By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
NAPA, Calif. -- He's a product of Cleveland who says he was "the worst cook in the kitchen" when he started his career. Years later, in a restaurant near San Francisco, he became so obsessed with pork that he created a 14-course tasting menu to celebrate it.
Now, at a California wine country restaurant that shares its quarters with a yoga studio and draws on Zulu for its name, Jeremy Fox is serving a meatless menu that is capturing the interest of some of the biggest names in the food business and changing the way many of his customers look at vegetables.
Cauliflower is the Ugly Betty of the garden, right? At Ubuntu, Fox reveals the lowly vegetable's inner beauty in a dish that layers roasted, pureed and raw cauliflower in individual cast-iron pots and gets its seductive kick from vadouvan, a trendy Indian spice blend. Even if you think you don't like cauliflower, this recipe will change your mind.
"Oh, my God! It was the piece de resistance," says Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who lunched at Ubuntu last June but remembers the meal as if it were sitting in front of him. The French chef, whose eponymous restaurant in New York is one of a handful of four-star dining rooms there, also marveled at the way Fox served strawberries in place of tomatoes as sauce on a margherita pizza and "the tiniest peas I've ever seen in my life" in a soup garnished with crushed macadamia nuts and chocolate mint. "Spring on a plate," Vongerichten said in praising the dish.
In Fox's hands, pureed carrots work magic in a Technicolor macaroni-and-cheese casserole, while beet pulp is dehydrated, mixed with pistachios and turned into "soil," a textural element on a sampler of beets. Earlier this month, calcots (large scallions) were being prepared in the Catalan style: charred over a fire, wrapped in newspaper to "steam" them, then shed of their skins and dipped in romesco sauce.
"I like to impress with everyday vegetables," says Fox, 32. What distinguishes Ubuntu from so many of its flesh-free brethren are plates of imagination and skill, based on impeccable ingredients. Its dishes don't taste like accompaniments or afterthoughts, but fully developed compositions. Blood sausage is one of the last things you'd expect to find in a place like this, but Fox makes a convincing facsimile that involves Italian black rice, apple, radishes, onion and sweet spices.
In a study released last year, Vegetarian Times magazine reported that 3.2 percent of adults in the United States said they followed a vegetarian diet and another 10 percent said they adhered to a "vegetarian-inclined" eating plan. Ubuntu is the rare breed of restaurant that satisfies those demographics as well as those for whom meat isn't a four-letter word.
To check out the chef's larder, you have to drive six miles from the restaurant, where his source of inspiration is a one-acre garden with a view of Mount George. Together with a small greenhouse, it provides up to half of what Ubuntu needs for its menu in the cold months and about 75 percent in summer. Plans call for doubling the size of the plot this summer, says the chef, a move that "could put us close to growing everything." Vivid even in late fall, when I visited, the ground was a carefully tended bouquet of giant red mustard greens and brilliant orange nasturtiums. No fewer than 10 types of radishes could be counted.
When Fox calls something fresh, he means it; what's picked early in the morning is at the restaurant by the afternoon.
The luxury of a garden that provides a restaurant with most of its ingredients is not without its little challenges. Fox, who visits the plot once a week, says it "forces me to be more flexible." The elongated forono beets, among other things, don't just appear on demand. The chef's strategy is reflected in his menu, a concise dozen or so dishes. Still, getting to focus exclusively on vegetables means Fox has time to play with them, to observe them in different growing stages and see how they might be used in less-traditional but nevertheless delicious ways. When they're young, he points out, his carrots are the size of thumbtacks and as sweet as candy. Before they're mature, Fox might clip off their not-yet-bitter green tops and swirl them into pesto. "We try to use everything," he says. Those carrot tops are also pressed into service as liners separating bowls from plates, to keep dishes from slipping and thereby saving on linens.
The airy dining room at Ubuntu (a Zulu word that means "humanity toward others") makes as green a statement as the garden. Much of the decor is repurposed or salvaged; the floors are lined with what used to be shipping crates, and most of the chairs and tables come from movie sets. The long communal table running nearly the length of the rock-walled dining room? It's part of a felled redwood tree, recrafted by a local environmentalist. A quartet of ghostlike ceramic statues, standing side by side, completes the interior. One of the four figures is standing on his head in a signature yoga position. Appropriately, the collection is known as "Alternative Perspective."
