Greystone inspires in me the warm and comforting knowledge that the future of food and restaurants is secure. It is the restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America campus at St. Helena in the lush Napa Valley wine region of California. Its full name is Wine Spectator Greystone, but Greystone is how we call it and that will suffice.
I like to sit at the counter or in the main room at Greystone so I can feel the energy and watch the ballet that is the cooks and chefs as they move about the various cooking stations to turn out meals for a usually appreciative crowd. The pace can range from a frantic tango to an elegant waltz depending on how busy the restaurant is.
The patio on a warm summer afternoon or evening is quiet and offers a wonderful view of hills and vineyards. But for me it is a thrill to watch dedicated men and women as they hone and perfect their culinary skills. I wonder constantly which of them will turn up some day in a restaurant where I dine, or which will become the master of his or her own culinary domain that will draw me in. I feel the same sense of the possible here as I do when I look at a classroom filled with kindergarteners.
To set one myth aside: the people working the restaurant at any meal are not students; they are professionals for the time they spend cooking, serving and administering to the other tasks of running the restaurant. They are culinary students the rest of the time and they come from far and wide. On one recent visit we met students from Iran, Iowa and New Zealand. A pastry chef, who looked to be around 50 years old, told us he left his job in finance to come take a course at the Institute and wound up staying.
The Culinary Institute of American and Greystone are set on a hillside just outside the City of St. Helena and right next to the magnificent grounds of the Beringer Brothers Winery. It’s the site of what once was the Christian Brothers Winery and it has the magic look of a castle on a hill.
I’ve long thought a show based on the lives and learning of the students at the Institute would be more informative and entertaining than a lot of the stuff that appears on the TV cooking channels today. It wouldn’t need winners and losers; there would be no need for competition. Watching various students gathered from around with world with different levels of skills entering and seeing how they struggle with and master the tasks that will be the foundations for culinary careers would be interesting enough.
The menu at Greystone changes weekly and lists innovative dishes as well as solid versions of restaurant classics. One recent menu offered a crispy skinned wild king salmon and “meatballs” fashioned from shrimp and crab. Students are permitted to experiment and invent dishes for service in the restaurant, as long as they have approval ahead of time from the Head Chef.
In addition to the knowledge they gain in the area of food and cooking, students come to work in the restaurant with a good education in the wines that appear on Greystone’s impressive list.
There are many excellent restaurants in the Napa Valley and more are coming along every month. But any visit should include a stop for one meal at Greystone – a place where careers begin.