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A Toast to Yosemite on its 150th

150 years of survival for any American institution is reason for celebration. At Yosemite National Park, a new cocktail, the Sesquicentini, marks the occasion, along with a continued focus on fine food and drink at the park’s renowned Ahwahnee Hotel.

Acknowledging that all grand events deserve their own cocktail, Food and Beverage Manager Elizabeth Birr devised the drink for the Ahwahnee Bar to honor the historic signing of the Yosemite Land Grant on June 30, 1864, by Pres. Abraham Lincoln. A mix of classic Beefeater Gin, lavender syrup, a shot of lemon juice with a splash of club soda and a lemon wheel, the martini is an elegant ode to the century-plus-fifty history of the park.


After all, Queen Elizabeth II and multiple presidents have been guests at the hotel, often called America’s castle. Since the Ahwahnee opened in 1927, the tradition of Bracebridge Dinner has been held every December. Photographer Ansel Adams was the first director of the musical pageant featuring Squire Bracebridge and the villagers. The Dining Room transforms into an Elizabethan great hall for a feast of epic proportions.


Beyond Bracebridge, the Ahwahnee’s executive chef, Percy Whatley, keeps busy during winter with two gastronomic series. Starting in November, the Vintners Holidays enable guests to mingle with three vintners for a grand reception, in-depth tastings and seminars, and a five-course gala dinner paired with the vintners’ rare or limited-release wines. In January and February, the Chefs Holidays bring together chefs from around the country for teaching demos and a multi-course dinner.


Meanwhile the Ahwahnee Dining Room is renowned year-round for its hand-cut, prime steaks and rib-eye, local and sustainable products with innovative touches. Due to his finesse in managing the park’s day-to-day food production while handling these gastronomic extravaganzas, Whatley is also corporate chef, western region for concessionaire Delaware North Company.


I’ve attended all the Ahwahnee gastronomic events, but the Chefs Holidays are the over-the-top food and drink experiences. Despite the buildup for each chef’s broad culinary platform, said Whatley, “The Chefs Holidays are actually about four friends cooking together, me and the three guest chefs.”

The camaraderie shows in the light-hearted but gourmet-serious demos. On a late January, 2014 program Chef Michael Rotondo of Parallel 37 at the Ritz-Carlton San Francisco headlined the culinary stars and prepared the six-course grand dinner. But Jerry Traunfeld of Poppy in Seattle and Laurence Jossel of NOPA and Nopalita in San Francisco pleased the crowd with their demos beforehand. At his demo Traunfeld’s made spiced fig, onion and blue cheese strudel. Would home chefs make the dough, spread out a tablecloth and stretch the dough to a three-feet by four-feet triangle? Doubtful, but everyone enjoyed watching him roll out the strudel dough until it was paper thin. Traunfeld held the audience in his thrall. Later they gobbled up the strudel in the solarium overlooking the wintry Yosemite grounds.


The chef also whipped up a lavender-rubbed duck breast with North West inspired huckleberry sauce and pomegranate red cabbage. Yet with the multi-layered dishes, the pure flavors shone through in his food. “I never want guests to ask, ‘What is that?’ Even cabbage can be cooked to great flavor.”


When it was Jossel’s turn at the demo table, he crafted a delicious butternut squash and potato gratin loaded with all the good stuff, namely butter, heavy cream, gruyere cheese with the veggies. The kicker, though, was his creamy cauliflower soup made grand with smoked salmon on top.

Chef Jossel's cauliflower soup

Rotondo made a big splash under the demo lights with his black cod brandade with Meyer lemon and niçoise olives. “I could have made pancakes and waffles but thought this would be more fun,” said the chef who staged under Paul Bocuse in Lyon and worked with Charlie Trotter in Chicago. With all the highfalutin molecular gastronomy flung around the food TV shows, Rotondo emphasized salting and curing Meyer lemons. A down-to-earth and talented chef who managed to feed 170 guests an elaborate and refined six-course dinner with seeming ease with two of his sous chefs.


To that point, consider the first course of “borscht in different textures.” Beets, here there and everywhere on the plate as chips, juice and fresh Chioggia slices with crème fraiche, onion-caraway cream—a delicious medley of flavors and textures. The Qupé Wine Cellars Marsanne 2012 was one of the many fine wine pairings. The next courses included soy-marinated black cod, soup of black trumpet mushrooms, the main of espresso-rubbed venison loin, chestnut purée, celery root and 72 percent chocolate.


I confess that I never made it for the dessert of satsuma Mandarin with surprises. Instead I headed to the Ahwahnee and ordered a Firefall cocktail named after the firefall that used to be held at Glacier Point.  A spicy winter cocktail, it matched the cool January night.


But now that summer has arrived, I yearn to return to Yosemite to admire the beauty of El Capitan, Yosemite Falls and Half Dome and hike in the valley. I would then head over to the Ahwahnee Bar to order the refreshing Sesquicentini with its gin and lavender notes. Time to toast Yosemite, one of America’s great treasures.




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