TODD KNOLL, EXECUTIVE CHEF AT JORDAN VINEYARD & WINERY, CALIFORNIA
In 2007, chef Todd Knoll became Executive Chef of Jordan Vineyard & Winery, a stunning European-style estate located in the Alexander Valley, Healdsburg, California, and now oversees the entire Jordan culinary program. Its internationally lauded always-evolving program is highly complex. Chef duties include managing the property garden, crafting Jordan estate olive oil, preparing little tastes daily for vineyard tours and hikes and tasting guests, cooking for trade guests, special events, and directing the full-time kitchen staff. Chef Knoll even creates his own sea salt from waters culled during travels around the globe! Knoll, a true chef of the earth, helps make visiting Jordan Winery a magical experience.
By Robin Barr Sussman
Why did you want to become a winery chef?
I had never really considered being a winery chef—I was happy working in San Francisco when a former chef recommended me for Jordan. The estate, the gardens, olive oil production, wild and open space—it was completely unexpected, but perfect. After my first visit I was ready to convert.
What’s the difference in being restaurant chef and a winery chef?
I miss the fast-paced artistry of a restaurant kitchen, but now I am involved in myriad aspects of the overall experience. Every winter I design the winery’s vegetable garden, and in the spring, we forage as the garden begins the new year. Jordan has 1200 acres to explore at the estate and the mushrooms and seafood of the Sonoma coast are less than 45 minutes away. Food now has its rightful place in the wine tasting experience. For a passionate and experimental cook, there is no better place to be.
What other projects are you involved in at the winery?
I created the Jordan olive oil with our winemaker and I designed a new caviar with Tsar Nicoulai we call Jordan Chef’s Reserve Caviar. Also, a charcuterie wine pairing with Pete Seghesio of Journeyman Meats (a salumeria-butcher shop in Healdsburg, the heart of the Sonoma County wine country). A winery chef’s position is what the chef makes of it.
How would you describe your cooking style and the philosophy behind it?
Raised in Hawaii, I draw ideas from my childhood home and Asia when creating recipes for lunches, dinners, parties and hors d’oeuvres for tours and tastings at the winery. My cuisine showcases our wines by using hyper-seasonal produce from the one-acre winery garden, local growers and artisanal purveyors. Recently an experimental berry patch and an apiary with Flow Hive [honey on tap] and Langstroth beehives, have been added to the property, allowing us to make our own honey for recipes while exploring beekeeping. We are immersed in natural inspiration.
What are some current culinary techniques you are into now or experimenting with?
We’ve done some interesting work with fermenting, brewing and clarifying to create new flavor combinations and pairings. One of the dishes this season was a consommé of mango and passionfruit kombucha blended with rich crab fumet. It resulted in a perfect balance of umami, acidity and light tropical fruit. Served with pickled white asparagus from our garden and local crab, it was a completely new flavor profile for us. If we can surprise not only our guests, but visiting chefs and sommeliers, I consider it a success.
You are known for spot-on food and wine pairings. Is this challenging with just two wines?
The fact that we have a balanced, Burgundian style chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon modeled after a first-growth Bordeaux–makes the pairing easier. I am free to create many options, not tethered to an esoteric tasting note. As a winery chef my goal is different. With solid ground to stand on, I can push pairings into unfamiliar territory rather than being boxed in.
How did you start out as a chef and which culinary school did you attend?
I graduated with honors from the California Academy in San Francisco in 2000. I first worked at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco under the direction of executive chef Jean-Pierre Dubray and after four years was promoted to chef saucier based on experience creating fine sauces and soups.
What advice would you give to a young person pursuing a winery chef career?
Pursue a well-rounded career early on. It was my time in the Ritz Carlton banquet kitchen and continuing self-education that has served me most. While working hard to expose yourself to as much travel, food, and wine as possible, begin to stack skills. They don’t allow us to hide in the kitchen; a visual role at a winery is paramount. In the time I’ve been a winery chef, I’ve only seen interest in cuisine grow, and with it, our culinary programs.
Tell us about one of your inventive recipe creations
There’s a recipe for Bay Scallops with pickled persimmon and caviar on the Jordan website. I prefer the Hoshigaki method for making Japanese-style dried persimmons, a labor-intensive process that yields what has been called the “kobe beef of dried fruit.” I use the dried persimmon and the Jordan Chef’s Reserve Caviar as garnishes, which add acidity, texture and a pop of color to this winter appetizer recipe.
Tell us about some of the local, smaller or specialized producers you utilize
My dishes are typically built around or with local products because we are fortunate enough to be located within 25 miles of world-class cheese making, organic ranches, apple orchards and small specialty family farms. We rely on wild mushrooms and berry foraging on our pristine coast, along with fishing, crabbing and seaweed collection.
What are your favorite chef tools?
My chef knife is, of course, my most indispensable tool and I can’t seem to stop collecting them. As for equipment, I can’t live without my immersion Circulators (we have four) and my pressure cookers are an incredibly useful old classic.
What’s on the drawing board at Jordan?
We will continue to create experiences throughout the estate. There are so many hidden vistas and ecosystems throughout our property, so much more than a normal winery tour. I would like to have simple platforms set up for tastings in some of our special places immersed in natural beauty. Chef Kyle Connaughton of famed SingleThread Farms restaurant and inn had the idea of following the sun as it sets from platform to platform as the meal progresses. Kaiseki (Japanese style) dining in wine country—that would be magic.
Thank you very much, Todd!
Here’s the recipe for Bay Scallops with Pickled Persimmon and Caviar