Husband and wife restaurateurs Duskie Estes and John Stewart are the creative force behind Santa Rosa’s Zazu restaurant. Sustainable and extremely self-sufficient, Estes and Stewart’s Zazu is like ‘Little House on the Prateria’ in California’s Sonoma County. They grow much of the restaurant’s produce, keep chickens, and make their own salumi, among other things. Their pioneer spirit is matched by their passion for helping diners enjoy slow food, the foundation of putting anyone in the mood. Chef Duskie Estes sat down with us for the OpenTable R.Q. test, in which she waxes poetic about love among diners and coworkers, bubbles, and the 364 days a year that aren’t Valentine’s Day (but maybe should be).
What are your thoughts on food and drink acting as aphrodisiacs?
What I think that it’s really about is being together at a table and looking into each other’s eyes and talking and listening. These are the foundations of the slow food movement. Food and drink add to the mix, but if you’re not listening to your companion, well, no oyster is gonna make it happen for you.
Aside from aphrodisiacs, what dishes or drinks do you find particularly sexy?
I think foods that make you salivate, whether it be salty, sweet, tart, or spicy. Those kind of things are exciting in the mouth. Ingredient-wise, the things that do it for me are passion fruit, white truffles, and black garlic. Obviously, we’re all about bacon, our bacon in particular, with fat that pops and melts. And, for me, rum and tequila drinks make you feel like you’re already on a vacation; they bring up sun and swimsuits and sand in your toes.
Also, bubbles. Bubbles make you salivate and keep your mouth moving. Billecart from France. Love everything from Iron Horse. Moscato d’Asti is an Italian dessert wine that has essence of peach and flower and it has good acid structure as well as sweetness.
Have you ever wooed a love interest with a particular dish or drink?
It’s kinda funny. Yes, and it was a root beer float of all things. When John and I first met, I was running a kitchen he was working at in Seattle called Etta’s Seafood and I would make root beer floats for everybody as a shift drink. When he proposed to me, he proposed with root beer floats and fourth-generation spoons from his family’s catering company!
Do you have a dish or food you might recommend to diners seeking to set the mood?
On our wine list, we’re doing two things that I would love to have if I were out on a date. We always do a flight of bubbles. It’s three different sparkling wines, a Lambrusco, our sparkling Pink Pig, and an Iron Horse. The other thing we’re doing is the Rock Star flight of three half bottles. Right now, it’s Billecart, followed by a half bottle of Martinelli Chardonnay, and then Kosta Browne Pinot. So, it’s a really fun way to drink your night through the menu.
The food that I would like to eat would be food that is interactive. I love sharing. I love when you eat with your hands, like crab.
Are there foods or ingredients that you perceive as particularly unromantic?
We avoid things that are heavy and rich and thick. I don’t like cream sauces or over-reduced demi-glaces or a huge hunk of meat. It doesn’t make you want to go home and do what you should be doing.
Do you have any suggestions for diners seeking to make a meal at your restaurant as romantic as possible?
You could definitely ask for a romantic table, but in most restaurants they try to make every table desirable. The one thing you can ask is for less volume. One half our restaurant is quieter. That depends on what kind of diner you are and what you like.
What are your thoughts on PDA in restaurants?
You definitely see that when people have had a little too much to drink. It’s always more romantic in your own space, so go home! Get in your room.
Have you had any proposals in your restaurant?
Yes, people have proposed in our restaurant, and that is a huge honor when someone picks your spot to do it. When John and I were engaged and planning our wedding in Calistoga, we ate at the restaurant that is now Zazu. I fell in love with that space. That night at dinner, I said that if there were ever a space like this available, I would love a restaurant here. I loved the low-ceilings and lack of attitude about it. We came to Zazu by getting engaged and planning our wedding in Willowside. It’s got good juju.
If you had to help someone surprise their intended with an engagement ring involving food or drink, how might you – or how might you not – execute it?
Well, we cater a fair amount of weddings. My one piece of advice is don’t put it in something that somebody might swallow and don’t tie it to your dog and expect it to walk down the aisle. At a wedding, the dog lost the rings and they were never found. We had people combing the property with metal detectors.
Restaurant workers tend to flock together. Has love bloomed at your restaurant?
Almost everyone I know in the restaurant industry who is married has met their spouse at a restaurant, even if their spouse has left and gone on to a different career. It’s late-night, you’re trying to unwind. The hours are so weird that if you didn’t ever spend time in the restaurant industry, it would be hard to be with that person. You have to have somebody who understands the passion and commitment.
While I say that, we have seen many couples who can’t work well together. So, while you need somebody who understands, you might need to be in different restaurants. John and I have very opposite skill sets and we are very appreciative of that. He does everything that is very slow, like making the salumi, which can take four months to two years, and I do everything that is crazy — the numbers, the menus. In a way, every back of house person needs a strong front of house person.
What creative opportunities does Valentine’s Day present, as a chef?
We spend a lot of time thinking, “What is the best wine with this dish?” And it involves a team of four people, so that’s a fun process. And at Zazu, we change our menu every night, but I really love the team aspect of building a menu. People come up with ideas. We were playing last night, making two dishes. I love that! We tried poaching an egg in pink wine. We tried poaching one in red wine, trying to come up with a cool egg dish. That kind of playing is so much fun, and the holidays create that opportunity for us as a team.
What are your thoughts on Valentine’s Day as a holiday?
Obviously, I love that Valentine’s Day packs our house, but it’s important that the spirit of Valentine’s Day be present 365 days a year and that you are sweet to the person you care about every day of the year.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you and your husband and the team at Zazu. We know you’ll be putting your heart into every plate!
Book a table at Zazu and let Chef Duskie and her team make your next dinner beyond romantic.