Chef Janelle Weaver wants you to eat from the ground.
"Things taste different when they just come out of the ground," she tells me.
Tealights flicker in jam jars. The window that frames our corner table looks onto a formidable cactus garden. Tonight, I'm in good company. I'm seated in The Bewildered Pig with two Vancouver-based travel writers and our Mendocino County hosts. We're sipping the last of a gorgeous 2012 Panthea pinot noir, basking in the post-meal glow of a six-course chef's menu. Second dessert arrives in the form of Chef Janelle, who shows up at our table to chat epicurean philosophy.
Mimi Giboin PhotographyJennifer Hubbert
I take a moment to relieve my burning curiosity. "Janelle, the sign that's posted over the kitchen, it reads 'apothecary.' What's that about?"
"It's the idea of food as medicine," she explains. "You'll find a lot of green on our plates. There are so many beautiful, healthy benefits of herbs and vegetables filled with high concentrations of chlorophyll."
Janelle doesn't have to tell me to eat my vegetables, even if that includes stinging nettle.
"Last year we probably went through a hundred pounds of nettles. They’re so good for you. Most of it I blanch and puree. You saw the green purée on the plate; that’s part of the apothecary."
Few people arrive in Philo, California by chance. It's far from Highway 101, the County's primary thoroughfare, and it wouldn't be wrong to describe this area as rural. It's clear to me that the people who choose to make their lives here do so with great intention.
Mendocino County has a long appreciation for agriculture and organics: the County was the first jurisdiction in the US to ban GMOs, and it's home to a certified organic winery (a status achieved in 1986) and longtime residents who arrived during the 1970s back-to-the-land movement. They say the locals here are either mavericks or makers. And Janelle is definitely a maker.
If you did manage to reach The Bewildered Pig by chance, I'm willing to bet you were mighty surprised to find refined rustic fare at a backroads restaurant. But this locale was exactly the place to cultivate Weaver's gastronomic ambitions. The old garden at her house grows "sweet, beautiful" onions among the weeds, which she soft-scrambles with fresh hen-laid eggs. Those same eggs become the pasta she serves in the restaurant. Other times, fresh produce simply "turns up," delivered unannounced by doting neighbours.
"I come here some days and there’s a basket of stuff on the porch. There are apricots; sometimes it’s whole ducks. We never know what we’re going to get and that’s the beauty of where we are."
But produce alone does not make a chef.
Mimi Giboin Photography
Before opening The Bewildered Pig, Weaver sharpened her knife working as an executive chef for seven years. Ahem - executive chef for serial-restaurateur Pat Kuleto. The 800-acre Kuleto Estate boasted its own gardens and fish, lamb, rabbit, turkey, and squab. It was a lesson in pruning the supply chain.
"You would pull produce in the morning and people would taste it that afternoon." Weaver was living the farm-to-table ethos before it was fashionable.
Next, she worked at Peter Michael Winery, a Relais & Châteaux, Michelin-rated restaurant in West Berkshire, United Kingdom. It was a taste of aristocratic dining.
"The juxtaposition of those two experiences culminated into what I always liked, which was rustic-refined. It should be approachable," she explains. And then, with a bit of cheek, she says, "Hopefully there’s something on the [Bewildered Pig] menu that makes someone say ‘I'm not sure about that.' They taste something else, maybe the mac and cheese, and say, 'I liked that, so next time I’m going to try that.' "
If I'm something of a case study, Janelle has achieved her ambition. My protein choices tend to favour the barnyard variety, but tonight I've adventurously sampled a rabbit confit fettucini. What can I say? She earned my trust after the first two sumptuous plates: a miso deviled egg with wasabi tobiko and coriander purée, and an asparagus velouté that tasted of spring.
Mimi Giboin Photography
During my four-day trip to Mendocino County, the thing I come to love the most is the cornucopia of local purveyors. There are no fast food franchises or hotel chains. Life here is conscious, curated, deliberate. The roads are rolling and winding, causing you to take pause, as if by design. And here at The Bewildered Pig, the proof is in the purée: a highly accomplished and globetrotting chef who opted to strip it all down and create something honest, something rooted in real.
"In a world of homogenization, we don’t have [the] opportunity [to eat from the ground] anymore. Even at the larger restaurants in bigger cities that are doing amazing things, ones that are getting Michelin stars, I have a hard time conceiving that they can find small purveyors to provide as much as they need. And here we have such a special opportunity. That was always the goal."
Cheers to that.
The Bewildered Pig
Location: 1810 Highway128, Philo, CA 95466
Tel: (707) 895-2088
Tasting notes: Reservations accepted only by phone, rotating menu, electric car charger available, formidable cactus garden, Mexican Wednesdays and Funky G Fridays.
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