Chefs’ Holidays at the Ahwahnee and Other Joys of Yosemite
The massive granite mountains, spectacular waterfalls, groves, lakes, and meadows of Yosemite National Park in Northern California attract hikers, rock-climbers, skiers, and other happy campers all year round.
For the rest of us, too chicken to slumber in a frost-covered tent or climb El Capitan with a water bottle and a candy bar for nourishment, there is the much more accommodating Ahwahnee Hotel.
Every January, hundreds of guests have come to the historic Ahwahnee from near and far, some for 10 years in a row, for the annual culinary vacation Chefs’ Holidays, which consists of eight three-day sessions with the renowned chefs from the best American eateries.
Each session includes cooking demonstrations from three chefs, a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ahwahnee kitchen, and a gala dinner.
At Chefs’ Holidays 2012, California chefs seem to prevail in the glorious lineup, joined by counterparts from New York, New Orleans, Las Vegas, and other cuisine centrals.
I came to the event for the very first time and signed up for the first session, which started a week after New Year’s Day.
Staying at the Ahwahnee, filled with the original furnishings, photographs, and artifacts, is a big part of the event. I was immediately smitten with the unique charm and character of the hotel built in 1927 at the side of a 10-million-year-old rock, and true to the essence of Yosemite – the way it used to be – before it started accepting 10,000 cars a day.
From my room’s view, to the wall and floor details, to the communal spaces with stained-glass windows, aged armchairs, patterned rugs, and roaring fireplaces, to the traditional morning coffee and afternoon tea with fresh-baked cookies – everything seemed to be designed to please and enchant.
The Ahwahnee is an AAA Four-Diamond hotel listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, but it retains its immediate intimacy and a friendly feel, perhaps unchanged since its early days.
At the opening reception for the first session, the Ahwahnee’s own chef, Percy Whatley, treated the guests to some scrumptious hors d’oeuvres, like tuna tartar, avocado tempura, and pheasant tarts.
Moderator Connie Barney Chester introduced the chefs to the public.
Our session featured Kent Rathbun of Abacus, Jasper’s, and Rathbun’s Blue Plate Kitchen in Texas; Brian Streeter of Cakebread Cellars in Napa, California; and Annie Sommerville of Greens in San Francisco.
Over the next two days, the distinguished chefs presented two dishes each during their culinary classes, and Chef Rathbun prepared the gala dinner at the end of the session.
By 6 pm on the closing night, formally dressed guests started to arrive at the world-famous Ahwahnee dining room. A long-standing hotel rule requires formal wear for dinner, and the guests seem to enjoy and follow it without exception.
Tables were set with ivory tablecloth and napkins, silverware for every course, and multiple wine glasses.
For the first course, Chef Rathbun treated the foodie crowd with Niman Ranch maple-glazed bacon and scrambled duck eggs. Crispy seared black bass with caramelized cauliflower and persimmon-pomegranate brown butter came second. The third course was a grilled Manchester Farm quail with jalapeno cornbread pudding and pozole tortilla sauce. Cappuccino-cured Cervena venison with white cheddar potato and Abacus house steak sauce compiled the fourth course. For dessert, a chocolate and roasted sweet potato pecan pie was topped with cinnamon ice cream.
Before leaving Yosemite National Park, we had to work off some of the accumulated calories from the tasty food.
Valley Floor Tour, which includes frequent bus stops and short walks to Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, Tunnel View, and Bridalveil Fall, yielded some up-close wildlife viewing – a family of grazing deer and a couple of coyotes.
Then ice-skating at Curry Village included an aesthetic element – a view of Half Dome bathed in sunset colors – as well as vigorous exercise.
Find out more about Chefs’ Holidays at: 1-801-559-4903 or Yosemite Park.