In Remembrance of Ubuntu (Napa)

Every hobby is a personal journey pinned with landmarks – a map of changing interests. One a-ha moment came in Laguiole, as it probably has for so many others, where the countryside was served inside a spaceship. It was the salad that launched a thousand more. The grassy aromas, the sharp tastes of herbs – epiphanies – every bite. Meat, for all its base satisfaction, was boorish when compared to this mere salad. Drab. And then, a few years later, a hot Napa afternoon changed everything again – Feed Me the Spring.1

Michel Bras is in the DNA – carrot and nasturtium pays homage to his plating style

It was recently reported that Ubuntu would be no more. Vegetables, not vegetarian – the restaurant had sharp positioning that distinguished it from the vegetarian cliches of pasta and grains, pizza, and raspberry vinegar salads. It was the type of necessary restriction that unlocks great creativity. The menu grew more daring with each season and, with its second Spring, found a strong voice in its “seed to stalk” vision. Critically acclaimed, but never popular, will it be remembered as a seminal restaurant in American dining? 2

With shades of Boy the Earth Talks To, Ubuntu’s dishes were an exploration into essence, and expectation.3 Our notion of eating vegetables is largely homogeneous – we tend to eat the same parts cooked in relatively the same ways. When accustomed to eating the shoots, what could be done with the roots? Is the plant’s flower an equal, or better, expression? Where do the flavors in the plant lie? What are the textural differences between the plant’s anatomy? Can the entire plant be used?4 And, of course, everyone’s initial question – can a serious meal be composed entirely of vegetables?

‘Moon and stars’ melon – a reference to the biodynamic practices of the Ubuntu garden

Summer hints at autums

Over three years, Chefs Jeremy Fox, Aaron London, and staff dug into an exploration of Napa seasons and bounty. Usually farmed, sometimes foraged, the best dishes could explore the same ingredient in different forms – light broths, soothing dabs of pudding or pureed stalks, leaves and flowers, raw and dehydrated preparations. Landscaped plates were an appropriate metaphor for the cooking. Textural and flavor range inherent in vegetables would be further mined by tracing the plants from their roots to their outer flowers, and through their development over a season.

It was unique food, even in today’s world of vegetable appreciation.

Three years, fifteen meals, and two chefs – below is a collection of my favorite dishes with re-written descriptions.5 They range from the three-star Michelin worthy peas and white chocolate to the unfurled, wild garden snake. Look at your next tasting menu – how many dishes contain no meat? The maps are still undefined. There is still much room for exploration and forging green paths of personal expression.6

When Ubuntu’s earlier menus featured more pizzas, pastas, and salads in 2007, the seductiveness of this dish revealed Fox’s later intentions. The sweet and tart notes of the red pepper consomme played off the brassicas. Dabs of pine nut pudding rested under the florets, adding a touch more sweetness and nuttiness. With minimal, if any, butter, the dish had light and pure flavors.

How many ways can a beet be prepared in one dish? Taking obvious influence from Quique DaCosta, and his sometimes Yves Tanguy plating style, each bite was filled with contrasting flavors and textures of beet. Dehydrated, raw, mashed, and roasted – sweetness and minerality were expressed in each bite. The yolk is a yellow beet puree. And there was crunch. Impossible to control each bite, the dish mixed the survey of possibilities with the random walk of nature.

CALCOTS – romesco of PIQUILLOS, maldon salt, tomorrow’s news

Sometimes classics were re-imagined with vegetables. The caramelized and bitter notes of the brioche/mushroom crunch were consumed by the luscious mouthfeel of the sweetish leek custard. Calcot and bay laurel buds danced atop. Fox became interested in ember cooking through the Seven Fires cookbook – and more dishes began to integrate charring and the smoky bitterness that ensues.

Showing Ubuntu as its most whimsical, the Garden Snake was Aaron London’s ode to the garden – roots, soil, leaves, & flowers.7 It rushed across the plate, overflowing, bountiful, casting off greenery with each turn. Each bite was a different composition of textures and flavors, with the truffled pecorino lingering in the background as the vertebrae of the dish. With shades of bitter, sweet, grassy, earthy – the Ubuntu garden was literally snaking across the plate.

The Garden Snake – Leaves, Flowers, Roots, Lemongrass Oil, Herbs Soil, Truffled Pecorino

Here, a roasted pepper jus and black rice broth finished a meal with a light touch of umami. Ubuntu never fell into the easy trap of serving grains for vegetarian’s sake. There was restraint here, a mere essence, where the nutty broth lingered on the palate. Purslane added lemon notes and peppers filled the bowl.

And then there was peas and white chocolate. Twice shucked, the peas gave the faintest resistance before bursting with sweetness. The cool broth, a pea essence, further accented each bite. Salt from the macadamia punctuated each crunch before the enveloping creaminess of the white chocolate. As the tastes rescinded, chocolate mint kicks a last quick, bright burst.

The dish recalls the genius of Alain Passard8 – the ability to breathe distinct new life into the most ordinary of ingredients – peas. It is a masterpiece.

