Dominic Orsini is the winery chef at California's Silver Oak Cellars. The highly regarded Silver Oak, which operates wineries in the Napa and Alexander Valleys, turns 40 this year. To celebrate, Orsini is throwing a pizza cook-off in August. He's invited artisan pizza makers from northern California. They'll come to Silver Oak and use four wood-fired ovens to prepare thin-crust pizzas made with local ingredients. It reflects Orsini's focus on using fresh, local ingredients.
You credit your grandmother for your own skills as a chef. How so?
I grew up outside of Philadelphia, in Phoenixville. I'd visit my grandmother's house in Philadelphia. She and my grandfather had a beautiful garden. All summer we picked fresh strawberries, tomatoes, zucchini, corn, raspberries, cucumbers, watermelons. At a young age I ate a lot of fresh fruit and vegetables. That lifestyle had an impact on me.
What's your earliest food memory?
It was that time in my grandparents' garden and the foods I had. I ate homemade tomato sauce and gnocchi. They had an elderberry bush and made their own elderberry wine. My grandmother was a good cook. She grew up in the Pennsylvania Dutch country and was a Mennonite. She spent most of her life proving to her Italian in-laws she could cook as well as they could.
What inspired you to become a chef?
It was my family telling me to get a summer job. I was 14. My first job was at a Burger King on the Jersey shore, where we spent our summers. I was loading the frozen burgers onto the conveyor belt. By 16 I started working at a French bistro in Malvern, next to Phoenixville. I learned to make simple desserts: chocolate mousse and crème brûlée. I also was responsible for smoked salmon plates, pâtés, and terrines. It gave me an understanding and familiarity with fine dining. By the end of high school I didn't want to go to college. I asked my mother: 'Can chefs make money? Is that a real career?' You should have seen my parents' eyes light up. They said you've got to go to the Culinary Institute. I went to the CIA in Hyde Park.
What's your philosophy toward cooking?
I'm striving to create an indigenous cuisine reflecting where we are. All the vegetables we grow here we serve. I bake my own bread in a wood oven using locally milled flours. We also use a 4-year-old sourdough starter for the bread that was made from Cabernet grapes here. We take old wine and make our own vinegar. We use everything we can to represent the cooking of northern California.
How do you use California Olive Ranch extra virgin olive oil in your cooking?
I used to use an imported olive oil from Sicily. I started looking at California oils and tried your Arbequina. I thought: 'This is exactly what I want.' It imparts this rich, buttery umami flavor. I use it in everyday use. My butter use has fallen off the map. For example, I now use a splash of vegetable stock or white wine in a pan and add a little olive oil to make an emulsion. We use it to coat the vegetables, instead of a butter sauce. We use the Arbequina in vinaigrettes. I use a lot of olive oil. It's a healthy cuisine, and I find a meal with vegetables that have been sautéed with olive oil is much lighter.
How did you develop a strong interest in wine and become involved with a top-flight winery?
It started in culinary school. I was studying European food and wine. And then I started learning about the Napa Valley. I came out to California for a visit in 1996, and I fell in love with Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. It was a great place for a young chef to be. I later moved over to Napa. And here I am.