When the layoffs because of COVID-19 began, Jammir Gray decided this was the time to look for her dream job.
She found it as executive chef at Compline, one of Napa’s trendiest spots, which combines a restaurant, wine bar and wine merchant.
“Napa was always my end game,” said Gray, who grew up in Vallejo and decided to become a chef in fifth grade after reading an article in The Smithsonian Magazine about French pastry chef and culinary artist Jacques Torres.
Vallejo is about 15 miles down the road from Napa but Gray made it a slightly longer journey. First, she earned an undergraduate degree at UC Davis, before heading off to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park in New York. Her externship brought her back to the Bay Area to work at One Market, Mark Dommen’s Michelin-star rated restaurant in San Francisco.
After this, Gray signed on with the Kimpton Boutique Hotels and Restaurants and for the next six years, she moved from Chicago to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., as she climbed the ladder from line cook to sous chef to executive chef.
The lure of the Bay Area, however, began to tug on her to bring her home. “There is nothing fresh in D.C.,” she said. In 2017, she returned to the Bay Area as executive chef of British Bankers Club in Menlo Park, and two years later, she joined Michael Mina and Ayesha Curry’s International Smoke as chef de cuisine.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, closing restaurants and laying off chefs and their staff all over the country. “Everyone was like, ‘I’m staying on unemployment,’” Gray said, “but I thought I’m going to go for the job I want.” When this turned up in the form of an offer to be executive chef at Compline, she said, “I thought it was too good to be true.”
Gray joined the Compline team three months ago, as Napa County restaurants were just beginning to emerge from the first round of shut-downs, only to be hit by rising COVID-19 numbers again. Public safety measures again shut down indoor dining and taxed the creativity of chefs and restaurateurs to find ways to keep serving guests.
During the early days of the pandemic closures, Compline’s owners Matt Stamp and Ryan Stetins began delivering free meals to front-line medical workers and first responders. According to Register columnist Craig Smith, in the first two months they delivered more than 5,000 meals.
They also began a take-out service that included the Compline burger, which some, including this writer, believe is the best in the valley. Stamp, a Master Sommelier, also began hosting weekly virtual tours of global wine regions for which participants could purchase a kit that included vials of wines and appetizers to try during the online session.
As they worked on expanding seating for outdoor dining, as this option returned, Gray was inside working on menus.
“I love the chalkboard menu,” she said for flexibility that comes with chalk and an eraser when “something fresh and wonderful is available.”
Her goal is a super-flavorful, highly seasonal menu of artful dishes designed with wine-friendly Mediterranean flavors in mind. She is introducing a pasta program, more vegetarian dishes, a childhood favorite Filipino dish and new desserts.
She also undertook a burger makeover. What? What was wrong with that sublime creation? Could there be a better meal that it with the duck-fat fries and a glass of Champagne?
“Oh, the meat was perfect, couldn’t be better,” Gray said. “I just changed the cheese — from mild to sharp cheddar — and the grilled onions to balsamic grilled onions.”
She is not touching the duck-fat fries, she added.
She works with wine compatibility in mind. “I love this wine list,” she said. But other than being told not to make anything too spicy, which can wreak havoc with wines, she is free to give reign to her ideas.
“After living all over the country, this is what I came back for,” Grey said.
Compline turns 3
For a restaurant to make to its first-year anniversary is a cause for celebration under any circumstances; according to FSR (Full Service Restaurant) Magazine, 60% of new restaurants don’t.
Stetins and Stamp opened Compline in September of 2017 just weeks before terrifying wildfires erupted. When they hit their one-year anniversary, they celebrated with an enthusiastic community party — Champagne and dancing into the night. They repeated the feat and celebrated their second anniversary in 2019.
Then came 2020. “It has been an interesting three years to operate a business,” Stamp said, but he pointed out that the restaurant trade “is not for the faint of heart” under any circumstances.
“There’s a lot to love,” he said. “And there are a lot of hurdles, from small things like taking care of one guest to something that is huge.”
That is one way of describing 2020, which for a restaurateur must resemble a never-ending ride on a roller coaster through a chamber of horrors: a pandemic shutdown, reopening with extensive health precautions, then reclosing, and when outdoor seating is finally possible, here comes a record-breaking heat waves sparking massive wildfires that fill the sky with toxic smoke.
“I think the quote is, ‘We made it,’” Ryan Stetins said, asked to describe his feelings on reaching their third anniversary.
The question is how to celebrate this year when everything is different. “We decided to shift our focus,” Stamp said. “We can’t do a big party but we can remind people what we do best: great food and interesting wines.”
They decided to mark the occasion on Sept. 23 by hosting a dinner that features a “five-course tour” of Gray’s new fall menu with wine pairings.
On the menu: Lobster and Shrimp Lumpia, Chestnut Soup, House-made Cavatelli with Liberty Duck Confit, New York Strip with Root Vegetable Tian and Chocolate “Tres Leches” with Polvorón with vegetarian and pescatarian options available for each course.
Although they have added new outdoor seating (with heaters and wind control, because who knows what the weather will bring next?) seating is limited for the dinner, and tickets are necessary. Tickets are $185, including tax and tip, available at www.opentable.com.
“About every nine months, we’ve had a catastrophe that has shut down tourism,” Stetins said, “What has sustained us is the local community. They support us, we support them. The feeling of community in Napa is stronger than ever.”
Also coming up: Compline is launching a local wine delivery day every Friday, starting Sept. 25. They will do home delivery for advance wine orders to Napa and Sonoma counties every Friday.
They will also be preparing a wine and travel 6-bottle box so customers can experience what it would be like to drink through a country or wine region.
From the chef
Gray shared a favorite recipe for Giardiniera (“jar-din-air-ah”), which is described by the Chicago Tribune as “the quintessential Chicago condiment, one that’s as brazen and boisterous as the city itself. This fiery mix contains some combination of pickled chiles, celery, cauliflower, carrots and olives submerged in oil.”
Giardiniera, which means “mixed pickles,” originated in Italy as a way of preserving vegetables from the garden.
Chef Jammir Gray,
2 cups Champagne vinegar
2 cups water
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon crushed red chili flake
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
Sachet containing the following:
-1/4 cup Crushed Garlic
- 3 Bay leaves
- 1 Tablespoon black peppercorns
- 1/2 Tablespoon coriander seeds
1 quart of any combination of small cut vegetables (Chef’s note: “Think seasonally! Or go with the traditional giardiniera combination of celery, bell peppers, cauliflower, onions, carrots and sweet or spicy peppers.”)
Extra-virgin olive oil or grapeseed oil
Combine all ingredients, except the vegetables, in a large pot and cook on high until it boils.
Boil for at least five minutes and remove from heat. Let liquid sit for at least an hour to let flavors steep into the liquid.
Pour the liquid over the vegetables making sure they are completely submerged.
Drizzle a layer of olive oil or grapeseed oil on top of your giardiniera to completely cover the vegetables and liquid. Leave to pickle for at least 2 weeks in the vessel of your choice. Perfect for canning.
Compline is at 1300 First Street #312, Napa, is open six days a week (closed Tuesdays). Take-out and delivery is 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.; patio dining and the retail shop are open 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Call (707) 492-8150 or visit complinewine.com.
Watch now: First Street Napa: A tour