Vegetables are en vogue and that is a good thing. Some restaurants pursue a leafy course that attempt to balance richer elements on the plate while others are beginning to let vegetables star, using protein as supporting element. With its vegetarian limitation, Ubuntu cooked toward the essences of plants – seed and stalk – and re-worked them into a unique vision of vegetable cooking.

And those meals continue to impact my fine dining lens. The changing seasons, a closeness to the land, a varied palette of taste and texture, and, when respected, a lighter style of eating more appropriate for longer tasting menus. Ubuntu will be missed.

- chuck

1 – Feed Me the Spring turned out to be hugely inspirational for me – it proved that vegetables could carry an entire meal. And it was the beginning of an incredible nine-month run by Fox – burn strong and bright.

There were a few intermediate steps, of course, between those three years between Michel Bras and Ubuntu. Manresa, with its bio-dynamic garden project; the mercurial genius of l’Arpege; a noma meal in 2009; and the persistent realization that the beginning vegetable courses of tasting menus were more exciting than the latter hunks of meat. Sometimes you can just imagine the chef screaming “rescue me” before delving into six more courses of protein.

I am working on a post detailing my most influential meals – would you believe Chez Panisse and Jean Georges make the short list? What restaurant had me contemplating a separate sushi budget?

2 – Perhaps it will once we bloggers become rich, powerful and famous:
Ulterior Epicure – United Colors of Napa
Food Snob – Ubuntu, Napa
DocSconz – Ubuntu? U Bet!

3 – I always thought of this in terms of the George Hearst character in Deadwood, “Boy the Earth talks to” – though his talent was for discovering rare metals, not cooking. But for the new breed of chefs using Nature as their inspiration, chefs like Rene Redzepi and Ben Shrewy, it is a powerful image. (Yes, Deadwood is my favorite TV show – ever.)

4 – You can read more about these lines of thinking by Justin Yu, who owns and operates Oxheart in Houston. He cooked at Ubuntu under both Fox and London; and his restaurant was recently rated #1 in Houston by Alison Cook. Judging by the pictures on Twitter, and his pedigree, it could soon receive national recognition. It is on my to-do list.

5 – Chef Jeremy Fox knew me from my frequent Manresa visits, where he prepared the meat dishes- “that guy is hard to please.” Over its entire run, I probably ate at Ubuntu 15 times and, yes, many meals were very “VIP”. Quite a few lasted more than five hours, and one as long as seven! As a result, Chef Aaron London knew me too, for better or worse :-)

I don’t know if anyone else besides the chefs themselves ate this gamut of Ubuntu dishes.

6 – This is not a value judgement on meat – I eat plenty of it. But the persistence of meat on menus confirms there is still much opportunity to explore in the worlds of vegetables. And even Ubuntu could not explore the vast possibilities of the vegetable – fermentation and pickling would be considered under-utilized by today’s standards.

This will continue to be a theme. As recounted in Twinkle Twinkle 11 Michelin Stars, the media believes fine dining is going casual. Perhaps it is, on the surface, where designer jeans have replaced stuffy suits. But the food on the plate tells a different story – it is not going “casual” as much as it is going “personal” – caviar and foie gras are no longer pre-requisites for consideration as a serious restaurant. A vegetable dish can take as much time and artistry to develop, and sometimes at comparable cost.

7 – I ate at Aaron London’s Ubuntu four times but, sadly, never wrote up a meal. DocSconz did write up a meal we shared. By the third meal, London was developing his own style within the vegetable constraints imposed by the restaurant. It was a more bountiful version, wilder, but still exciting. London is rumored to be looking for a San Francisco space – I hope he continues exploring the same concepts in his new digs.

8 – Have you picked up Alain Passard’s The Art of Cooking with Vegetables. The peas, thyme, and grapefruit recipe has been on weekly rotation. The book has guided me through this Bay Area Spring. The recipes are interesting while still being accessible to the home cook. They leave room for the intelligent reader to improvise, explore, and create their own. And the book is composed entirely of collages by Passard – no photos. It is a strange effect at first but now one I find refreshing and charming.

For a guy that could toss his ego around however he wanted, it is a quiet and thoughtful book.

The Garden Pot

  • John Sconzo

    I’m so glad that we got to share a meal here, Chuck. This is a huge loss. Great post as always.

  • ChuckEats

    indeed – it was the first time i met the infamous DocSconz!  

    the food here, even in retrospect, is so different than other vegetable-centric dishes today; i wish Fox or London would pick up somewhere, anywhere, & continue to push forward w/ the ideas they started.

  • Gzanotti

    that pea dish. damn. ubuntu will be missed

  • Sanders

    So is this confirmation that it is closing indeed? 

    Any news on what Fox or London will do or when/where they will open? (It seems Fox hasn’t cooked in a formal setting in over a year)

  • ChuckEats

    it’s what the various local food media have reported.  taking a “sabbatical” over Winter seemed to be the writing on the wall.

    it’s been reported that Aaron is looking for a spot in SF – one can only hope.

    for now, probably the closest to Ubuntu-era cooking would be Justin Yu’s Oxheart in Houston (he cooked under both Fox & London) where it looks like he is doing very interesting stuff:

  • ChuckEats

    a Spring-time masterpiece – world-class