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Interview: The Vineyard Kitchen | Maria Helm Sinskey

THE BOOK The Vineyard Kitchen: Menus Inspired by the Seasons by Maria Helm Sinskey (HarperCollins), $32.50, 392 pages, black-and-white photos.

THE GIST Homey yet sophisticated seasonal menus from a former chef who became culinary director of a top Napa vineyard.

THE IDEAL READER The cook who loves working with the best seasonal ingredients.

THE EXTRAS Helpful wine recommendations for every menu.

BACKGROUND Born in Albany, New York; lives in Napa Valley, California.

EDUCATION Attended California Culinary Academy.

EXPERIENCE "Before I went to cooking school, I worked in catering as a sideline to an advertising career, but it wasn't really considered a business. I was doing it illegally out of my own kitchen, which I'm sure wasn't up to code." Sinskey went on to land a job at San Francisco's PlumpJack Café, where she became a FOOD & WINE Best New Chef 1996.

HOW SHE CAME TO LOVE FOOD "I grew up in a large family that was obsessed with food. It rubbed off. We spent all of our holidays at my grandparents' houses, which were two blocks from each other. My paternal grandmother was from Alsace; her table was always piled high with strange meats and sea creatures. Beef tongue and sauerkraut were a highlight. My maternal grandmother was the daughter of Italian immigrants. I couldn't get enough of her meatballs, lasagna and pastini in chicken broth with Parmesan. I also loved my great-grandmother's manicotti and braciola."

HOW SHE CAME TO LIVE IN WINE COUNTRY "In 1997, while I was the chef at PlumpJack Café, I met and married Rob Sinskey of Robert Sinskey Vineyards in Napa. I stayed on at PlumpJack while working part-time for the winery. Six months after my first daughter, Ella, was born, in 1998, I took over as culinary director at the winery so that I could be closer to home."

WHY SHE WROTE THE BOOK "When I was at PlumpJack Café, many people asked me to write a book because they loved my food. But I was too busy. Then I got married and had two kids, and amidst all of the chaos, the timing was suddenly right. The bulk of the book poured out in four weeks. In the process I glanced at other cookbooks to see what they looked like. I found them so confusing that I just closed them and put them away. I realized that I knew what I wanted to do, and it wasn't really very complicated."

MENTOR Carol Field. "I've always loved her books. I think her writing is so good and her books are so well done. She inspired me."

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT "My stove, a 60-inch Viking range. I love it because it has stood by me through thick and thin. It has its quirks, but I don't know any stove that doesn't. I love it so much that I bought a second one for the winery's test kitchen. I can't cook without it."

ESSENTIAL STAPLE INGREDIENTS "Butter and eggs. Also thyme, shallots and cheese. And don't get me started on cheese."

FAVORITE SEASONAL INGREDIENT Tomatoes. "I don't eat them all winter long, but when they come in, I just eat them constantly until the season is over. And of course, the ones I grow myself are the best."

ON PAIRING WINE AND FOOD "My favorite pairing is roasted squab with Pinot Noir; my least favorite is fish with a heavy red wine. I don't think that tomatoes are as difficult to pair with wines as some people say they are. You simply need a wine that is high in acid with bright fruit, like a Sangiovese or Dolcetto, or a nice Pinot Grigio. In general, my best advice on pairing wine and food is, don't be afraid. You can always open up another bottle if you make a mistake."

ON COOKING WITH WINE "Always simmer and reduce wine after adding it to a dish. This burns off the raw alcohol edge and concentrates the flavors. Wine adds a nice acidity to an almost-finished dish."

ON COOKING FOR KIDS "If you involve your kids in making something—by having them roll out the pasta, say, or season the meat—they will eat it. I know this for a fact. My kids like to help with anything sweet, especially cake. They can't wait to lick the beaters. They'll also try anything once, and that's all I ask. If they don't like it, they don't have to eat it. Fighting over food issues can create lifelong problems."

COOKBOOK TREND "I've noticed a trend toward simpler food and home cooking."

WHY GLUTTONY'S GOOD "A passion for food, wine and nature unites vineyard chefs around the world. It's a good kind of gluttony!"

FAVORITE CHEESE "Gruyère has a wonderfully nutty taste with a hint of salt. It melts and browns beautifully—it makes a killer cheese sandwich on peasant bread. And I just love it in gougères, Burgundian cheese puffs."

Published October 2004
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