On a sunny afternoon, I got into the car with my girlfriend, Alix, and set out on the two-hour drive from western Sonoma County, where I live, to downtown Napa and the block of restaurants whose centerpiece is the stone-walled Ubuntu. Along the way I thought about the pride I take in cooking my family recipes, and about my life as a meat-eating, salt-shaking mama who fries entirely too many potatoes in bacon fat. Maybe it was time for something new. Maybe I had finally lived long enough in California to eat sautéed zucchini slices as if they were hot wings. I could try, anyway.
Once we were seated in the warm, sunlit dining room—with a stone oven at the back and bright collages hanging on the walls—I chatted with Jeremy Fox, the chef, and his wife, Deanie, the pastry chef. Lawrence had hired them away from Manresa, a popular restaurant in Los Gatos, south of San Francisco, where they had won much acclaim for their French-Spanish creations. I was heartened when they told me that they are not vegetarian—except in the de facto sense: They're busy cooks who eat in the place where they spend most of their time. Nor do they run upstairs and do yoga.
As we looked at the menu, I remembered what my friend who'd been to Ubuntu before had said: "You have to try their carrot gnocchi." Carrot gnocchi? Where did that idea come from?
"It was the pasta extruder," Jeremy explained. Using the appliance to make his own pasta had inspired Jeremy to experiment. He'd had a mac and cheese dish on the menu, but it was heavy with fat and cream and he wanted to lighten it up. He came up with the notion of using carrots to make gnocchi, and he decided to add French Mimolette cheese because it was orange like the carrots and made the gnocchi rich and bright. That accident of color brought the whole dish together; he then tossed in some fresh orange juice to sweeten the sharp cheese, and a little tarragon, just because—and presto, he had a signature dish.
The chance to be inventive in this way was a big part of why Jeremy and Deanie signed on with Ubuntu when Lawrence called. They jumped at the challenge to create a unique cuisine, to be part of a philosophy that sees cooking and food as tied into a larger community life. At Ubuntu, they could also help influence and build on the growing movement toward less meat-centric dining.
Lawrence lives up the hill from Ubuntu, and it is her sprawling garden that provides most of the restaurant's produce; the rest comes from local farmers. In Lawrence's organic garden, crops are grown according to biodynamic methods, which treat the plants as part of a living, self-sustaining whole. They are carefully selected, arranged in adjacent beds, and rotated to keep the soil healthy. Kitchen staff work in the garden one morning a week, bringing the produce to the restaurant to clean it, then returning the compost scraps so they can nourish the soil.
We Hear You!