Chef Mike Fisher and Diego Rodriguez. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Chef Mike Fisher and Diego Rodriguez. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Local fine dining aficionados took a trip through the cuisines of four countries Aug. 13 as chefs Mike Fisher and Becky Herbert presented their Tour of Europe dinner. Attendees were treated to specialties from Greece, Spain, Morocco and Ireland during a four-course evening meal served at Herbert’s Farmhouse Cafe in Hollister.

“We try to pick a theme that allows us to get a little creative without getting stuck in a rut,” said Fisher. “And then everything between us kind of happens through osmosis once we pick the main ingredients.”

Fisher and Herbert began working together five years ago when they staged the first of their annual harvest-themed dinners, which takes place in October. 

Herbert said that the harvest event, which was started as a way of celebrating all the local foods available in the Fall, was so successful that they looked for more ways to collaborate, resulting in their first tour dinner last year. 

“We work really well together,” she said. “He’s really talented, and I’ve learned a lot from him. Our food is very complimentary, and it always makes these events fun. People really like the Tour of Europe dinner we did last year, and it was nice to have an opportunity to do it again.”

Fisher, who has directed Hollister High’s culinary arts program since 2018, said that the dinners are always centered around fresh foods that can be gotten within San Benito County. 

“I always source all my ingredients through Becky,” he said. “She has all the connections and works with the local farmers and meat producers. We try to get things that people may not be used to, and it helps us in drawing inspiration.”

The dinners also give Fisher a chance to use students from his culinary arts class as assistants to give them practical restaurant experience. 

“The school has been kind of responsible for a lot of our success,” Fisher said. “These kids do a really good job, and they are hard workers. And, with these dinners, they definitely get a chance to see cooking techniques that normally wouldn’t be covered in the curriculum.”

Diego Rodriguez, a 2023 Hollister High graduate, attended the classes for two years and has worked with Fisher on other dinner events. 

“Mike is very enthusiastic about everything he does,” Rodriquez said. “He has a certain attitude that really gets you in the mood to work, and he  just radiates to everyone else.”

Rodriguez said there was a big contrast between the controlled pace of classroom cooking and the more high-demand work of cooking for a crowd.

“In a commercial kitchen, everything’s much more fast-paced,” he said. “You need to be on top of everything and get things done on time. Working as a team, being able to communicate well is incredibly important.”

The training of the staff was apparent in their seamless and efficient service to about 60 guests.  And, from the response of the diners, the meal was a success.

“I really loved the intimate setting and every course that I tried,” said diner Alexis Winder. “I particularly liked the Spanish stew. It is very unique to our area that you can’t just go in and order anywhere. It was very savory, and you could tell the food was very fresh, farm-to-table.”

Fisher said the thing he likes best about these dinners is that they help him stay in shape as a chef, comparing it to playing an instrument with a band

“It takes a lot to be able to pull off those as far as creativity goes,” he said. “So you gotta keep practicing. In a band, you haven’t performed in front of people for a while, you get rusty.  But doing these regularly keeps me in shape as a chef and keeps up my creativity.”

For Herbert, her motivation is the response she gets from the people attending the dinners.

“We have a little community of people that come to our events all the time,” she said. “It just kind of encourages us and shows us we’re doing the right thing, so Mike and I are going to keep doing them.”

The next event for Fisher and Herbert is the upcoming Fifth Annual Harvest Dinner on Oct. 14. Details will be available on the Farmhouse Cafe Facebook page and website.

Tour of Europe menu

Greek Meze Platter (Herbert’s dish) –  Rice-filled dolmas, roasted garlic hummus, tzatziki sauce and baba ganoush was served with marinated olives and feta cheese as the first course. Herbert and Fisher gathered the grape leaves for the dolmas themselves from a local vineyard. Herbert also selected Massa Organics brown rice flavored with lemon zest, mint and dill for the filling. Most of the ingredients for the rest, including the fresh roasted garlic in the hummus, came from Phil Foster and Coke Farms. I very much enjoyed the texture of the rice and the light lemon taste from the zest. The freshness of the ingredient in the three sauces was readily apparent, and the crisp sliced carrots and red bell peppers were perfect accompaniments. I particularly enjoyed the tzatziki with its bright, refreshing cucumber taste.

Spanish Chicken Stew (Fisher’s dish) –  “I wanted to do a chicken stew-like dish,” Fisher said. “I could see it in my head and, basically, I just started rattling stuff off, and Becky wrote it all down. Her notes kind of looked like a crossword puzzle.” Fisher used chicken thighs as the base of the recipe and slow-cooked them until they were melt-in-the-mouth tender and presented them on a bed of nicely cooked garbanzo beans with chipotle-seasoned ground beef. This was my favorite dish of the night, a great mix of textures and flavors that changed with every bite. “The chicken stew was fun for me,” Fisher said. “I could go on for an hour about all the different cooking techniques and philosophies that I did with that dish.

Moroccan Glazed Lamb (Fisher’s dish) –  “All you need is three ingredients to decide how that dish is going to come together,” said Fisher. “I wanted some dried fruit. I wanted spiced lamb. And I wanted couscous underneath it. And so I focused on those three items.” The Paicines Ranch lamb is marinated in citrus juice and honey, about 15 herbs and spices, then it’s grilled. Brushing the meat with the marinade as the meat is grilled produces a sweet glaze that contrasts with the deep earthy flavor of spices that bring highlights of cinnamon and allspice. The dish is topped with rehydrated pluots that add a citrus chewiness that nicely accented the tender meat and provided a nice contrast to the more light-hearted chicken dish.

Irish Lemon Pudding Cake (Herbert’s dish)- “I asked people on Facebook what countries they wanted us to use for this dinner,” said Herbert, “ and Ireland was the most popular response.” The cake had a nice pound cake texture and a light lemony taste, which was complimented by a topping made with fresh blueberries. I really enjoyed how the sauce soaked into the dense cake, and I have to admit I snuck back into the kitchen to get another scoop. A perfect end to dinner!

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