So, who is Chef Justin Wangler and why is he featured at the end of my Murphy-Goode application video? (Which you can still vote for until June 25! Just click the link above. Please! Seriously, I know that those of you that love me are tired of me asking for your votes. True story, I got a email from a friend wanting a restaurant recommendation in São Paulo, Brazil. Which, of course, I gave her promptly because I am fabulous like that. She started her email with: "Foodie, yes, yes, I've already voted for you.")
Please let me take the time to thank all of you, who have already cast your vote for me. You are the best and officially in my social media network. Don't be scared, it just means were friends.
So, back to the story, Chef Justin Wangler is the Executive Chef at the Kendall-Jackson Winery Estates. Jess Jackson, who owns Jackson Family Wines & founded the Kendall-Jackson winery purchased Murphy-Goode in 2006. The Murphy family still kept their original vineyard and Dave Ready Jr. also stayed on as Murphy-Goode's Winemaker. If you speak with anyone involved with either Murphy-Goode or Jackson Family Wines, they will make it very clear that Kendall-Jackson is a completely separate brand, with it's own team and unique marketing goals. But, what I found out in talking to Chef Justin, is what the brands do share, when the occasion arises, is one very talented Chef. Chef Justin to be exact. That means that Chef Justin is the official Murphy-Goode Executive Chef as he has cooked for them anytime they required his services. Jackpot, I thought. A Chef for Foodie to talk to . . .it doesn't get any better.
This whole crazy trip to wine country started because Test Kitchen, my underground supperclub, was turning 1 year old. I was thinking at the time that a Sonoma-based Test Kitchen dinner in wine country might be a great way to test taking Test Kitchen on the road. I had a friend out there with a house that we were going to use to host the event . . . all we needed was a Chef. This to my surprise turned out to be the most difficult part of the entire operation. Mostly because of the timing of when we wanted to do the event, July is their high tourist season. I also felt that some things just can't be done over the phone. To really impress someone, you need to go and look them in the eye and do it in person.
Al Samuleson who works for Majestic Wines and reps Murphy-Goode wines, when he heard I was looking for a Chef out there, he insisted that I go see about Chef Justin at the Kendall-Jackson Estates. Al set up my entire tasting room visit with some help from his friends at the Wine Center. It should be noted that Al Samuleson was also the person who posted a link on Twitter about the Murphy-Goode opportunity, and his tweet was the first I had heard about it. If fact, I did not know Al except through our Twitter conversations. I had never even met him in person until he sent me a DM and asked if I wanted to meet for lunch. Up until our lunch, Al had been the nice guy who retweeted my Forks & Corks announcements and told me how to fix my leaky toilet when I was trying to figure out why it was leaking. Seriously, he did. How appropriate I find out about this contest through a Twitter, a social media channel, right? I know. Crazy.
When I finally made it to the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center, a gorgeous chateau sitting on 120 acres in Sonoma County, Chef Justin was waiting to take me on the tour of the famous Kendall-Jackson gardens. These gardens are special in that they plant and grow plants that have properties that can be tasted in a certain wine. Here I'll let Chef Justin explain it to you in his words:
Very cool tour! In the end, I was completely smitten with Chef Justin's soft-spoken, easy attitude. He is originally from North Carolina, which explains his love of okra and his accent. In this clip, I asked him how to prepare the Cardoon plants (also known as an artichoke thistle, which is what I had mistaken the plant for - an artichoke.) Chef admitted being from the south, so he had never seen or cooked with a Cardoon plant before and had made several failed attempts before he had an Italian tourist who was taking the tour with him explain to him the part of the plant that you used in cooking.
We discussed the challenges of being a Chef in a winery. I asked him point blank: "which comes first, your food or the wine?" Being a smart cookie, he answered "Oh, of course, the wines comes first, always. My job is to find food to pair with it, that highlights it and enhances it." What I loved about that answer was if someone were to ask me what my job as a Foodie is I would say the same thing as Chef Justin. Find good food, pair it with wine, highlighting & enhancing it.
Once the "official" tour was over, I asked Chef about winning the Chef's Challenge at Kendall-Jackson's Tomato Festival last year. Food & Wine hosts this Chef's Challenge event, inside the larger fundraiser known as The Tomato Festival, in which the Chefs compete by preparing dishes with tomatoes grown on property. When I asked him if they would be doing it again this year, he said, "We have already started getting the tomato plants ready, do you want to see them?" "Sure, Chef", I said, "lead the way."
Did you hear what David the groundskeeper said on the video? They have over 3,000 tomato plants they plant to produce the tomatoes needed for this annual food and wine festival. The Tomato Festival is open to the public, but is cheaper to attend if you are a Kendall-Jackson wine club member. This year the festival is happening in September 2009. If you happen to be in wine country, I highly recommend you pay a visit to the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center.
So, how did I end up with my Murphy-Goode Viking helmet? Well, I was standing in Chef Justin's office after the tour and I spotted it on the top of his bookshelf and asked where he got his. (See it in this picture? The viking hat is an important symbol in the Murphy-Goode brand, as Dave Ready Jr. and his family were originally from Minnesota . . .home of the Vikings NFL team. It could have been worse, I suppose. They could have been from Wisconsin and all of us competing would be running around wearing foam cheese on our heads. Good look for a Foodie, super funny for everyone else.) He said he had catered an event for Dave Ready Jr. and was given one. Then he said: "Here, I'll give you mine to take with you." I said the Chef Justin, "so what is the story I need to tell Dave about where and how I got your viking hat." He smiled and said "I wouldn't tell him anything, act casual, and make him wonder where you got it." That tells me that Dave Ready Jr. is a prankster, and that Chef Justin is too. "Goode" to know.
Foodie went to wine country with the intent of looking for Chefs, and came back with the decision to run for a very goode job. As I was leaving, Chef wished me luck. I said: "well, if I am the lucky one that actually gets the gig, I look forward to working with you." He looked at me, and smiled. Afterall, if selecting picnic spots are a part of my job description for a really goode job, I assume selecting the menu for the picnic will also be part of the job description.
Chef Justin and I have already started discussing possible picnic menus.