Sondra Bernstein of the girl & the fig on NorCal feasts and the art of culinary creations. PLUS: Five holiday cocktails to relish
Day trips and “staycations” nourish the soul, so it’s no surprise that Sonoma continues to rank high for a delicious getaway. But for those who may not yet have the resilient girl & the fig on their culinary GPS, that’s about to change. One name you need to know as you venture toward and into 2014: Sondra Bernstein. She’s the proprieter of Sonoma’s girl & the fig as well as its enchanting winebar in nearby Glenn Ellen. With her strong adherence to farm-to-table creations, Bernstein’s imaginative fare has kept her portal thriving for 16 years now. National attention never hurts, either—the woman has been featured and saluted in numerous magazines and publications as well. She also published several bestselling books, “the girl & the fig Cookbook” and, more recently, “Plats Du Jour,” a luscious read that takes readers through seasons in the wine county. Questions abound when you meet Bernstein. For starters, how did a gal from Philadelphia wind up as one of NorCal’s most celebrated culinary royalty? Read on …
Good Times: What is your earliest memory of being interested in food, cooking and the culinary world?
Growing up, my parents entertained. I remember watching the festive parties and the laughter of people enjoying their time together. Sometimes my mom cooked, other times there was a caterer. I was definitely excited to be able to taste all the nibbles that would go out to the guests on trays. I think my interest has really been more focused on the social, entertaining aspect of gathering people. I seem to have continued my mom’s love to entertain, and soon started throwing large parties and creating different dishes to experiment on friends. They were not the typical chips-and-dip parties. I can remember a not-so-successful cold peanut butter noodle salad recipe that remained mostly untouched. This prepared me for the future and having food critics for the rest of my life.
Who would you say has been your most inspiring culinary influence?
In the early years, I admired Richard Melman from Lettuce Entertain You in Chicago – his company has more than 40 different concept restaurants. I love that he could create a space, with a concept, and follow through with that—from the food, beverages, decor and even service styles. I have always been intrigued by his business acumen, and I knew that it is what I wanted to do conceptually.
What do you find most exciting about the culinary scene today?
The culinary scene seems to be constant in only one thing—and that is change! The variety of dining experiences available now is exciting. Personally, I gravitate more toward simply-prepared meals than an over-the-top molecular gastronomy extravaganza. Though I do love that it exists. I see so much of the food made today as art. Depending on where you live in the world, the culinary scene is varied. For us in Sonoma, “farm to table,” as cliché as it may sound, is a large part of what we do. On our own plot, we plant, transplant, tend, and harvest, and we use as much of our own produce as we can in the restaurants. This is what we do all the time – it is not a passing trend for us, but a way of life
What do you love most about what you do?
That every day is different. The variety of the work is challenging and keeps me on my toes. One day I might be creating cocktail recipes, another day, reviewing statements, writing blog posts or another social media activity, or sitting in on a chef’s tasting of new menu items. We do a fair amount of events and those are always fun to participate in. I also love watching how our staff interacts with guests. We have so many facets in our business that it is hard not to want to share it all with everyone. Whether it is a new Rhone-Alone wine or a new cheese or just sharing insider info about Sonoma – we have a lot to talk about!!!
How has food/the culinary world shaped your life … and what has been one of the most interesting things you’ve learned about yourself (and people, in general) for having been involved in it?
I started out as a photographer and ended up a restaurateur, and I am so grateful for all of the people I have met, including the dedicated farmers, ranchers, vintners, cheese-makers, and friends from all over the world. I didn’t plan for this to be my career, but as we enter our 17th year at the girl & the fig, I am proud of our successes, our growth and the ability to feed people—to serve their most basic need—in a way that will create memories, relationships and memorable occasions. I am also grateful for all of the folks who have worked with us over the years and shared their lives with our “Fig Family.” It really does take a team to make things happen—a team that is committed and working toward common goals—and that’s been a wonderful lesson.
Experience the girl & the fig at 110 W Spain St, Sonoma, 938-3634. Learn more about Sondra Bernstein at thegirlandthefig.com.
OnLine Bonus: Holiday Cocktails
1/ Green Moon
(Makes 2 cocktails)
2 ounces Hangar One: Buddha’s Hand Vodka
1 ounce green chartreuse
Juice of 2 lemons
1 ounce Rosemary simple syrup
2 springs fresh rosemary, for garnish
Combine the vodka chartreuse, lemon juice and rosemary simple syrup in a
cocktail shaker top with ice. Shake vigorously to incorporate and strain
into two chilled martini glasses.
Garnish each glass with a rosemary sprig and serve.
Apple Hot Toddy
(makes 2 cocktails)
2 cinnamon sticks
1 tsp whole cloves
1 star anise
3 cups nana mae’s apple juice
2 tbl caramel
3 counces Captain Morgan’s Spiced Ham
Place cinnamon sticks, cloves and star anise in a square of cheesecloth and make a sachet.
Pour 3 cups of apple juice into medium pot over medium heat. Add the spice sachet and the caramel. Heat the mixture to a boil. Stir regularly. Once it reaches a boil, lower the heat and let it simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the sachet and pour the liquid into 2 coffee mugs, and 1 1/2 ounces of rum in each mug and serve.
Sparkling French Pear
(make 2 cocktails)
3 ounces Grey Goose Poire
1 ounce pineau des charentes
I ounce simple syrup
Add the Grey Goose poire, pineau and the simple syrup in 2 rocks glasses filled with ice. Top with sparking wine and serve.
Pernod (Or Absinthe)
5 ounces mitchers rye
6 dashes peychaud’s bitters
1 ounce simple syrup
Chill 2 rocks glasses, pour a dash of pernod into each glass and twirl. To coat the inside of the glasses, combine the rye, bitters, and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Top with ice and stir gently. Strain into the chilled glasses. Twist a piece of lemon peel over each glass to release the fragrant oils into the glass. Discard the twist and serve.
(Makes 2 cocktails)
3 ounces Hendrick’s Gin
1 ounce St-Germain Liqueur
1/2 ounce lillet blanc
Juice of 1 lemon
English cucumber slices, for garnish
Combine the gin, St-Germain, lillet and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker top with ice. Shake vigorously to incorporate and strain into 2 chilled martini glasses. Garnish with the cucumber slices.
Photos/recipes courtesy of “Plats Du Jour”