After nearly a decade, Bryan Jones has left his job as chef and general manager of the Fig Cafe and Winebar in Glen Ellen. His career path has taken him to St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa.
Yet that isn’t as dramatic a change as it might seem to be at first glance.
The winery is well known for its multi-course wine and food pairings, through which guests sip and savor dishes like compressed heirloom tomato salad with burrata, Padrón peppers and fennel pollen; chanterelle stuffed chicken roulade with corn-fennel faro, grilled Little Gem lettuce and crispy prosciutto; and seared New York strip with twice baked potato and black garlic glaze.
Inside Scoop caught up with Jones as he was working his way through his first summer harvest in the winery’s two-acre garden. How, we asked, is he adjusting to his new role?
CS: What attracted you to the winery after such a long career with the Fig Cafe?
BJ: Simply put, after ten wonderful years, I was looking for a new opportunity to get outside of my comfort zone. I was really drawn to St. Francis Winery & Vineyards because of the outstanding reputation their culinary program has in Sonoma County. I feel a lot of pressure to produce my best work here.
It was interesting that the winery was voted number one on the OpenTable “2013 Diners’ Choice Top 100 Best Restaurants in America” list last fall. Because it’s not truly a restaurant, in the everyday sense. What do you think of the award?
What sticks out about the award is that it comes from the diners who’ve actually been to St. Francis and experienced our wine and food pairing. Despite not being a full service restaurant, we’re giving our guests an experience they would compare to a fine dining restaurant. That really speaks volumes about the level of hospitality, service, and quality of the cuisine we’re producing.
How are the demands of working with a winery different than working with a restaurant?
Overall, my goal here is exactly the same: deliver an exceptional and memorable culinary experience for all of our guests. I think that’s a universal sentiment for people working in hospitality. With that in mind, there are some new roles that I’m getting adjusted to at St. Francis. First and foremost, as executive chef, I’ve become a new ambassador for St. Francis Winery’s culinary program, which means I get to spend more time schmoozing with guests than I ever had time for in my previous position. At the end of each wine and food pairing, I come out from the kitchen and answer questions. It’s extremely fulfilling to be able to interact with guests in such an intimate way.
Is it easier to work with a winery, since reservations are set for meals, and you focus on a single menu?
It’s a huge difference from my last post. At the Fig Cafe, it was the norm for us to fill up within five minutes of opening the door, and then we would do more than two-and-a-half (table) turns on a Friday or Saturday night. Needless to say, it made for a roller coaster ride. Here at St. Francis, I’m able to spend more time on each plate, focusing on not only flavors, but also a presentation that will wow our guests. I have more time to design multiple components for each dish that not only makes the plate look beautiful, but accentuate the nuances of the wine paired with it.
But there are also many other activities to consider here, in the dining room, patio and event space. I’m in charge of many things, including daily wine pairings with house-made charcuterie and artisan cheeses, private estate dinners, weddings, and seasonal dinners.
How often do you change the wine and food pairing menu?
We aim to change at least one dish on the menu every other week, but because so much of what we use in the food is grown right here on site, we’re able to be flexible. If we’re getting a particularly fantastic ingredient from the garden, we’re able to quickly incorporate that into what we’re serving that day.
What are your favorites in the garden right now?
We’re using a variety of heirloom tomatoes, including Black Krim, Marble Stripe, Green Zebra, Early Girl, and Sweet 100’s. Our Corno di Toro and Padrón peppers, along with Japanese eggplant, are also finding their way onto the menu. Of course, we’re always pulling fresh sage, thyme, pineapple mint and parsley from the herb garden.
Do you feel any limitations being restricted to one brand of wine, versus the variety you had at the Fig Cafe?
At the Fig Café, the focus was on ‘Rhone alone’ – just the Rhone varietals. So, coming to St. Francis Winery, I haven’t felt any restrictions. Quite the opposite is true – Zinfandel has become my new best friend. And actually, here, we start with the wine. In general, people tend to think of the food first, and then find a suitable wine to pair with the dish. But our culinary program is truly driven by the wines – we start by tasting the wine, and develop recipes that will enhance and showcase the flavor profiles in each wine.
St. Francis Winery & Vineyards: 100 Pythian Rd., Santa Rosa; (707) 538-9463 or stfranciswinery.com.Learn More