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Making our Mark

by Tom LeClair

 In the mid-1990s, the teenage granddaughter of a citrus grove farmer in Temecula, California, kept hearing about a small, mostly unknown restaurant located an hour north of San Francisco and the accolades it was receiving. Already a fixture in her family’s kitchen and learning how to cook vegetables from their backyard garden, she wondered how one restaurant in the middle of culinary no-man’s-land could garner such enormous attention.

That restaurant was The French Laundry, chef Thomas Keller’s iconic three-MICHELIN-star-rated achievement, and the buzz it generated inspired that young girl, Rachel Haggstrom, to pursue her own dreams of achieving culinary success.

Fast-forward to today, and she’s certainly done that.

Now Executive Chef at The Restaurant at JUSTIN, nestled in the rolling hills of Paso Robles, Haggstrom is leaving her own mark on California’s culinary scene. For Haggstrom, The Restaurant is equal parts test kitchen and art studio.

“I like honest food that isn’t overcomplicated, that is rooted in fundamental French techniques, versus modern molecular gastronomy,” says Haggstrom.

“I make dishes that highlight an ingredient or complement flavors, to showcase ingredients in their truest and best form.”

Folks have noticed. And, as it turns out, that includes the most prestigious food critics on the planet. The MICHELIN Guide named The Restaurant at JUSTIN one of the Central Coast’s top restaurants in 2021, cementing Haggstrom’s arrival as a world-class chef. “Never in my wildest imagination did I think that MICHELIN would come to the Central Coast. To know that we are on their radar is special and rare.”

So how did that young and curious girl make it this far? After graduating from the California Culinary Academy of San Francisco, she rose through the kitchen ranks at places like The Dining Room at The Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, the Balboa Bay Resort, the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort, and, yes, even The French Laundry.

“From The French Laundry I learned efficiency, urgency, and a sense of team,” recalls Haggstrom. “At The Dining Room, Ron Siegel taught me a different, gentler kind of mentorship and management. My eyes were additionally opened to many new ingredients.”

Part of looking into the future means discovering and growing the absolute freshest ingredients she can. Ingredients, she says, are nothing short of inspirational. “Inspiration comes in multiple forms, sometimes from something casual I prepare at home, or by a new technique I’m trying. Other times the inspiration comes from ingredients that I see and how I would want to highlight or pair them together.”

And when your restaurant is located in the heart of one of the Central Coast’s best wineries, wine is an essential component to the dining experience that Haggstrom wants her guests to enjoy. “Generally, my inspiration is food first, then I consider the wine pairing. Luckily, we have a large portfolio. Once I envision or taste a general pairing, I will alter the dish and/or try another wine to find the perfect pairing.”

We in the wine business love to talk about the perfect pairing. So what do we have here? A world-class chef creating MICHELIN-caliber dishes alongside world-class wines against the stunning backdrop of the JUSTIN Vineyards & Winery. Sounds like pairings worthy of any palate—including those of the best food judges in the world. 

Dinner is Served

Enjoy a dining experience with a prix-fixe dinner menu with six to eight courses featuring local and estate fruits and vegetables at the original JUSTIN Estate with an open dining room and heated patio overlooking the vineyard and Chef's Garden.

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