The Napa Truffle Festival’s spectacular lineup of guest Michelin star/master chefs for 2020 include Juan José Cuevas of 1919 Restaurant, Vanderbilt Hotel, San Juan, PR; Michael Smith of Farina, Kansas City, MO; Raphaël Vionnet of Restaurant Raphaël Vionnet, Thonon-les-Bains, France.
Why are these famous chefs participating in a festival about truffles? We asked them to share their truffle stories and culinary passions:
1. What is your first memory of eating and/or cooking with fresh black truffles?
Juan José Cuevas (JJC)
The first time I ate black truffles was on my first trip to Provence during the truffle season in 2004 at Restaurant Christian Etienne, but the first time I cooked with them was in 1997 with the celebrated Chef Sylvain Portay – it was a beautiful poached Dover sole with black truffles natural jus.
Michael Smith (MS)
In 1976, my mother took me to Chateau Pyrenees, a very luxurious and traditional old-school French restaurant in Denver, Colorado. We were celebrating my 9th grade graduation, so we started with an appetizer of sweetbreads with truffles. That day, I killed two birds with one stone. I had no idea what a sweetbread was either.
The first time I was able to cook with truffles was in 1983 at the very same Chateau Pyrenees working under Chef Jean-Pierre Lelievre. We used truffled foie gras in the tin. And occasionally we’d get fresh truffles in for New Year’s Eve to make Tournedos Rossini.
But I really tasted the black truffle in all its glory in 2000 when I was invited to Hervé and Christopher Poron’s truffle company, Maison Plantin, in the Vaucluse for the truffle market in Richerenches. It was exhilarating. Hervé invited us into his home and treated us to a dinner with more truffles on display than I had ever seen at one time. Truffle crostini, truffle cheese, truffle mashed potatoes, truffle sauce, truffled hens, truffle carpaccio!!!! Every food turned black by the truffle.
Raphaël Vionnet (RV)
One of the best and most simple ways: scrambled eggs with truffle!
2. Why do you like cooking with truffles?
JJC – Their versatility…their mystique…how rare they are!
MS – Living in Kansas City for most of my professional cooking life has required my restaurants to educate the community about certain foods. Truffles are one of those foods that needed an introduction. In addition to my guests learning to love truffles, I was also able to teach the cooking community about working with truffles. I can’t think of a chef in Kansas City who’s bought and sold more truffles than I have over the last 25 years. It’s simply one of life’s great indulgences to open a box of fresh truffles that have just arrived…the whole kitchen instantly swells with that earthy, brooding aroma! Then I shave fresh thin slices for all the cooks, servers and even the dishwashers. It’s cool to see their faces – at first, not sure how to process this ludicrously expensive mushroom, knowing that they should like it…but not quite…thinking of the price! I love the ritual of brushing them clean, deciding on the different uses. Perhaps grating them over a fresh salad, slicing them for a composed appetizer or carrying a nice bowl of heaped truffles to the dining room and shaving them over plates of pasta in front of the guests.
RV – Because it has a wonderful aroma and taste, and can complement and bring out the best of many various dishes/foods.
3. How would you describe the flavor/aroma of truffles?
JJC – Earthy, terroir.
MS – Moist earth, gutsy deep mushroom, chocolate musky notes, the olfactory equivalent of contralto.
RV – Truffles are crunchy, subtle, with hints of “sous-bois” (earthy, forest floor).
4. How do you describe what a truffle looks like?
JJC – They look like a lumpy potato.
MS – As a whole, they look like a knobby, roundish black rock, reminiscent of a dirt clod. When cut open, it’s a black diamond – dark interior with grey/white veins crisscrossing in all directions.
RV – A black diamond in the rough.
5. What is your favorite truffle dish?
JJC – Soft ripe mature camembert or Moses Sleeper brie layered with shaved truffles – wrap and infuse for 48 hours, then cut into wedges and served with warm brioche. Also, ricotta ravioli stuffed with hen yolk, Parmesan-Reggiano and fresh truffles.
MS – There are too many great ways to eat truffle to have a favorite. But I always shave a few slices into a small dish, drizzle the slices with great extra virgin olive oil (Capezzana, Giachi, Frantoio, etc), sprinkle with sea salt and eat them just like that. I keep it simple. I’ll make an omelet, simple pasta or risotto. I love them sliced in a crisp and gooey cheese sandwich. I like to make a dish that I learned from Tony Mantuano: crespelle with crescenza cheese and black truffle slices. Essentially, a square pillow of pasta filled with cheese and black truffle and steamed to warm gooey perfection.
RV – My favorite is still scrambled eggs with truffle!!!
6. How would you entice someone who has never tasted truffles before to try them?
JJC – I would tell them to hold it in their hand, close their eyes and take a deep breath…it’s a surreal sensation/aroma.
MS – I’d tell them that it tastes and chews like a firm mushroom that easily crumbles in the mouth. But even before it touches the mouth, they’ll get a heady musky mushroom aroma.
RV – I would serve them a toast of bread with salted butter and a carpaccio of thin slices of truffle.
Throughout the festival weekend, you’ll have many opportunities to meet these culinary wizards, along with Host Chef Ken Frank of La Toque, as they discuss, demonstrate and prepare astounding truffle dishes for you to feast upon for breakfast, lunch and dinner!