Before the first rye old-fashioned arrived, before I snagged a leaf from a wood-grilled artichoke and forked into the taut skin of a fire-blackened fish, a stranger offered me a drumstick. The gesture was casual: She had just finished dinner. A blond-brown leg and a thigh remained before her. I had just arrived. The place mat before me was bare.
Farmstead, a truss-beamed barn of a restaurant deep in the Napa Valley of California, pulsed with surety and bonhomie on that Tuesday evening. Svelte tourists communed in butterscotch leather booths. Locals wandered the spruce- and fir-shaded campus that flanks the restaurant, ogling the vegetable patch, sipping rosé, talking hot-tub maintenance strategies. (I eavesdropped.) Off-the-clock winemakers table-hopped amid milk-bottle-vased bouquets of poofy flowers. Considering the mood and the buzz, an offer of free food from a stranger didn’t seem exceptional; it seemed inevitable.
Here in St. Helena, where trellised vineyards nip at two-lane roadways, the Tuesday night Farmstead menu always features fried chicken. Cooked in lard, served family-style with wide bowls of mashed potatoes and sawmill gravy, chef Stephen Barber’s crusted bird was inspired by Michael Bauer, the long-tenured San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic and kingmaker. When Barber learned that Bauer, a Kansas native, is a big fan of the fried chicken served by the Brookville Hotel in Abilene, he begged an invitation to work in its kitchen. Three days later, Barber returned to California to flour-dredge and lard-fry chicken as the Martin family has done since 1915. Judging by that drumstick, he learned his lessons well.
That Brookville stage proves a larger point: Dishes that Southerners regard as birthrights are not exclusive to our region. Forty-plus states grow corn, from which grits are ground. Barbecue is a harvest celebration food, bound to the universal rhythms of farm life. And fried chicken, whether cooked in Mississippi or Kansas, is a farmer’s dish, born of backyard flocks and rural thrift.
Born in Madisonville, Kentucky, Barber doesn’t play the sweet-tea card. He doesn’t traffic in stereotypes or stage pageants. At a moment when Southern cultural outputs, from music to fashion to food, are accorded new respect, his cooking reminds diners that Southern dishes are defining American dishes. Just as Kentucky native Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter”—which I heard while knifing into a heritage pork chop with jalapeño grits and broccolini—is a defining American song.
On a recent swing through Napa, I ate four meals at Farmstead in three days. Each time I met the kind of folk who freely share drumsticks. A waitress who slid me a glass of cabernet franc promised, “If you don’t like it, I’ll drink it myself.” When the kitchen ran out of fava beans, Kipp Ramsey, who serves as sous chef and manages the ranch-to-kitchen operations, darted into the adjacent gardens to pick an apronful for our table. (Fried in a lacy batter, they showed up five minutes later, drizzled with a garlicky romesco sauce.)
Once I claimed Farmstead as my own, I quit trying to figure out which restaurant to try next. Instead of dashing about the valley, ordering appetizers to test the mettle of chefs, I aimed to become a Farmstead regular. Intent on returning and reconnecting, I succumbed to the rhythms of a well-run restaurant.
Breakfast, served from a screen-windowed hutch next door, begins with fresh-squeezed carrot juice spiked with ginger. Lunch or dinner rewards a deep menu survey, beginning with those artichokes. Roasted in a wood-burning oven, delivered with a bullet of egg-yolk-pebbled gribiche and a fire-blistered lemon half, they taste vegetal and bright, like a fantasy of what California sunshine promises. Biscuits, speckled with cheddar and piled with shaved ham, cured and cherrywood smoked on premises, reference Barber’s home state, where ham-stuffed biscuits reach their apogee, and Virginia, where Barber studied the curing craft with the Tidewater ham master Sam Edwards III.
A mound of cannellini beans, served alongside a brick-cooked chicken, proves a heady reminder that, when cooked slowly and with care, legumes and onions are soulfully delicious. Scattered with bacon cubes and drenched in pecan butter, blackened fish, with creamed sweet potatoes and wilted collard greens, steers the narrative back to the South. Barber’s version owes inspiration to the late chef Paul Prudhomme of Louisiana and relies on farm-raised trout from Passmore Ranch near Sacramento.
I also returned to wander the grounds. Farmstead is the centerpiece for Long Meadow Ranch, a more-than-two-thousand-acre agricultural enclave that sprawls across three counties. Tucked behind a wall of foliage along a traffic-clogged stretch of St. Helena’s Main Street, the Farmstead compound recalls a summer camp for good eaters. A provisions shop vends herb-roasted Napa almonds and wines made from Long Meadow grapes. A restored flatbed truck, parked at an angle, frames the country-chic campus. Adirondack chairs face a fire pit. Beneath towering redwoods, the horseshoe pit always seems to be open. The outdoor bar, perched alongside the entrance to the restaurant, always seems to be crowded.
Long Meadow Ranch is no mere backdrop for Barber’s kitchen skills. Beef harvested from estate cattle is the basis for the burgers. More than five hundred varieties of organic fruits and vegetables grow here. Long Meadow’s olive groves, which date to the 1870s, are the oldest in the Napa Valley. If this has begun to sound like a caricature of California life, in which ripe fruit forever hangs pendulous from trees and free-range livestock endlessly scamper over verdant grasslands, you’re free to snicker. I’ll be at the bar, sipping an old-fashioned, eyeing my neighbor’s drumstick, reveling in the joys of being at home, even when I range far from home.