John Ash is one of Sonoma County’s local gems. He is the pioneering visionary who came to Sonoma County in the 1970s and started the movement of building relationships with local farmers, cooking with their ingredients, and pairing his food with the wines that were being produced in the area.
Today John is an award-winning chef, culinary instructor, cookbook author, food writer, radio show host, and one of the nicest people you’ll meet. If you get a chance to take one of his cooking classes, you’ll get a taste of Sonoma County hospitality at its best. And you’ll learn to make some great food too.
Recently, he sat down with Inside Sonoma to discuss his storied career in Sonoma County. In the coming months, you’ll see more recipes and blogs from John, as well as Q&As with him and other local chefs. Stay tuned for a tasty read.
Q: How long have you lived in Sonoma County, and what brought you here?
I’ve lived here for more than 35 years. I came from San Francisco to open a restaurant and winery with friends Merry Edwards, and Don and Kay Baumhefner. We took on the task of reopening (and basically rebuilding) the Russian River Vineyards property on Highway 116, which had been closed for a couple of years. It reminded me so much of the countryside of France. Unfortunately the owner turned out to be a gangster so we all left to do other things; Merry to start Matanzas Creek Winery with Sandra McIver, and me to open the private restaurant at Bodega Harbor. Another colorful story.
Q: Why do people refer to you as “The Father of Wine Country Cuisine”?
I think because I was one of the first to really bring food and wine together as something more than an afterthought. When I opened the first John Ash & Company in 1980, we had a wonderful wine shop that Don Baumhefner managed. We were really dedicated to educating ourselves and our customers about wine.
Remember that in 1980, wine, even in Sonoma County, was not the staple that it is now. Every week we would do something wine related: Special tastings, wine dinners, meet the winemaker events, New world vs. Old world challenges. All of this happened long before it became fashionable to do those kinds of events. To get into the restaurant you had to walk through our wine shop, and we encouraged wine sales by making available any wine from the shop at retail price with no corkage in the restaurant. Pretty novel in those times.
Q: You have always been an advocate for eating food from local sources, which seems to be commonplace these days. What other eating habits would like to see become everyday practices in kitchens across the country?
Eating local encourages all kinds of things, not the least of which is a vibrant local agricultural community. I’ve long been an advocate of what I call “ethical” foods too. By that I mean knowing how the food you are serving is produced, harvested, and packaged. My touchstone for that position was an essay I read about 40 years ago by Wendell Berry, called the “Pleasures of Eating.” I recommend this read to anyone who is serious about food and farming. Of course, my friendship with M.F.K. Fisher also helped me to deepen my commitments.
Let’s say you’re having four or five of your best friends over for dinner this coming Saturday night. What are you going to make? And what wine will you serve?
Something really simple. When the weather is warm I love to grill pizza. It’s participative, and everyone can make their own. I’d serve wines from Sonoma County of course. Both a red and a white, the latter of which is my world.
2 ½ tsp. Active dry yeast
2 cups Warm water
2 tsp. Sugar
1 ½ tsp. Table salt or 3 tsp. kosher salt
½ cup Finely ground corn meal or whole wheat flour
3 Tbsp. Olive oil
4-4 ½ cups Unbleached all-purpose flour
- In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a dough hook stir the yeast into the warm water with sugar.
- After 5 minutes it should begin to bubble then stir in the salt, corn meal and 1 Tablespoon of the olive oil.
- Add the flour, stirring at low speed until the dough forms a rough ball and pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 4 minutes. You may need to add a little flour or water here.
- Let the dough rest in the bowl for 15 minutes. It should be fairly soft.
- Remove from the bowl and divide the dough into 4 equal pieces.
- Gently round each piece into a ball and brush or rub with a little olive oil.
- Place each into a zippered plastic storage bag and drizzle remaining olive oil (1 teaspoon or so) over each ball and seal the bags closed.
- Let the balls sit for at least 30 minutes. You can also refrigerated them overnight at this point and make pizzas the next day. Sitting overnight actually gives you a better flavor in the dough. If you’ve refrigerated them, take them out of the refrigerator at least 2 hours before you plan to make the pizzas.
- Alternately you can freeze the dough for up to 3 months. Again plan to let the dough thaw and come to room temperature before using.