Interview with Sondra Bernstein of girl & the fig

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What was your first memory of cooking and what did you cook?

My first cooking memory is baking chocolate chip cookies in home economics when I was in elementary school.

What is a knife you cannot live without?

Pallares Solona knife

What is one ingredient you cannot cook without?

Ginger

What was one of the biggest mistakes you made your first year in the culinary industry?

I have made so many, and I can’t remember that long ago! I will say that I continue to make them and continue to learn – this is an ever-changing and evolving business, and I love that about it.

When did you know you wanted to become a chef or restaurant proprietor?

In 1985, after travelling and opening restaurants for TGIFridays, I decided to go back to school and get an Associate’s degree in Hospitality/Culinary Management. I realized that if I was going to work this hard in this industry, it should be for myself! Feeding people, entertaining them, making them happy is what I love about the food and restaurant world, and I knew this was where I wanted to be – it’s also what has kept me happy and inspired after so many years in the business.

Who has been the most influential mentor/chef in your career?

Sam Sebastiani. I first worked for him at Viansa, and I deeply admire his lifelong commitment and passion.

I read that you came to Sonoma on vacation in 1992 and fell in love then within a year you moved here. Where did you move from and how did you know Sonoma was for you?

I moved to Sonoma from Los Angeles. After spending my first day in Sonoma County as a tourist, I fell in love with the beauty, the variety, the focus on food and wine, the energy. It didn’t take me long to pack my bags and move here!

Are Figs your favorite ingredient? How did Figs lead to the name of your legendary restaurant?

I love figs, but variety is my favorite ingredient.  “Fig” became a part of the name during a game of word play – I knew that I wanted a name that was sing-song and that folks would remember, or that they’d at least be curious about.

Can you share more about your Rhone inspired wine list and what it means?

Simply put, Rhone wines are everyday people wines. They are wines that are a part of the meal experience and the recipe for having a great time. Of course there are many fine, beautiful, aged, expensive Rhone varietal wines as well, and I love almost all of them. But to me, our wine list about pairing food with wine in a way that is fun and joyful and enhances the moment.

We have chatted about your wine philosophy and love and support of Rhone varietals and also how sometimes your intentions are misunderstood. Can you explain what that means and how California wines are still a big part of your wine list.

California Rhone varietal wines make up at least 85% of our menu. These wines are made by winemakers who share the Rhone passion and believe that these grapes make delicious juice.

Our “Rhone Alone” wine list began with a lack of funds when we first opened. The list continued because there was so much enthusiasm from our guests. I like having a restaurant that has certain areas of focus. I think it is important to tell a story and emphasize what’s gone into that story. People make the mistake that I don’t enjoy a good Pinot Noir or Austrian Riesling or other varietals. Not so! I love drinking all sorts of wine, and tasting wines I’ve never tried before; but it’s been a wonderful journey cultivating this conceptual list that has so much substance, and after 19 ½ years I am not going to switch it up!

What is your favorite after work drink?

Pimms Cup or Lillet over ice

What is your favorite spot (outside of your restaurant) to dine in Sonoma?

I don’t have a single one, but I do crave food that is of an ethnic nature – whether it be Sushi at Hana, Thai at Sea Thai Bistro, Indian at the Dehli Belly, and I can say that I would eat at Ramen Gaijin all the time if it wasn’t such a trek.

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