Why Napa, Sonoma wineries are hiring top chefs — and why so many became available
High-end chefs are no longer only working in restaurants in Wine Country. Wineries are hiring them at a rapid pace in order to show off what is in the glass on a level that can’t be found by reading tasting notes or chewing on a cracker.
With the stigma of cooking at a winery no longer holding true, the person wearing the chef’s coat might be a James Beard award winner or have a Michelin-star restaurant on the resume.
“I can tell you in the Napa Valley a handful of chefs that are doing the best food are at wineries. They don’t care about the notoriety. We have all paid our dues and took our lumps,” chef Chris Kennedy at Trefethen Family Vineyards in Napa said. “I was very hesitant to being a winery chef because as a young cook when I came to the valley I thought wineries were where chefs went to die. That was in my youth.”
Kennedy has been associated with Trefethen since 2007, though employed full time as the winery chef since 2017. While he has worked at restaurants in foodie cities like San Francisco and Chicago, he moved to the Napa Valley in 2002 where he worked at the now closed Catahoula Restaurant & Saloon and Stomp restaurant before opening a boutique catering company.
The chef said there is a common thread to the winery chefs: “We all have fine dining backgrounds, we make good food, and we are producing equal or better products than what you can get up and down the valley.”
Improved lifestyle for chefs
The trend is driven in part by the pandemic in 2020. California required all establishments that sold alcohol — wineries, breweries, bars — to serve food. But the lure of better hours, greater creative license, and a sense of doing something more than feeding the masses is also attractive.
“Having spent 20-plus years in the restaurant business, opening restaurants in international markets, worldwide travel, and running the flagship Napa restaurant for (chef Masaharu) Morimoto, I loved the action and lifestyle for many years. However, for myself and so many others across so many industries, COVID proved to be a catalyst and opportunity for change,” Sean Massey, chef at Napa’s Darioush winery, told the Business Journal.
Massey said it took the pandemic for him to truly appreciate the instability of the restaurant world. He started at Darioush in 2021 after working at Morimoto Napa for more than a decade.
“The slower pace of working at Darioush has been a welcome change, though it brings its own challenges as a chef. In a restaurant, you have staff, fancy tools, and the chef is at the center of operations,” Massey acknowledged. “At the winery, the goal is to create food pairings that complement and showcase the wines.”
For chefs, working in a winery means fewer late nights, knowing how much food is needed because most tastings are by appointment, and being able to be more creative because of not being relegated to a set menu. Even though there may be evening events, most wineries call it a day at 5 p.m.
“So far I have not had a lot of late nights,” chef Tim Vallery at Ferarri-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg said.
Trefethen’s Kennedy echoed that sentiment: “The work-life balance is way better compared to restaurants.”
A little history
As Julia Child once said, “Wine is meant to be with food — that's the point of it.”
But that clearly has not always been the experience in tasting rooms throughout the world. The focus has been on the wine, with perhaps a wafer to cleanse the palate.
While more and more wineries are providing food, Napa County has strict regulations about what wineries can offer in terms of cuisine.
“We do allow food, but the food has to be as a complement to the wine. It cannot be the primary focus of the experience,” explained David Morrison, Napa County director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services. “It can’t be provided in a menu selection. A menu would be a customer choosing something they want to eat, and food would be the purpose of the activity. Food is there to enhance the wine; wine is not there to enhance the food.”
An ordinance that took effect in 1990 was designed to retain the agricultural nature of the county. The law states restaurants are not allowed at wineries. Wineries are deemed agricultural entities, while restaurants are commercial.
However, there are wineries with legacy rights that date back to before the ordinance became law. Wineries may also apply for special permits, and host events where food is part of the overall experience.
“We do have wineries with commercial kitchens. Maybe 10 to 15 percent. Again, the same rules still apply there,” Morrison told the Business Journal. “We are happy to say wine tasting belongs in rural areas and restaurants belong in the cities.” (Napa Valley has more than 400 wineries.)