by Jack Penland
The Orchard Kitchen is what your great-grandmother’s kitchen might have looked like. That is, if your great-grandmother had Michelin-rated training, had stoked, stocked, and stirred top restaurants in the Napa Valley. It might be hers if she had a vision of creating a culinary experience and Food Hub promoting sustainable eating by connecting diners with the food they eat, and designed a top-of-the-line modern kitchen that has the stage presence of a rock concert.
But she didn’t.
Vincent and Tyla Natress did. The humbly call their place a “country kitchen.” Which, given its location on a five-acre farm on Whidbey Island, probably makes sense.
Kitchen as Center Stage
“You can tell this place was designed by a chef,” chef Vincent told us. The kitchen dominates, while the dining area plays only a supporting role.
But the kitchen has attitude. In the way a lighting grid dominates a concert stage, above the giant butcher-block center island hangs a monstrous overhead rack for pots, pans, tongs, and other cooking tools. Halogen lights bathe the stage in warm, inviting light.
Today, it is filled with all manner of fresh food, including, grapefruit, kohlrabi, lemons, Vialone Nano rice, and, at center-stage, live crab. The stage backdrop is rows of spices and to the side are ovens, stoves and all manner of ways to cook food.
Chef Vincent would not be performing on this day. Today, we, the audience would be joining him on stage for some culinary stagecraft – cooking school. Eight of us were at our stations around the butcher-block stage, ready to learn, and more than ready to eat!
Orchard Kitchen Cooking Class
Vincent begins the cooking class by explaining that purchasing live crab is the only way to know they are fresh. Indeed, the center-stage crabs are moving. We get a demonstration of how to pick up a crab without it “getting us” with its claws. We each try the hold with a live crab and cell phone cameras pop out to capture the moment.
He has a pot of water boiling on the stove. In it are carrots, celery, and onions. There’s also plenty of salt. “It should taste like the sea,” Vincent says, explaining that too little salt and the water will start draining the taste from the crab. We each get a spoon, taste it, and make a mental note.
We learn two ways to cook the crab, whole and half. He dispatches one by halving it with a meat cleaver. Another is dropped in the pot of boiling water. After they’re cooked he shares another secret, cool the crabs in ice for as many minutes as you cooked them.
The Orchard Kitchen presents a Farmhouse dinner two to three nights a week, caters special events, and offers cooking classes. The kitchen operates year round. Chef Vincent explained that he wanted to create something for people to do when the weather offers only gray skies and rain. The kitchen sits next to a multi-acre garden run by Ebb Tide Produce. The garden supplies not only The Orchard Kitchen, but also sells produce to the general public.
Vincent grew up on Whidbey Island, owned or managed several successful fine-dining restaurants in northern California’s wine region. Tyla’s expertise is wine and service, especially in the demanding area of special events and catering. Together, they opened Roux in the heart of Napa Valley. The food and specialty wine put Roux one the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top Ten Restaurants of 2001.”
The day continues with several ways to prepare and serve crab; a crab salad with kohlrabi and grapefruit, a risotto with crab butter and mascarpone cream, and cracked crab with white wine, garlic and lemon.
Vincent pays attention to the detail, and jumps in for remedial onion cutting or risotto stirring. Tyla turns the kohlrabi and crab salad into works of art as students dig in to help.
The class is very much hands on, with each student getting many opportunities to try Vincent’s techniques. Tyla is the official taster, passing judgment on each dish before they’re taken to the table.
We dish up our own risotto, and Vincent gives us tips for proper presentation. We then sit family-style around a long wooden table and enjoy our crab. Vincent quizzes a couple of us about what we learned, but soon the conversation drifts to food in general, likes and dislikes, and the general warm feeling that comes with making new friends and great food.
Soon, we head home with our stack of recipes from the day’s cooking. The pages are crammed with notes, a bit wrinkled, and a few traces of food. Over the next days and weeks, we try a slicing technique, a sauce, and maybe an entire recipe, and a little of the Orchard Kitchen attitude is now in our homes.