John Toulze is the Executive Chef at the girl & the fig located on the Square in downtown Sonoma, California. The girl & the fig also has a related café & wine bar, catering operations, and a presence in many winery tasting rooms and retailers through their line of the girl & the fig foods. Considering this budding mini-empire John Toulze must be living his life-long dream right? Oddly - not. John never aspired to be a Chef. As he says "food was something that I fell into and it became my natural fall back". John had no crowning moment when he decided to become a Chef. Instead he simply became a Chef because as he says "it's natural for me. I don't have to think about it. I don't have to struggle to do it. I'm very lucky in that food is a very easy medium for me to work with". Before becoming a Chef what did John want to be? Well, it turns out he went to business school and was planning on being an accountant! Training that has certainly helped with the business aspects of being a restaurateur but not typical Chef training.
While John didn't envision himself a Chef, food has always been part of his life. He says "I've had wonderful food experiences across my life and in my family". John repeats these themes of family and food often, attributing his family and upbringing in an American household with a second generation Frenchman father as pivotal to his attachment to food. As John says "what brought me into food wasn't any particular place I worked but it was more my family". He continues saying "all of my memories, as a child, revolve around food". In these memories his father is central. He recounts stories of his father making homemade head cheese and his father leaving cheese on top of their refrigerator waiting for it to get "stinky enough" to eat. His father would also recruit him to assist in many of these food tasks such as shelling beans together on the couch and helping in the garden. One task his father assigned him frequently earned him the title "butter boy". As John recalls "my father loved to make all kinds of different things with butter". His father's favorite was shallot and parsley compound butter. John would first pick a bunch of parsley and shallots and then combine them with a few pounds of butter by kneading it with a fork "until it was bright green".
As John speaks, it is clear he always relates his memories to his family's life in the kitchen and as he says "I always found myself gravitating towards the kitchen … looking back, all of my recollections tend to be about food". But what is equally obvious is that these reflections do not include sitting at the table eating and enjoying the food. This remains true today for as John says "I like preparing. I like to see the nine raw ingredients go somewhere. But rarely do I like to sit down and eat it. I don't actually really enjoy eating my own food, I enjoy creating my own food. Once it's created I'm done with it! I like to create it and then move on to something else". John's passions revolve around the creating and preparing of his food, a passion he defines as "instant gratification - hundreds of times a day".
Throughout our conversation I can hear background kitchen noise and suspect that as we speak John is actively creating something. Indeed, when speaking about how his recipes are a natural extension of the food he receives, John mentions he is braising rabbit for the "Braised Rabbit Pasta" dish that is currently on the girl & the fig menu. What is his view of the dish? He describes the dish as a "simple braised rabbit pasta" (see recipe below). The essence of the dish, he says, is "about getting local rabbits, breaking them down, marinating them, slowly braising them, working them with the freshest vegetables, ingredients, and pasta". This is what exemplifies all of his food. He strives to use every usable part and create the dish so that "what you are really eating is the work and skills of the kitchen and the farmer". John hopes that this is what comes through for all of his recipes. Achieving this goal does not mean making things more complex. In fact, John is constantly simplifying saying "the more I cook, the more I'm in the industry, the less and less I find myself doing to the food". John not only wants simple food but he is also humble about himself saying that "the last thing I want is people to know I made the food. I just want them to know it's good and it's genuine. If they want to associate it with me so be it".
This humble view of himself and his food is surely part of what makes John's food great.
What aspirations does John hold these days for his future? He wants to keep working on the girl & the fig to make it "an icon" while pursuing a balance in his life and says he isn't "looking to be famous". For the girl & the fig, he wants it "to represent the Sonoma community" and "to shape Sonoma the right way" as an "alliance between the chef and the farmer" creating a "little community amongst ourselves with simple, honest clean goals". Ultimately he hopes the girl & the fig will "come across as many people as possible so they'll enjoy the fruits of our labor". A goal he seems well on his way toward achieving.
the girl & the fig 10 West Spain Street Sonoma, CA. 95476
Braised Rabbit Pappardelle with Spring Vegetables
- 1 fresh whole rabbit (2 ½ - 3 pounds)
- 2 ounces blended oil (we have a blend of 25% olive oil and 75% canola oil on hand at all times)
- 1 large carrot, peeled & chopped
- 2 celery ribs, chopped
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 4 cloves peeled garlic
- 3 Roma tomatoes, chopped
- 1 cup red wine (we use syrah)
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 bunch fresh thyme
- 10 black peppercorns
- 5 cups veal stock or chicken stock
- 3 bunches baby carrots, blanched & peeled
- ½ cup English peas, blanched
- ½ cup fava beans, blanched & peeled
- ½ cup roasted garlic cloves
- 1 pound pappardelle
- 2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 4 tablespoons whole grain mustard
- 6 ounces diced (¼") & cooked pancetta
- 4 tablespoons butter
Preheat oven to 350.
Break down the rabbit (or have butcher do for you) into front and hind legs and saddle. Reserve the trimmings and rib cage. Place the bones and trimmings on a sheet tray or roasting pan and roast in 350' oven until golden brown. Set aside.
Heat a heavy bottomed Dutch oven or similar oven proof pan over medium-high heat. Season the rabbit legs and saddle generously with salt and pepper. Add the blended oil to pan and sear the rabbit on all sides until golden brown, remove and set aside.
Keep the pot over heat and add the carrot, celery, onion, garlic & tomatoes and cook until ingredients have caramelized. Deglaze with the red wine. Add the herbs, peppercorns, rabbit, roasted bones and trimmings, and stock and bring to a simmer. Cover and place the entire pot in the oven. Cook until the rabbit meat begins to pull away from bone (between two & three hours). Remove the pot from oven and let cool until you can remove items with your hands. Remove the saddle and legs from the pot and pull the meat from the bones. Set aside.
Strain the cooking liquid and skim any fat off the top. Place the liquid back in the pot and reduce by half and set aside.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil. Cook the pasta until just tender or al dente. Toss lightly with olive oil and set aside.
In a large sauté pan (large enough to hold all ingredients) place 5 cups of the braising liquid, whole grain mustard, pancetta and rabbit. Bring the ingredients to a simmer and cook until the mixture begins to thicken slightly. Add the baby carrots, English peas, fava beans, roasted garlic and pasta. Cook until heated through, finish with butter, season with salt and pepper as needed.
Portion into six large bowls and serve immediately.