Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde
This article is from the San Francisco Chronicle (sfgate.com)Many noted Bay Area chefs earn their culinary chops at places like the French Laundry, Chez Panisse and Manresa. Curtis Di Fede and Tyler Rodde, co-executive chefs of Napa's Oenotri, earned theirs at Benihana and the Cheesecake Factory.
"We joke about that now," Rodde admits, laughing. But while Di Fede discovered a passion for prep work, Rodde says of his stint at Cheesecake Factory: "I learned how to make the numbers work."
Such skills are important when you open a restaurant in your late 20s.
The pair act - and even look - a little bit like brothers who grew up sharing the same kitchen table. But while they both have Napa in their blood, they met just five years ago.
Di Fede grew up in New Mexico, but spent his childhood summers in Wine Country visiting his grandparents - both parents were born and raised in Napa. A visit to his dad's relatives in Italy at the age of 16 inspired him to cook, so he took the first job he could get as a teenager, as a dishwasher in a Thai restaurant in New Mexico, then prepped his way through Benihana before jetting to London for culinary school.
Back in the States, Di Fede moved to Las Vegas, working the line at a newly opened Commander's Palace for a couple of years before heading back to the Napa Valley.
"I figured it wasn't smart for a 21-year-old to be living in Las Vegas," he says with a grin.
After cooking at Bouchon and Terra, Di Fede returned to England to stage at the renowned Fat Duck.
"That kind of changed my view on food completely," Di Fede says. "I realized that it didn't feel right to receive cherry tomatoes from Israel, or cook with fennel when it was snowing out."
Another visit to Sicily got him thinking about Italian food. When he returned, he got a job at Oliveto in Oakland, rising from line cook to chef de cuisine. He also met Tyler Rodde.
"We bonded over the commute," Di Fede says.
Born and raised in Napa, Rodde was back on his home turf by the time he started at Oliveto, driving daily to Oakland. The two quickly drummed up a dialogue about the best routes.
Rodde admits his career path wasn't as "romantic" as Di Fede's, but he still paid the necessary dues.
"We had a family rule," Rodde says. "You either had to play sports and go to school or work and go to school." Rodde chose sports, enrolling at USC and walking onto the swim team. After blowing out his shoulder, however, he tended bar and worked as a bouncer at a cafe while he earned his degree in economics.
After a while, Rodde says, he got sick of dealing with drunken college students, so he hid out in the kitchen.
Returning to Napa after graduation, he got involved in a book project for cancer research and patient care. His work setting up photo shoots and soliciting chef contributions put him in contact with some of the greats - Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and Charlie Trotter among them.
"I think that was my defining moment," says Rodde, explaining how the chefs would talk about their travels, expensive wines and celebrity friends. "I thought, 'Damn, that sounds fun.' "
He decided to go to culinary school in Pasadena, but dropped out after eight months - "The economist in me was going, 'This is a horrific waste of money,' " Rodde says.
A year later he was managing the kitchen at the Cheesecake Factory, and helped open several in the Bay Area. But finally, as he puts it, it was "time to learn how to cook again." That education happened at Oliveto.
"I came in thinking I knew everything because I knew Cheesecake Factory systems and operations. And they were like, 'OK, forget everything you know. We're going to make brown butter, and we're going to do that 40 times until it's absolutely perfect.' "
Rodde spent just eight months at Oliveto, but when he went to work as sous chef for a Napa couple's West Berkeley restaurant, Riva Cucina, he and Di Fede began plotting their own future.
"That's when Curtis and I were like, 'Let's just do the damn thing. If they can do it, we can do it.' "
Fast forward a couple of years, and the pair spend every night cooking side by side in the kitchen at Oenotri - a hard-to-pronounce (but conversation-starting) name they found while trolling around on Wikipedia.
"We liked that it was directly translated to 'vine cultivators,' because his family grows grapes and my family grows grapes, so it was like, 'OK, we're vine cultivators,' " Rodde says.
The chefs explain that the southern Italian focus means their cooking incorporates a lot of olive oil, fresh fish and vegetables, whereas northern Italian dishes typically feature heavier sauces and rich cheese. It's unlike anything else in the area, they say, but the best part is that it's a 50-50 effort.
"You're sitting there and you're like, 'It's right there, but I'm missing something, and I can't think what it is,' " Rodde says. "He'll be like, 'Dude, slow-cook the egg. It will be awesome.' And I'll think, 'Aw, that's what I was forgetting.' "
Seconds Di Fede: "You don't know what you're going to end up with until you're there."
Steve Matthiasson and Jill Klein Matthiasson
As a child Steve was profoundly affected by his yearly visit to the small farm in North Dakota where his Great-Grandparents, Jon and Stephania Matthiasson started a new life after leaving Iceland. Summers there and at his uncle’s farm in Manitoba instilled a love of farming.
After graduating in 1991 with a degree in Philosophy from Whittier College, and spending three years working as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco, gaining spiritual nourishment from his community garden plot, he finally figured out how to chart a course into agriculture.
Steve graduated from UC Davis with a Masters degree in Horticulture, and worked for an agricultural consulting firm in the San Joaquin Valley, specializing in the sustainable and organic management of vineyards and orchards.
After four years apprenticing in the craft of farming, he joined the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission and spent two years educating the grower members on sustainability and developing a manual and self-assessment tool for the sustainable management of winegrapes. That book is now the industry standard in California (it was adapted into the “Code of Sustainable Conduct” by the Wine Institute).
After a stint doing research on the effects of vineyard practices on wine quality for a large winery, Steve came to Napa to run Premiere Viticultural Services, Inc., in 2001, where he helps with the strategy and execution of all of the seasonal activities on vineyards throughout Napa and Sonoma.
In 2003 he started making wine for Matthiasson Wines, and in 2004 he and Jill leased land and planted their first fruit tree orchard. Since then they have expanded to three vineyards and two orchards, where they raise peaches, plums, apples, pears, quinces, persimmons, berries, sheep and chickens.
Jill’s love of ecology started at Penn, after which she explored her Jewish heritage by studying ecology for two years in Israel, working on a number of research projects, including one recreating ancient farming methods.
After Israel, and a Masters in 1991 from UC Davis in International Agricultural Development where she studied cover crops in the Salinas Valley, Jill spent ten years working to save family farms and promote sustainable agriculture with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers in California. She traveled the state creating programs and organizing farmers into groups where they could exchange information about sustainable ag innovations developed on the farm.
Jill and Steve met in an almond orchard in the course of one of Jill’s programs— a program that went on to reduce pesticide use and permanently change unsustainable farming practices.
After their first son came along, she scaled back on travel, and served as the Executive Director of a small non-profit called the Association of Applied IPM Ecologists, which is dedicated to information-sharing amongst agricultural pest control professionals, with the mission of reducing pesticide use. It was founded 50 years ago by the entomologists that developed the concept of Integrated Pest Management.
Now, with the second son getting bigger, she is focused more locally, working with the Napa School Board on a healthier school lunch program, teaching a Cooking from the Garden Class at her son’s grade school, serving on the board of the Napa Farmers Market, and running our family businesses of farming, making and selling wine, and selling fresh fruit.