Foodie Paradise: Sonoma County's Relish Culinary Adventures Celebrates Local California Cuisine

In her green-built teaching kitchen among Sonoma County’s farms, vineyards and artisan food shops, Donna del Rey builds community while indulging people’s culinary passions.

dinner in wine caves

A Valentine's Day cooking demonstration and dinner in the wine caves at Bella Winery in Healdsburg features aphrodisiac ingredients.

Photography By Barbara Bourne

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“You buy a pig at the fair or from your neighbor, or you find locally made cheese at the farmer’s market, or someone up the road’s making olive oil. We have apples in Sebastopol, mushrooms in the forests, and lavender in the mountains. You can go to the coast and buy salmon from someone who just caught it.”
—Donna del Rey, Relish Culinary Adventures 

Donna del Rey was in her element when her family moved from San Francisco to the heart of Sonoma County wine country 12 years ago. A longtime foodie, del Rey loved the small organic farms and sustainable wineries near her home in Healdsburg and the plethora of local olive oils, cheeses and breads she found at the market. She was surprised, however, that she had to drive an hour to find a cooking class in a region so rich in food culture.

Relish Culinary Adventures was del Rey’s answer to that gap. In 2003, she began offering gastronomic events that bring together food lovers, just-picked ingredients, and talented chefs and teachers at Healdsburg-area farms, vineyards, forests, restaurants and private kitchens. Celebrating local cuisine is “easy to do here,” del Rey says. “Eating locally isn’t a trend; this is how we live.”

Last September, del Rey created a culinary tour for 20 New Yorkers. “They came to spend five days eating and drinking their way through Sonoma County,” she says.

Sonoma County’s culinary bounty draws more than just locals; tourists from as far as New York enjoy del Rey’s classes and tours. When they return home, she believes they take with them a new appreciation for the farmers and food specialties in their own regions. “In these farm classes, there’s an intimacy with the farmer,” del Rey says. “You spend time with them, you see the work involved—the passion and commitment it takes. The guests feel that.”

This plays into del Rey’s mission to “convey a message without being preachy.” Once people have tasted a beet picked that morning, she says, it’s hard to go back to eating industrial produce shipped from miles away. “We talk about where the foods we’re cooking come from and why they taste so good—not just because you’re on vacation, though that helps,” she says. “Beets that were picked that morning taste better—they’re fresher, they’re alive, they’re vibrant.”

“I wanted it to feel like a modern  farmhouse kitchen, a place where people walk in and feel at home—and eager to cook,” she says.

Two years ago, Relish Culinary Adventures opened the Relish Culinary Center, a kitchen classroom and event center just off the town square in downtown Healdsburg. The Relish kitchen is a model of local, ecologically sound building, with cabinets made from sustainably harvested white oak and reclaimed teak and tiles handmade by local artisans.

del Rey chose every material for sustainability, durability and visual appeal—but in a commercial kitchen, durability often rules. For her countertops, she chose Pietra Cardosa, an Italian stone that endures high temperatures (and novice cooks) with grace—but only after she failed to find a recycled-content countertop she wouldn’t have to replace in a few years.

On community canning day at Relish, volunteers turn produce gleaned from local farms and private lands into edibles for the local food bank. They press applesauce in August, put up quince and squash in October and make tamales in November—enjoying the camaraderie as much as the satisfaction of good deeds. “There’s nothing like cooking together and being around the table with family and friends,” del Rey says. “Studies show that the economic downturn has caused more people to cook at home. I hope that trend stays with us long after our current problems are over. That can only be good—for our health, our relationships, and the earth.”

Taste adventure

Relish Culinary Adventures offers classes in everything from wood-fired ovens to raising chickens at its center in Healdsburg, California, and a series of ongoing events around Sonoma County. “On the Farm” events include farm tours, hands-on workshops featuring ingredients produced on-site and a four-course meal served with local wines. Chefs demonstrate recipes that highlight the farm’s specialty, whether it’s produce picked at its peak or artisan cheese at the height of flavor. During farm-to-table wine-estate dinners at nearby Quivira Vineyards and Winery, chefs pair estate-produced wines with food from the winery’s farm.

Architect: Anke Design, Novato, CA

Builders: Behler Construction, Santa Rosa, CA; WS Construction, Windsor, CA    

Interior Design: Ellison Design, Healdsburg, CA; Catherine Smith, Healdsburg

Kitchen Design: Brand Kitchens & Design at the Green Home Center, San Francisco

Lighting: Energy Plus fluorescent overhead lights with halogen spotlights

Appliances: Fisher and Paykel cooktop, oven, warming drawers, hood, outdoor gas grill, refrigerator; Takagi T-K3 tankless water heater

Materials: Benjamin Moore Aura low-VOC paint; latex cement floor sealant (no stain or colorings); EcoCraft Cabinetry (Berkeley) FSC-certified white oak cabinets with no added-VOC plywood boxes; Surface Art Countertops (Healdsburg) Italian Pietra Cardosa unsealed stone countertops; backsplash tile by Fiddlehead Tile for Country Floors (handmade in Southern California); bathroom and commercial kitchen tile by Sonoma Tilemakers (handmade in Santa Rosa); Hunter Douglas window coverings in Sunbrella View insulating fabric; Gado Gado Intl. (Santa Rosa) repurposed teak retail cabinet; bamboo multifunction tables by Surface Art Countertops (Healdsburg)

Architect Carol Venolia, co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House, understands that green kitchens are inextricably linked with sustainable agriculture.