Bryan Jones was a surfer dude in his 20s, but his palate made him something of an outlier.
“At night, I was grilling leg of lamb and drinking a bottle of wine while my friends were eating Taco Bell and drinking Keystone Light (beer),” Jones said with an easy laugh.
The new executive chef at St. Francis Winery & Vineyards in Santa Rosa is 42 now, and he steps into a winery with food-and-wine pairing panache. In December, it was voted Number One Restaurant in America by Open Table diners, and its farm to table pairing experience is recommended by Zagat, the restaurant-review guide.
Open Table, the company that offers real-time reservations with more than 31.000 upscale restaurants, surveys its customers about their dining experiences and tabulates the results.
While Jones oversees all winery events and culinary programs, his main focus is the daily food and wine pairings. There are two or three seatings per day, with dishes drawn from the winery’s two-acre garden.
Clad in a white chef’s coat, blue jeans and black leather clogs, Jones is at home in his new digs.
“To have a garden out my back door is a dream for me, and I have the dust on my shoes to prove it,” he said. “Our diners can see on the plate that we’re taking great care to give them the freshest ingredients.”
Jones replaces executive chef David Bush, who recently left the winery to open a restaurant and bar named Oso in downtown Sonoma. It was during his stewardship that Open Table named the winery top restaurant.
Jones’ dishes have a comforting European sensibility, with the rich flavors and textures of braised meats and stews.
“I’m trying to do what feels comfortable to me,” Jones said. “Who knows where it will take me, and I’m anxious to do the work to get there.”
When Jones applied for the job, he had several interviews before a nerve-wracking round of cooking in the kitchen. He cooked a five-course meal for the deciders — winery president Christopher Silva, among others.
“During the meal he prepared, we laughed among ourselves because we never realized how exciting vegetables could be,” Silva said. “And today, I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a chef spend so much time in a vegetable garden. He has a passion for the ingredients and how they pair with the wines.”
Jones’ modus operandi is to begin with the wine and tease out its flavors on the palate in order to then incorporate the notes in a dish.
For example, from the St. Francis, 2011 Anacleto Vineyard, Russian River Valley Zinfandel, he detected notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, so he used those spices to create a dry rub for the duck breast. He also tasted dark berry in the zin, so he made a thick huckleberry sauce, and on top sprinkled ground duck skin to be used in place of bread crumbs.
Jones is no rookie. For nearly a decade, he was chef and general manager of the Fig Café & Wine Bar in Glen Ellen, the sister restaurant to Girl & the Fig in downtown Sonoma. He began his culinary training at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, graduating in 1999. The chef, who lives in Sonoma with fiancée Amada Jones, plans to make adventurous eaters out of his daughters, Mazie, 11 and Lily, 9. While the girls say no to eel, they do like octopus and oysters.