Food Journalist’s “Essential Napa Valley Cookbook” Is Just That

“The Essential Napa Valley Cookbook” by Jess Lander

There’s no doubt about it: 2020 was an extraordinarily difficult and unrelenting year. Between the Covid-19 pandemic and the wildfires that wreaked havoc on Northern California, wine and food journalist Jess Lander had to do something. Lander shares below what it took to create The Essential Napa Valley Cookbook, a compilation of 35+ delicious and doable recipes from local chefs. Both Lander and photographer Alexander Rubin took this on as a non-profit project and all of the book’s proceeds will be donated;  75 percent will go directly to Napa Valley restaurant workers and 25 percent to Feed Napa Now. 

What inspired you to create this cookbook?
I was looking for something impactful that I could do to help our community during an especially tough year, which was made even worse by devastating fires. I stumbled upon a couple of cookbook projects done in other cities during the pandemic and I thought, “We should do this for Napa.” We’re small, but we have a world-renowned culinary scene and I figured a lot of people would want to own something like this, especially if it was for a good cause. After some research, I realized there wasn’t another cookbook like this in existence. While many of our local chefs have published their own cookbooks, there wasn’t a compilation of recipes from the restaurant community as a whole. So, I set out to create one. 

What drew you to writing about food and wine?
I sort of happened upon it by accident. I moved from Boston to Napa 11 years ago for, believe it or not, a sports writing job at the Napa Valley Register. At the time, I didn’t really drink wine and I wasn’t a very adventurous eater, but it wasn’t long until I got totally sucked into the culture of both . I eventually made the switch from sports to wine, food and travel. It’s a lot more fun to spend a Friday evening at a fancy wine dinner than on the high school football field. It’s definitely my dream job, but I just hadn’t realized I could obtain it.  

Have you cooked all the recipes in the book? 
I didn’t personally cook all of them, though I did test some, like the Bistro Don Giovanni Salmon. My husband and I cooked it for his family, who are big salmon fishermen, so the bar was set pretty high. But they absolutely loved it. Every recipe in the book has been tested, though — even the cocktails. I recruited a group of about two dozen friends who offered to test the recipes and provide feedback. Our biggest goal was to ensure that each one is doable by the average home cook. I feel that a lot of times, the cookbooks and recipes that come out of this region are a bit intimidating and I wanted people to actually use this book, not just have it collect dust on a shelf. 

Do you have a most memorable moment when you were putting the book together?
My favorite part of putting this together was the photoshoot. Local photographer Alexander Rubin volunteered to be my photographer and we put together two big days of photoshoots — one for the Napa restaurants and one for the UpValley restaurants in St. Helena and Calistoga. It was so fun to get to meet the chefs in person, see the dishes in real life, and in many cases, taste test them. We had leftovers for days. I was worried that these shoots were going to be stressful, but everything came together pretty seamlessly. We even got the locations generously donated by Feast it Forward and Tre Posti, and the stunning pottery wares by local studio NBC Pottery.