Stephen Barber, executive chef of Farmstead, brings his own ingredient-driven approach to the St. Helena restaurant that's creating a culinary buzz.
Housed in a former nursery barn, the 110-seat restaurant is casual and revolves around an open kitchen. A part of Long Meadow Ranch, Farmstead serves up an authentic farm-to-table menu created with sustainable and organic ingredients.
Barber hails from a small town in Kentucky, and his dishes are influenced by his Southern cooking styles.
He began his culinary career at City Grocery in Mississippi, where he worked under Chef John Currence, who was featured on Top Chef Masters this last season. From there he went to Miami, and then headed to San Francisco and became executive chef of MECCA.
In 2007 he opened in Napa.
Though he's now cooking Upvalley, Barber remains a city resident who embraces everything Napa and likens it to the town where he grew up. Speaking with a soft Southern lilt, Barber said, “Napa has a real sense of community.”
Julie: What sets Farmstead apart?
Stephen: We have the ability to control pretty much 90 percent of the product that comes in our door. We have the gardens with a full-time farmer, produce our own olive oil, and make our own wine.
Julie: That sounds like a chef’s dream.
Stephen: I walk through the gardens every morning and get inspired for the menu. A lot of chefs never get to do that.
Julie: How do you achieve the right balance between comfort food and high-end cuisine?
Stephen: When you’re dealing with this kind of produce and product, you don’t have to do a whole lot to it. Of course (smiling), it’s a little more refined than going to Grandma’s house. We take it further with our cooking techniques.
Julie: Like what?
Stephen: I rely on a smoker quite a bit. And our new outside cooking area is pretty exciting – we have a plancha, a cast-iron grill we use over live fire. And of course there’s the wood-burning element.
Julie: How much kitchen staff do you have?
Stephen: Three sous chefs and about 22 line cooks.
Julie: Quite an operation! Do you like the mentoring aspect of the business?
Stephen: I love it, because that’s how I got started. There’s a girl here now who came from New York, just because she was interested in our operation.
Julie: You recently did a James Beard dinner and invited the first chef you worked with, John Currens. That must have been fun.
Stephen: It was a blast.
Julie: Have you tried your hand at winemaking?
Stephen: Not really, this is what I do. Though I did live with two winemakers at one point and we made wine at home in small batches.
Julie: How involved are you with the customers?
Stephen: I try to get out on the floor as much as possible. The other day I’d been playing around with some pimento cheese in the back, just for a little bar snack. I discovered a table of people from Alabama, and sent some to their table. They just lit up.
Julie: It was probably unlike any pimento cheese they’d ever had.
Stephen: Not the Velveeta version. But there’s nothing wrong with that, don’t get me wrong.
Julie: Spoken like a true Southern gentleman.