When guests dining at ZaZu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol, California, take a bite of the signature dish called the Whole Pig, they immediately receive a burst of flavor which covers every part of the mouth. But to say the dish is delicious is an understatement. For beyond the meaty taste of pork, each bite represents the entire pig, including a mixture of meats from different parts of the body, a little skin that lined the pan, and the gelatinous substance taken from head, and the bones that is used to hold all the goodies in the square-shaped entree together.
In essence, it’s one of the many culinary wonders that the talented chef duo of Duskie Estes and John Stewart have created since they opened their original restaurant in 2001.
“We like to say we take casual very seriously,” quips John with a smile.
Prior to starting the restaurant, the two met in Seattle. At the time, both were working for chefs who would have serious impacts on their lives.
A California native, Duskie started cooking at the age of five while growing up in San Francisco. After becoming a vegetarian in her teens and graduating from Brown University, she began honing her skills in Seattle in the mid 1990s. Moving up the ladder at various restaurants, she eventually became the executive sous chef under the tutelage of Seattle culinary legend Tom Douglas.
At the time, Douglas was helping develop the farm-to-table movement. To do this, he worked closely with a core group of farmers and hosted annual seed meetings where he would tell the farmers what to plant and how he wanted them to grow it. As a result, year-round Duskie became accustomed to working with fresh vegetables, herbs, and seasonal ingredients like huckleberries, morel mushrooms, and hazelnuts.
John’s journey also started at an early age while working with his family’s catering company in Upstate New York. Upon arriving in Seattle, he worked at artisan Italian restaurant Café Lago and at Etta’s, a respected seafood restaurant in Pike Place Market.
“We called him the crab cake guy because he was a perfectionist and his plates stood out from the other chefs on the line,” says Duskie, who worked with John at Etta’s from 1995 to 1996. “It was kind of funny because he didn’t even eat crab cakes.”
After the two started dating, John’s big break came when he helped star chef Mario Batali at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in 1997.
“It was a moment when he was drunk enough to give me his cell phone number, yet sober enough that he remembered it,” says John, with a grin. “So I bugged him for nine months. And eventually he said, ‘Sure, come on out and help me.’”
Knife and Pork
Under Batali’s guidance, John spent the next few months mastering the craft of breaking down animals and curing meats. With the exception of Batali’s dad’s sandwich shop Salumi and a few old Italian-owned meat shops, there were very few butchers in the Seattle area at the time, particularly at restaurants.
With this in mind, John took advantage of the opportunity to develop special carving skills. “Back then all you could find online was books for hunters focused on how to break down a deer. Nobody was really serious about being a butcher who could use all the parts, so breaking that code was the key.”
After getting married in 2000, Duskie and John fused their talents and moved south to California’s Sonoma County to start the original ZaZu restaurant in 2001. Located in the rural area between Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, the site had previously been home to the Willowside Café, which was owned by a neighbor of Duskie’s mom on Chalk Hill. While visiting on a romantic getaway vacation, they fell in love with the rustic setting and the quaint roadhouse-style building highlighted by wooden floors, long old-fashioned bar, ceiling fan, and a squeaky screen door.
“We said if a place like this ever became available it would be really cool to start a restaurant,” recalls John. “It was around the same time that Chef Thomas Keller was putting a rural area like Yountville on the map. That’s what caught our attention and made us notice that the outlying areas of Sonoma County had their own charming auras as well.
Following the farm-to-table concept, Duskie and John planted an expansive garden behind the restaurant, and farmed it for the first four years. But as the business grew, they eventually hired veteran gardener Milo Mitchel, who now oversees their gardens, as well as sourcing other local fruits and vegetables to insure the kitchen always has fresh ingredients.
The meats are local as well. But at the beginning of last decade, very few ranches in Sonoma County had on-site butchers. So to cut off the middleman, John and Duskie started buying whole animals.
John admits that he wasn’t naturally drawn to cutting up the pig. But instead, it was simply a matter of necessity. Over time, however, butchering pigs became a trademark of the family.
“We were coming from cities where it was common to order shoulders and chops that were cut by a big butcher company. But when cool farmers from Sonoma County started offering us pigs, we quickly found ourselves with whole animals sitting on a table. At the time I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had no choice but to figure it out.”
In addition to carving the meat, John began working with every part of the body, from snout to tail, including the head, heart, skin, and fat, which can be used to make chicarrones, sauces, lard, and pie dough.
Going Whole Hog
As demand for more cured meats, bacon, and pork dishes expanded at the restaurant, the family built their own pig farm behind their rural home in Forestville in 2006. Today, the micro farm is home to various breeds of pigs, goats, and chickens—all of which are raised in the safe, natural environment.
“We wanted to work with animals that were raised in pastures. We didn’t want to support farmers who forced the animals to live in small pens and uncomfortable circumstances,” says Duskie, who feeds the pigs and goats tasty scraps from the kitchen twice a day.
Once the pig farm was up and running, Duskie and John began selling salumi, bacon, and other in-house products made under the Black Pig Meat Co. label.
A few years later, these commitments to quality were rewarded when the John and Duskie were named the 2011 winners of pork advocacy group Cochon 555’s prestigious Grand Cochon award and crowned as America’s King and Queen of Pork. The following year, they appeared on the cover of Wine Spectator and Duskie starred on the third season of Food Network’s The Next Iron Chef.
Today, the flavors of the pigs shine in many of the tasty dishes at ZaZu Kitchen + Farm, including fun appetizers like Rodeo Jax Black Pig Bacon Caramel Popcorn, Chicharrones Three-Ways, Crispy Pigs Ears with Calabrian Chili Aioli; middle courses like the handmade Gemelli Pasta with Stone Valley Pork Ragu; and main dishes like the Long + Bailey Farms Pork Chop and The Dirty Burger, stuffed with Black Pig Bacon and topped with Liberty Duck Paté and caramelized onions.
“Each dish is designed to hit all parts of the mouth.”
Duskie says that each dish is designed to hit all parts of the mouth. “The goal is to make sure there is balance between flavor and texture, as well as the right amounts of acid and salt. Once that’s done we can add sweet, spicy, or savory ingredients to make the dish more complex and tasty.”
In addition to the pigs, Duskie, John and the ZaZu staff also work with fresh seafood from the nearby coast and chicken, duck, rabbit, goat, lamb, and beef procured from local ranches within a 50-mile radius of the restaurant’s new location at The Barlow, a community food, art, and wine emporium in Sebastopol.
Because of their passion for working with local ingredients, they have turned down numerous opportunities to start satellite versions of ZaZu in other special cities on the West Coast.
“To me, the cool thing is that Sonoma County is not a mono-culture. For that reason, we love the access we have to such diverse styles of wines, beer and agriculture 365 days of the year. As restaurateurs, we are hell-bent on saving it by giving our money back to farmers and helping our local economy. In the end, we want everyone in our community to win,” says Duskie.