Boris Portnoy stuffed a bundle of dried grapevine clippings into the shallow kettle of a patio fire pit. We were way up on the eastern rim of the Napa Valley, where Portnoy rents a midcentury ranch house amid spindly California oaks, in a sloping grid of vineyards. The former pastry chef at Meadowood in St. Helena, California, Portnoy now owns a street-food business called Satellite Republic, his tandoorlike clay oven hitched to a moped trike. When he’s not cooking on the street (like these Georgian dumplings in San Francisco) Portnoy forages, makes vinegar, brews water kefir, and reads Russian-language cookbooks from the 1950s and '60s.
In early December, Portnoy had invited photographer Chris Rochelle and me up to talk about Satellite Republic. When we got there, it was clear Portnoy was planning something bigger than merely talking. The Moscow-born chef was just back from a month-long stay in the Republic of Georgia, hanging out at the first-ever Tbilisi Triennial, eating, talking to artists and traditional flatbread bakers, gathering impressions.
Portnoy came back with something else: spices like ground marigold, coriander, and fenugreek (pictured below), and an old Crown Royal bottle filled with homemade vodka, flavored with fennel stalks, guava fruit, and those papery membranes separating the lobes of a walnut in the shell (“in Georgia, they use everything”). Lunch consisted of kupati sausages made with pork and pomegranate juice, and grilled over those vine cuttings out on the front patio. Also cheese-stuffed flatbread, beans cooked in a clay pot, a salad of delicately crisp green strawberries picked from the garden, and seared eggplant slices folded around a spiced filling of ground walnuts. To drink: red Georgian Khvanchkara wine, tannic and a little sweet, decanted into a plastic water bottle. Like everything I tasted that day, it was an exercise in turning the resources at hand into something amazing.
Follow the link here to Portnoy’s complete recipes for Kupati Sausages and Georgian Eggplant with Walnut Filling.
Photos and photo-collage by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com