Growing the dream
How Scott Ostrander’s garden and kitchen at Park Winters yield the region’s truest farm-to-fork dining experience
In the middle of Winters farmland, surrounded by green alfalfa fields, sits a Victorian mansion built in 1865.
Outside of that gorgeous mansion on a late summer afternoon, Scott Ostrander is showing off his new digs: 1.5 acres of farm and garden land; a pristine kitchen with five handpicked chefs; a barn that morphs from wedding reception venue to fine dining room; and a salt water pool, a quick jaunt away from a cigar-smoking lounge that overlooks budding melon flowers.
Those elements make up Park Winters, and it’s like a chef’s dream—or working vacation—boasting an idyllic environment as well as complete creative freedom.
“There’s never a bad day out here,” Ostrander says. “We have issues from time to time like any restaurant, but at the end of the day, you can go to the farm and pick your own stuff. There’s no other place you can do that around here other than Napa.”
Sacramento-based Ostrander joined Park Winters less than a year ago. At the time, it was just a luxury inn and wedding venue, but owners Rafael Galiano and John Martin wanted folks to be able to enjoy the space and dine without needing to book a room or get invited to a private event. They recruited Ostrander to create a dining destination worthy of a Michelin star—even though, being in Yolo County, it’s unlikely Michelin judges would ever pay a visit.
The result is the truest form of a farm-to-fork restaurant in the Sacramento region. A recent menu—$125 for five courses plus extras—was sourced 90 percent from Yolo County, with 70 percent of that directly from Park Winters. Ostrander says the remaining items are staples like sugar and salt, or products he hasn’t been able to find locally just yet. Still, some dishes on the monthly changing menu are already 100 percent local. Ostrander recalls an exceedingly elaborate, 40-component crudité, where cooks hunkered down in the garden for two hours to find the right fennel blossoms, malabar spinach pods and chamomile fronds.
“They had to be perfect,” Ostrander says. “I couldn’t take a bent frond—it had to be a nice frond. It had to be young, it had to be tender—it had to have all these different traits.”
Even when he isn’t wearing freshly pressed chef’s whites, but instead sipping watered down iced coffee from a to-go soup container in a sweaty T-shirt, Ostrander is as serious about attention to detail as you’d expect from an elite chef. He says he’s always been a food nerd—passionate, curious, dedicated and full of questions—but his career goals took a step further about five years ago.
After about a decade of working primarily at Randy Paragary restaurants, Ostrander found himself slinging tacos and burgers at the Red Rabbit Kitchen & Bar and freaking out about it. He craved a challenge.
“I didn’t know what to do in Sacramento,” he says, noting he was nearing age 30. “I didn’t want to stay at Red Rabbit, doing bar food at a craft cocktail bar. I needed to keep learning—I needed to do something.”
He decided to sell his house and backpack through Europe, staging at various fine dining restaurants along the way. But he was already anxious about what he’d do when he returned to the states, so he sent out resumes to world-famous restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, Daniel Boulud’s Daniel and David Chang’s Momofuku. Four days later, he heard back from Alinea, a three Michelin-star hub of modernist cuisine and molecular gastronomy led by Grant Achatz.
Ostrander flew to Chicago for a try-out—two grueling, 18-hour days in the kitchen—and immediately got offered a spot as chef de partie. For six months, Ostrander relished in the feverishly paced, demanding, militaristic energy. He admired the discipline, the commitment.
“Every single person is giving 110 percent and every single person wants to succeed no matter what. It’s inspiring,” he says.
Alinea solidified Ostrander’s fine dining goals, but he couldn’t take Chicago’s bitingly cold winters. He left after six months.
Still, while he had been at Alinea, there was one thing that bothered him. Although the chefs strove to find the best ingredients possible, there wasn’t much connection to where those ingredients came from. California produce came from a California box, which arrived after an order of driftwood from Malaysia.
“It was destination on a world level, and I was so California farm-to-fork,” he says.
After a stint in Yountville, Ostrander returned to Sacramento and the Paragary family. He led Esquire Grill for three years before reopening the company’s flagship restaurant, Paragary’s. Ostrander says he pitched the idea of Michelin-quality, detail-oriented food in a French brasserie setting—and that Paragary approved—but that ultimately isn’t what came out of the cramped Midtown kitchen.
“The original image and concept of the restaurant was changing, and it was changing into something I didn’t sign on for,” he says.
Serendipitously, Park Winters was looking for a new chef and kitchen team. After a 12-hour day of talking visions and dreams, Ostrander signed the paperwork and his Paragary’s crew of Paul DiPierro, David Dein and Taylor Lovelace quickly followed at the end of 2015.
Now, Ostrander is creating the food he wants to create—and not only that, he actually cooks, unlike many fine dining executive chefs who design the dishes and then walk away.
“We want to touch every plate, we want to be involved and we want everyone dining here to actually taste our food that we’re personally cooking,” he says. “I think that’s special. You don’t get that from Thomas Keller, you don’t get that from Grant Achatz.”
And what do you get from the mind and hands of Ostrander? Works of high-concept, visual and edible art. Consider the current dessert, inspired by the corn stalks that surround Park Winters as well as—on a more playful note—caramel corn from the State Fair. Ostrander poaches corn silk in simple syrup, frying and frothing the result so it looks like a bird’s nest. That gets topped with an “egg,” a quenelle of salted caramel ice cream. Then, he juices corn kernels to get a starchy corn milk, which gets blended with vanilla and whipped cream for a sauce. Garnishes include confit blueberries, micro cilantro and—in a surprise twist—traditional caramel corn.
“It pays homage to caramel corn … and we’re using corn all the way through,” he says.
That’s sort of Ostrander’s thing. How many techniques and parts of the same ingredient can he use to bring out new flavors? With the corn dessert, for example, he also burned the husks to create a corn ash, which he’ll use in a future dish.
But not every effort is a success. Ostrander is still new at leading a team at this level of cooking. Park Winters as a restaurant is still very new. And all the while, Ostrander still needs to plan weddings and occasionally wake up at 6 a.m. to prepare breakfast for inn guests.
“You’ve gotta remember we’re very amateur,” he says. “Amateur might even be too nice of a word to describe what we’re doing here.”
He cites the garden itself, currently a somewhat barren patch—summer’s basil is long gone, but fall’s plants haven’t come in yet—that he hopes will soon be full of herbs in beautifully manicured aisles, like the tourist-friendly gardens at the French Laundry or the Restaurant at Meadowood. Park Winters hired an official farm manager earlier this summer to help take planning and maintenance off of Ostrander and the kitchen crew. On the farm, he points to a row of lettuces, dry and bolted from the summer heat—as it turns out, June is not the time to plant lettuce in Yolo County.
“I would call this an experimentation, and a failed one at that,” he says, chomping on some salvageable red romaine. “But we did learn.”