Winter Citrus Salad with Shaved Fennel, Red Onion & Feta Cheese
"Ideally, tearing herbs is the way to go," Central Market's Chef Tony Najiola told a packed house of around 150 diners at a recent Fresh Starts Celebrity Chef Event supporting shelter and culinary job training programs at Homeward Bound of Marin.
That little bit of mint you were thinking of adding to spruce up a winter salad, don't even think of chopping it. Ripping it with your fingers prevents this zippy fresh herb, as with its many counterparts, from blackening. Good to know. As is the simple fact that a sprinkle of mint livens most any dish.
In fact, Chef Tony's best piece of advice, amongst a lot of kitchen tips I for one, took note of that January evening, is that a good cook needs little gadgetry. The New Orleans native with one of the best and most celebrated restaurants in Sonoma County these past 12 years, advocates getting stuck-in when making simple, tasty, fresh and scrumptious food — "your hands are better tools than anything else," he encouraged.
Don't have a food processor? No worries. According to Chef Tony, the sorts of foods he's famous for in the region would be ruined, if prepared the electronic way.
Chicken Bomba with Basil Mashed Potatoes
I'd driven down to Marin County to attend my first Fresh Starts Chef Event, though I'd visited the at Key Room at Homeward Bound's North Hamilton Parkway location a few times before.
The Key Room has an impressive teaching kitchen and function room and this particular evening, tables were set for a three course dinner for a bustling crowd of food and wine lovers who appreciated the pairing of a locally lauded chef demonstration with fundraising support for an outstanding job training program.
I learned how Homeward Bound's 18 week long culinary program (that would cost a student around $10,000 in any other setting), trains low income and homeless people who have sought help at the center to master the art of professional cooking skills.
Students start off with safe food handling, moving on to a second level of institutional cooking and completing their skill set with tier three positions at the Whistlestop San Rafael cafe.
An impressive 78% of students graduate and go on to find employment in the Bay Area within a month of completing the program.
Most of these success stories transition out of sheltered housing soon after.
What a fantastic role model for other shelters, especially in this region, where food service jobs are abundant.
As Chef Tony prepared three of his favorite and tastiest of dishes, a splendid Winter Citrus Salad with Shaved Fennel, Red Onion and Feta Cheese, followed by his super-comforting signature Chicken Bomba with Basil Mashed Potatoes and a melt-in your-mouth Baked Fuji Apple-Cranberry Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream, microphoned and clearly having fun, students in the kitchen could be seen busily plating dozens and dozens of the very same menu items, they'd made while their mentor for the evening was addressing the crowd.
Baked Fuju-Apple Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream
Upcoming line-up of chefs includes:
Cheryl Forberg (Biggest Loser TV Sh0w) — Feb 26th
The Webers (Della Fattoria) — March 26th
Eco-Chef Bryant — April 23rd
Laurie Figone (Home Grown Host of Cooking With Laurie) — May 14th
Tickets for each event, include chef demonstration and dinner and cost $55 per person. It's good to know that $34 of each ticket price provides for the total cost of a bed and services for a night for someone at the shelter.
Chefs such as Tony Najiola and the Webers of Della Fattoria donate their time and considerable talents to the promotion and continuation of this valuable program. Click here to reserve tickets to an upcoming event and learn more about this terrific program.
"Bringing folks together around food to learn about homelessness is a beautiful thing," said Chef Tony. "To do what they do here, more people should do it."
Diners heard how Chef Tony's Muleheart Farm provides much of the produce and pork for his restaurant, which are unusually, just two miles apart. "I'm trying to make food that reflects the rich agricultural history of Petaluma," he said. "To grow our ingredients so nearby is not doable in most places. It's traditional, good, honest cooking," he said.
There certainly were no complaints. Diners applauded the chef with a standing ovation as he left to head off back up the freeway for the last sitting of the evening at his popular restaurant.