Personality of rustic, yet refined
Talk to the entrepreneurs, chefs and servers of Yamhill Valley diners and restaurants and you may hear the tune of "Kumbaya" in your head. The story of this region’s foodie scene is part spiritual (as food is for many) and part folk revival. It’s about respecting the land, connecting with people and pushing the boundaries using creativity and innovation.
But back to that Kumbaya feeling.
“We are a family,” says Sunny Jim, executive chef of Jory at The Allison in Newberg. “We excel with one another through sharing resources, supporting our neighbors and farmers (often the same person), and believing in the greater good which will forever be our responsibility to our community.”
The term farm-to-fork is endemic in the Yamhill Valley. It’s not a slogan, a branding or a marketing strategy for area restaurants. It’s simply how things are done. The local restaurant industry utilizes the abundance and proximity of small, diversified farms, along with a broad range of producers of craft food and beverage products using area ingredients.
“To label a restaurant down here as ‘Farm to Table’ is almost redundant,” says Jason Fritz, chef of Thistle in McMinnville. “It’s amazing the amount of phenomenal products that are accessible within just a few miles from our restaurants.”
Like the classic Northwest gastronomy as a whole, the wine country dining scene is ingredient-driven. Yamhill County truly embraces the bounty of Oregon -- and happens to be one of the world's best wine growing regions.
"This community is one-of-a-kind, where you are in the middle of this bountiful land and you are watching all the changes as the seasons change," said Shiloh Ficek, chef of Red Hills Market in Dundee. "I love talking with all the winemakers throughout the year and getting the play-by-play on when they're bottling and what wines are being released."
The small town charm and genuine camaraderie of the valley’s small to mid-size communities attract increasing numbers of talented chefs to the area, in part because the flair of big city dining is imbued in the experience. The balance of rural charm and urban class “is a beautiful combination that feels personal and unique to the area,” according to Jesse Valle, executive chef of La Rambla and Gem Creole Saloon on McMinnville’s Third Street.
“It’s real here,” said Valley Commissary owner and chef Jesse Kincheloe. “I’m from California wine country, and I can say I’m much more proud to see the growth here based on the amazing wine and food.”
“Rustic, yet refined; contemporary, while classic,” said Paul Bachand, chef of Newberg's Recipe — A Neighborhood Kitchen, a description to be attributed to both the meals prepared by local chefs and the inspiration around them. “We all share a common and genuine interest in our local community of purveyors. We have all established our own cooking style as it truly reflects our individual personalities.”
Where wining meets fine dining
It's a tossup debating who most enjoys the special dining experiences of the Yamhill Valley's winemakers dinners: the attendees, or the chefs and staff who put them on.
These type of special events "usually get the restaurant out of its normal routine and menu, which is always kind of cool," says Michael Stiller, manager and co-owner of Tina's Restaurant in Dundee, which opened in 1991. Tina's is one of the oldest wine country dining operations in the valley, building a special kinship with the wine industry that it rightly predicted would blossom. Today, winemaker's dinners are hosted by myriad restaurants, wineries and event spaces throughout the valley. They all offer a unique experience, part intimacy and indulgence.
Winemakers select what varietals and vintages they wish to pour, and then it's up to the chefs to create a unique meal best presented with the wine.
"They're really valuable for both analytical tasting and for pure enjoyment," Stiller said. "There's another whole layer of analysis that's allowed that enhances both the food and the wine."
Tina's chef Norma Buccholz said the process starts with tasting the wines to be served and classifying distinct flavors in each. Then it's mostly chef intuition in deciding what plates would make a great match. "If we are unsure of something, I'll cook up a sample before we commit."
Winemaker's (and brewmaker's) dinners are happening all the time in the valley. Expect to pay between $50 and $100 a person for tickets.