But in all the splendor of the farm, my favorite feature is the giant mission fig tree that adorns the entry to their home. Netting spreads from one end of the front eave to the other to catch any fig that has become too heavy with ripeness to hold onto its branch. The sweet smell of fig sap fills the air and bees seem to be in constant euphoria. Every time I look at this tree wonderful thoughts of my father float through my mind and fill my heart. He was a great lover of figs and, of course, his mother land. This was the town in which he was born in a far away time prior to motor vehicles and telephones. He came into this world in 1893 when it was the norm to be sustainable, not a trend. I learned a tremendous amount growing up with a father who had already lived 67 years the day I was born. So much history wrapped up in one man. His passion for food and hospitality oozed out of him and I was fortunate to have been born to such an amazing man. He was an entertainer and an amazing chef. He and his brother have even been given the credit as the first men to bring pizza to California. I have him to thank for giving me the passion of food, beverage and living life to its fullest.
I followed in my father’s footsteps as an entrepreneur. He owned and ran quite a few restaurants in which I grew up; so it was no surprise that I myself would own a few. Each of my restaurants had personalities of their own. My fourth and, to this day, last restaurant, which I named “TUTTI" presented many opportunities to share my culinary passion with a community who was in the infancy of the “foodie” world. I think my culinary concept was ahead of their time. I only owned this fourth “child” for a little less than 3 years, from 2010-2012, but those years were filled with food memories worth a lifetime. One memory in particular happened toward the end of 2011. As summer began to wind down, I decided to theme an event around the change of season by doing a patio soiree with Renwood Winery. Picture a babbling fountain, live Spanish guitar and four 'fruit forward' California wines paired with great care to four fabulous courses that would hit the diner on a visceral level. That was my goal anyway.
Putting together a wine, beer or spirit pairing menu is one of my favorite things about cooking. I always start with tasting the beverage and developing the courses using my flavor memory. This is a God given gift that I have been graciously blessed with. As I taste each liquid my senses are overwhelmed with textures, aromas, flavors and beauty. My taste memory sets in and I match every nuance of the wine to its perfect food partner. One September afternoon, I sat down to develop the menu for the upcoming Renwood dinner. The first wine I tasted was Renwood chardonnay, a creamy and tropical wine that screamed for corn, but also spoke to the texture and sweet delicateness of diver scallops. The slight vegetal qualities begged for basil...so, from the corners of my mind I developed the perfect food and wine marriage: "A seared diver scallop balancing on rich savory corn flan, finished with Basil oil, topped with delicate fried leeks." I dubbed this as course number two.
As the evening wound down and the last guest departed, my thoughts went back to the figs. Yes, they had to be wrapped in grape leaves. I proceeded to write down the beginning of a recipe but became weary with sleepiness and decided to put it off until the next day. I locked up the restaurant and headed for my car. I began to back out of the parking lot and looked over my right shoulder when out of the corner of my eye I spotted the answer to my prayers. It was a large colonial house a stones throw from the restaurant. It had a full garden surrounded by a chain link fence and a trellis covered with...you guessed it, grape vines! I found my source! The fence was covered with the vine and the leaves were enormous. The grapes were nearing ripeness and I was sure the owner of this garden had no need for the leaves. I had to get my hands on them for my dinner. I had met the owner of this house in passing when he and his wife dined in my restaurant, but I didn’t know them well enough to ask them for their garden’s bounty.
After this discovery the weeks passed quickly and reservations trickled it. We capped the dinner reservations at 30 guests. By the day before the event, we were sold out. That evening, after most of the prep for the dinner was complete, the only missing component was the grape leaves. I calculated three figs per plate which meant I needed 90 leaves. Seemed like a lot to pilfer, but they were prolific on my neighbors fence and I was sure he wouldn’t miss them. I donned a fresh apron and grabbed some kitchen shears. It was about 11:30pm. I tiptoed across the back lot feeling kind of sneaky but had no guilt because I was taking something of which there was abundance.
“What else would they be used for anyway?” I justified to myself.
I got to the fence and started to clip. 1, 2, 3 leaves. I folded my apron to fill it. 43, 44, 45 grapes leaves, my apron was getting full and I was only half way there. 86, 87….a dog started barking with a “huge dog's bark.” 88, 89, I began to clip faster; I knew I had better get a couple extra in case some would tear. The dog lunged toward the fence. It was a large Rottweiler! I fell back, clinging to my leaf filled apron. I only needed a couple more leaves. 90, 91...the back porch light came on.
“Who’s out there? I own a gun," yelled the man from the deck. I hid behind the vines. “I will call the police," he shouted.
The dog growled and I could see saliva glistening in the moonlight. Clip, 92,93...enough! Bent over, clutching my apron, I ran back to the restaurant, pretty sure the man did not catch a glimpse of me. Back in the kitchen, panting more from fear than fatigue, I dumped the leaves into some ice water and put them in the walk in. That was enough excitement for one day. This thief needed to go home, I started to feel guilty. I locked up the restaurant and quietly backed my car out of the parking lot exiting from the side away from the colonial house.
The next day TUTTI was open for lunch. As I was seating guests I glanced up and my heart fell. The man from the colonial house walked up the front step with his wife. My stomach ached.
“Maybe he had seen me and wants to make a citizen’s arrest." I thought. I suddenly felt dirty, like a criminal.
“Did you see anyone last night behind your restaurant?” he asked me. Was he egging me on? “I think someone was trying to break into my house." he added.
“Perhaps he really hadn’t seen me.“ I thought. My voice cracked, “No, not that I recall," I felt my cheeks burn. They must have been crimson.
“I think we should watch out for each other”, his wife interjected. I felt so much guilt.
I couldn’t hold back… ”IT WAS ME!” I blurted out and heads turned from every table to stare my way. I was sorry for the confession the moment it came out. Then the words started to flow like a babbling brook. “I am having this dinner, you see, and the last course needed grape leaves and I couldn’t find anyone who carried fresh, only canned, and well that’s not what I wanted so I saw your vines and thought you wouldn’t miss them I suppose I should have asked but...” my run-on statement was cut off by laughter. The couple’s roar made my cheeks burn even more.
Between fits of laughter the man exclaimed, “I called off the dog when I saw it was you. White chef coats and aprons glow in the moonlight don’t you know? Thought I could get a spot in the sold out dinner if I played you……”.
My shoulders dropped and my head lowered.
“I am sorry for stealing your leaves. Can I offer you a complementary seat for the dinner to pay for my sins?” I asked.
“We’d love to!” the couple chimed in unison.
“Looks like I will need a few more leaves.” I said with a grin
“Come on over and get them, in the day light.” the man said as he walked down the patio sidewalk.
“We will see you at 6.” his wife added.
That night the dinner was a success and I had to tell my guests the story of how their dessert almost made a felon out of me. Of course this was after I told them the story of the big mission fig tree in the town of Montoro, Italy, My family’s homeland.