As for that yoga studio, it's located behind smoked glass on the second floor of Ubuntu, and though its presence initially concerned Fox, he thinks the two businesses make good housemates. It's not uncommon to see students stroll through Ubuntu's door, mats in hand, but "there are no sweaty people" interrupting anyone's meal, the chef says.
Don't call his restaurant "vegetarian," by the way. Fox and his boss, Sandy Lawrence, prefer the descriptor "vegetable." Ubuntu's owner explains that she'd rather the focus be on "a celebration of the garden" than on the fact that no meat is served there. Fox thinks of what he does as "just another type of cuisine, like Chinese or French."
If it all sounds too precious, too touchy-feely, too California, there are a few things you should know about Fox and his philosophy. He made it clear when he started at Ubuntu two years ago that his restaurant wouldn't be using tofu or seitan, ingredients that lend themselves to food jokes, or forgoing butter and cream. He's aware that his situation in California's wine country, where the growing season is basically every season, makes it easier than it would be elsewhere in the country to sustain such a place. ("I can't imagine doing this in Minnesota.")
And another thing: Fox remains a dedicated carnivore. Though he has given up his fascination with pigs, he's apt to order a steak when he dines away from home. "We try not to be too serious," Fox says, which is one reason he likes serving flatbread at his restaurant. He likes to see people "tear pieces off and grab at it." In other words, he encourages eating with one's fingers. In person, he's quiet, a little shy, a bear cub of a man. But to watch him assemble even a salad, to observe him positioning a broccoli floret just so with bird's-eye tweezers, is to watch a master technician at work.
Despite his reserved nature, Fox had enough gumption to compete in last week's celebrity-studded South Beach Wine & Food Festival in Miami, a four-day event that featured a hamburger competition involving some of the best-known chefs in the country. He was told that his entry, a vegan burger made with his faux blood sausage and served with sauerkraut, could win the audience award but not the sponsor's award. Something about the cook-off being co-hosted by Allen Brothers, the Chicago-based meat purveyors. (His patty, which relied on potato starch for a crisp crust and agar-agar for juiciness, did not place in the top three.)
Ubuntu is a long way from Fox's upbringing in Ohio, where he says he grew up on Burger King and other not-so-slow food. He was two courses shy of graduating from Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, S.C., in 1998, but was already working at Anson Restaurant as a line cook; there, he "got yelled at a lot" but also had his "eyes opened to what good ingredients were for the first time." From there, he moved on to restaurant jobs in Atlanta, Belgium, San Francisco and Los Gatos, Calif., where he worked at the acclaimed Manresa under chef David Kinch, whom Fox calls his greatest inspiration. "He was never satisfied" with what he already knew, recalls Fox. "Even in his 40s," Kinch was hungry to learn and evolve. Although Fox had six years of professional experience under his belt, he joined Manresa as a line cook in 2003, working up to the position of chef de cuisine two years later.
Fox says he doesn't miss working with meat, although he sometimes wishes he could tap the flavor of, say, anchovy for his cooking. "I love bagna cauda," the hot Italian dipping sauce, he volunteers. The chef figured out how to mimic the intensity of the mashed fish therein by blending miso with lemon and garlic.
Lawrence found Fox through a search firm. "He nailed every single dish" during his tryout, she recalls, including that cauliflower number that the chef says landed him the gig. (It helped that his wife, Deanie, made the desserts for the trial. She went on to become Ubuntu's pastry chef, tapping the garden's beehive for sweetener.) Like Fox, Lawrence is a carnivore, although her two children are married to vegetarians; and as a yoga practitioner who hosted workshops in the area and stressed the occasional "detox" from meat in the diet, she had difficulty finding a restaurant that satisfied everyone's preferences. Ubuntu solves her problem.
It wasn't long after Ubuntu opened two summers ago that the raves and awards followed. Last year, Food & Wine magazine hailed Fox as one of the best new chefs in America, and the San Francisco Chronicle, which bestowed three stars on the restaurant less than three months after it opened, anointed him a "Rising Star." I consider Ubuntu to be the most intriguing meat-free zone in the country.
The 85-seat restaurant turns out to be a surprisingly affordable fashion statement. Dinner checks average about $45, exclusive of alcohol. As for its audience, Fox says the majority of customers are meat eaters. He knows that in part because they approach him after they've eaten his food, sometimes to make a confession: Going in, some skeptics tell him, they were glad to spot a steakhouse next to Ubuntu, just in case. But he's always relieved to hear them say afterward, "I didn't need a steak."