Not that he feels pressure, but Thomsen clearly intends to be at the top of his game. “With Dennis Cakebread popping the corks," he says, "the food has to be phenomenal.”
The two have collaborated on a four-course menu of scallops, duck breast, short ribs and chocolate that will make use of seasonal vegetables (butternut squash, celery root, beets, red cabbage, etc.) from the restaurant’s Great Road Farm in Skillman.
Prior to opening Agricola in 2013, Thomsen worked in Northern California, with stints at the French Laundry and at what was then the historic Claremont Resort in Berkeley. There, mounting dinners featuring Napa Valley’s most illustrious wines was a relative, um, piece of cake. In New Jersey, it’s not as simple.
This dinner came about through mutual high regard and personal friendship.
Thomsen and Cakebread, the vice president of sales and marketing for the family firm, met in 2010, when Thomsen organized the first annual Berkeley Wine Festival and featured Cakebread and his family’s wines. (Thomsen ran the festival for three years.)
Last September, Cakebread returned the favor by picking Thomsen to be one of four chefs participating in the winery’s 28th annual American Harvest Workshop, a popular four-day event in which top chefs interact with the winemaker, local farm purveyors and national media.
“It was my last hurrah before the birth of my son,” Thomsen told me. (Thomsen’s wife, Sarah, gave birth two months ago.) “The workshop was a stellar experience,” he says. “During it, we were chatting and Dennis proposed coming out here in February.”
The dinner, which is limited to 45 guests, will pour some Cakebread vintages no longer in circulation and a small-production Bordeaux-style blend, grown in Washington State, that represents the winery’s first project outside California. It will be held in Agricola’s root cellar, a private space on the restaurant’s lower level that resembles a wine room.
“We’ve kept the dinner small," says Thomsen, "so that Dennis can visit every table and can sign menus–that’s what makes this winemaker so special. He likes to keep things up-close and personal. He’ll talk about his family and will introduce the wine with each course. But he’ll speak personally, not scientifically.”
Dennis’s parents, Jack and Dolores Cakebread, bought the land for the winery in 1972 and released their first wine, a 1973 Chardonnay, in 1974. Today Jack is CEO. Dolores, the senior VP of facility ambiance, oversees the American Harvest Workshop. Dennis’s brother, Bruce, is president and COO. Toby Halkovich, a graduate of the wine program at the University of California at Davis, was hired as viticulturist in 2002.
The February 10 dinner will kick off with a reception at 6:30, during which Cakebread’s 2012 Sauvignon Blanc will be poured. Here’s the rest of the rundown, with Thomsen’s comments:
Cape May Day Boat Scallop
Celery root puree, Terhune Orchards apples, chestnuts
2012 Cakebread Cellars Chardonnay, Napa Valley
“We sell a lot of this wine by the glass. The scallops are running great right now. I’ll probably add Shibumi mushrooms, too. There’s no butter in this dish–it doesn’t need it with this buttery wine.”
Crescent Farms Duck Breast
Butternut squash purée, braised red cabbage, sundried cherry, red wine sauce
2011 Cakebread Cellars Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley
2012 Cakebread Cellars Merlot, Napa Valley
“I first used this Long Island duck at the Star Chefs Congress in Brooklyn last October. The land the ducks are raised on has been in the same family for 400 years. The quality and consistency can’t be beat. Dennis and I thought we’d offer the pinot and the merlot together, to give guests the opportunity to discover which they like better with the dish.”
Creekstone Farms Braised Beef Short Rib
Horseradish, beet relish, wilted Great Road Farm greens
Mullan Road Cellars, 2012 Bordeaux Blend, Columbia Valley, Washington
“This phenomenal wine is Dennis’s little baby. It represents their first venture outside California. It doesn’t even have Cakebread on the label: it has his name and signature. Dennis asked if I wanted to feature Cakebread’s Dancing Bear blend, but I wanted to showcase this wine.”
Tcho Chocolate Terrine
Gingerbread, cashews, sesame
2011 Cakebread Cellars Zinfandel Red Hills Lake County
“It’s a classic pairing. The zinfandel has spicy notes that will pick up those in the gingerbread, and there are similar spices inside the terrine itself.”
“An Evening with Dennis Cakebread”
$135, tax and tip included.
Phone the restaurant to reserve a spot with a credit card.
Gluten-free and vegetarian options available.
11 Witherspoon Street