’re getting the best ingredients we can and manipulating them as little as possible.”
The chef said that as a child he was “obsessed with food. During the holidays, you could always find me in the kitchen. I had an odd obsession with chicken wings. When I was about seven or eight, I remember a Chili’s opened nearby, and they served chicken wings ... also called buffalo wings. I liked the spice ... they were juicy and crispy ... I loved ‘em.
“When I was 12, I got a Little Pappy (deep fryer) and set it outside. Then I could make my own chicken wings any time I wanted.
“At Press, we buy whole chickens and we’re left with the wings. I use them for a sauce, for family meal or you’ll see them on the bar menu.”
The Florida native entered the job market at age 14. A friend of his father owned a breakfast and lunch spot, and Kunk asked if he could have a job as a busboy. “But I soon found out it was more exciting in the kitchen than in the front of the house ... they were having more fun (in the kitchen). So I accepted a position as dishwasher. Because I was pretty fast, I wound up helping the prep cooks.”
Kunk was not interested in traditional college studies but he enrolled anyway, “all the while working in restaurants. My grandfather, who always called me TJ, said: ‘TJ, you love food ... why don’t you go to culinary school.’ But my father wasn’t so enthusiastic — he feared I’d wind up like chefs he knew — divorced alcoholics. But my grandfather insisted that I investigate culinary schools. So I applied to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). My grandfather felt it was the best and he was sure I’d be accepted.”
Moving to Hyde Park, N.Y., gave Kunk a fresh outlook. “It was the first time in my life I was excited about school,” he admits. “I gave it 110 percent ... you get back what you put in. It was where I first met Dave Cruz” (the respected Napa Valley chef who helmed the Ad Hoc operation for several years and is opening his own restaurant here later this year).
Two years later, Kunk interned at chef Charlie Palmer’s Aureole in New York City. After graduation, he returned to the 61st street restaurant when he spent six months in pastry and a like amount of time working in the savory kitchen.
He considered returning home to work in Florida, “but I fell in love with New York City.” He’d read quite a bit about the acclaimed Blue Hill Restaurant in New York. “My goal then became working at Blue Hill ... you can do anything if you put your mind to it. I was persistent.”
Indeed, Kunk did talk his way into the kitchen at Blue Hill. At first, he was the “swing person” at the garde manger and pastry stations, and from there worked poissonier, entremetier and meat stations before taking on the roles of sous chef and chef de cuisine.
“It’s a special place,” Kunk says of Blue Hill. “I learned a lot from the people I worked with. I met my wife there; Jasmine, who’s from Brooklyn, worked front of the house. It was a constantly changing menu ... something that I enjoyed over a period of 10 years.”
But the hard winters eventually got to Kunk and his family. “We’re young at heart, so we thought this might be the right opportunity to go somewhere else. And when we considered the kids, we knew it would be better to move while they’re young.”
When Kunk learned Press was on the hunt for a new executive chef, he came to the valley to cook for the management team. “I liked the energy here. Plus, the people I’d be working with had also worked in New York City.” He accepted the new position and took up residency in late spring. His family followed a month ago.
Radishes, tomatoes, kale and filets
Chef Kunk and his culinary team know Mother Nature blesses California with an extended growing season. “To be able to showcase asparagus for four months out of the year instead of just a few weeks is increcible,” says the executive chef.
At this time of year, diners will find an array of radishes — offered in a radish cocktail with cucumber cream and an avocado dip ($12) — along with salads ($15-$20) that incorporate cucumbers, tomatoes, string beans, zucchini, kale, basil, arugula, corn and a wide variety of lettuces from the restaurant’s gardens.
A special treat at this time of year is a substantial appetizer-sized Gulf crab and Maine lobster cake served with celery heart remoulade and Rudd Farm greens ($23). Oysters on the half shell, shrimp cocktail, Maine lobster cocktail and seafood platters are available at market price. Also offered as starters are the chef’s spicy, boneless chicken wings and exceptional fred chicken balls with a lipsmacking curry sauce.
When it comes to prime beef, Press offers lots of choices, ranging from an eight-ounce grass-fed bavette steak ($39) to dry-aged cote de boeuf for two ($120). Also on the menu ($44-$70) are hanger, filet mignon, New York strip and ribeye.
In addition to a mixed grill for two ($150), the kitchen offers a Berkshire pork chop ($32) and grilled lamb loin ($48), the latter served with baby shiitake mushrooms, leeks and kale. A brined Fulton Farms whole organic free range chicken for two ($57) is stuffed with lemon, onion, garlic, sage and thyme. Seafood options include Pacific halibut with sugar snap peas and wild king salmon with summer succotash, both $42.
Side dishes at Press are as tasty as the mains — creamed kale with bacon, a yummy potato cake, sweet corn with chiles and cheese, macaroni and cheese with truffles, to name a few.
New York-style cheese cake, chocolate souffle, chocolate layer cake, vanilla panna cotta and housemade sorbets are among the dessert offerings.
Sommeliers Kelli White, Scott Brenner and Angela Stem have put together an all-Napa wine list unrivaled by any restaurant in the world. While it’s fun to page through the inventory, the diner might find it even more exciting to let a member of this wine-savvy trio pair wines by the glass with each course. Not only will the meal take on added complexity, you’ll certainly learn something about some of the valley’s small producers a lot of us didn’t know existed.
General manager Spencer Weiss is inviting locals to take advantage of a special dinner menu at the bar or patio lounge offered Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday — two courses for $29, or the ever popular Kurobuta burger with bacon marmalade ($17). On a recent evening, first course options included a classic chopped salad or beef carpaccio with cherry tomatoes, with the second course choices including steak frites or prime chopped steak with sauteed mushrooms.
“We want Press to be more than a special occasion restaurant,” said Weiss as he presented a new bar hors d’oeuvres menu that includes the kitchen’s carrot hot dog with lamb belly chili. “We’d like locals to drop in for a bite and a beer on the way home.”
Another draw for patrons is the bacon bar where seven bacon preparations from all across the country —- Tennessee to Wyoming, Wisconsin to California — are on the menu.
Press, at 587 St. Helena Highway, St. Helena, is open Wednesday through Monday from 5 to 10 p.m. For reservations, call 707-967-0550.