Women Chefs Seed Plant Forward Dining at The Grove in Napa

With Chef Deborah Mullin at the helm, The Grove restaurant at Napa’s Copia is female chef-centric.  A Culinary Institute of America (CIA) alum, Mullin feels right at home at this CIA location, which is located across a path from an olive grove and a 32-bed garden.

The Grove restaurant at the CIA at Copia

Many chef bios begin with the chef learning to cook by standing at the stove watching Mom. Mullin’s bio, on the other hand, describes her youthful introduction to food by tending the garden plots for her parents in Maryland. “Managing the garden in my youth made me appreciate the enormous effort that goes into producing wholesome, healthful, and delicious food. Rain or shine, I helped turn over and till plots of land and sow seeds.”

Mullin continues to help her parents garden during visits and is highly motivated to dig into the art of cooking plant forward food. In Amsterdam, she co-founded and led culinary operations at “farmer-to-table” restaurant Cantinetta Wine & Pasta, now closed. Her workplace since November 2023, Copia is located in Downtown Napa next to food-focused Oxbow Public Market.

As the first woman culinary leader of The Grove since the restaurant’s opening by the CIA in April 2019, Mullin has implemented a toothsome menu with a bountiful array of fresh, Mediterranean flavors.

Mullin’s role at The Grove mirrors the growing prominence of female chefs. Though the CIA was founded by two women, Frances Roth and Katharine Angell, at their cooking school in New Haven, Conn., for many decades men dominated top positions the restaurant industry.

The CIA’s educational mission for culinary professionals and the public continues at Copia. Anyone can attend creative cooking classes led by CIA chefs, explore food history at the Chuck Williams Culinary Arts Museum, or attend an exclusive 3D interactive dining experience.

To satisfy your hunger, or “Feed Your Joy” as the tagline for the property says, you can drop by the many food and beverage venues that Mullin oversees: the Wine Bar, and the seasonal Haven late-night cocktail lounge, the Lunch Box for casual takeout or garden dining, or The Grove.

During Napa’s Restaurant Week in early 2024, we ate a “garden to table” meal at The Grove with views of the garden and across the room, the bustling open kitchen.

The round loaf of housemade mixed grain sourdough focaccia arrived with herbed extra virgin olive oil. Many of the herbs came from the CIA garden as did the Meyer lemon zest. We dipped into the savory blend until it disappeared.

Speaking of lemons, I enjoyed delicious, icy cold, well-shaken Lemon Drop cocktail. The bartender confirmed what I expected—the limoncello was made from the lemons in the garden.

A half-hour after we arrived, I was feeling the joy of dining out with a chef who selects her cooking techniques wisely to highlight fresh produce or proteins. The burrata starter with minty herb oil, roasted garden radish and Meyer lemon zest was exceptional. The star of the dish was the lowly radish, roasted to perfection; I could have eaten a bowlful of them.

The Grove burrata and bread

Mullin’s plant forward culinary philosophy continued throughout the meal. The insalata misticanza or mixed salad was packed with “leaves, chicories and herbs from the garden.” The tart-sweet balance of the preserved lemon vinaigrette enhanced the diverse earthy flavors of the vegetables.

The pasta on the Restaurant Week menu, gnocchi made of spelt and flax, was the same as the regular offering. Though my healthy husband likes gnocchi in theory, he prefers to eat foods made from whole grains rather than white flour. When Mullin stopped by our table, he invited her to join us and told her he thought the gnocchi were “terrific.” The nettle hazelnut pesto added a bright punch to the dish.

To top off the gnocchi, she added candied hazelnut crunch and bachelor button flowers to generate textural and colorful contrast.

The Grove Chef de Cuisine Deborah Mullin visits during the pasta course

The well-curated wine list paired well with the meal.  The first recommended wine, a 2020 Le Salse Verdicchio di Matelica from the Marche region of Italy, matched up to the full-flavored starter, salad and pasta. For the main course, the Akaushi (producer) ribeye with arugula salsa verde, bodega potato confit with Dijon vinaigrette paired well with the medium-bodied, not tannic Darioush “Caravan” Napa Valley 2019.

The Grove Akaushi ribeye with arugula salsa verde

The ribeye was tender and seasoned simply which showcased the high quality of the meat. The unusual and refreshing arugula salsa and rich potato confit complemented the ribeye. My healthy husband liked the Lions Mane Mushroom entrée with charred leeks, walnut cream, and truffled porcini jus. He reluctantly gave me a taste of the leeks and proceeded to devour them all. The roasted effect of the leeks elevated their status from humble onion cousin to partner with the mushroom.

Mullin’s garden-to-table approach reached a pinnacle with the cheese course. The trio of local cheeses with grilled focaccia toast, honeycomb and sugared mandarin peel was a textural and flavor winner. My husband was enchanted with the honeycomb, saying it was his time tasting the delicious way to eat honey which was dripping from the comb to the serving board.

The Grove cheese course with honeycomb

The cheese course was so delicious and filling I thought the meal was over. But no, dessert was still to come. The flourless chocolate cake with coffee cream and dark chocolate ganache thrilled my coffee-and- chocolate loving husband. To top off the cake, pastry chef Ashley Goodloe, sprinkled tiny, malted balls on her creation. Goodloe, also a CIA alum, has an artistic and creative eye in addition to high caliber baking skills. Her resumé includes winning the Food Network’s Holiday Baking Championship: Gingerbread Showdown.

Goodloe’s baking skills also manifested in the cherry mascarpone cheesecake with amarena cherries and red wine cherry balsamic sauce. The Italian amarena cherries held a slight crunch, freshness and the ineffable cherry flavor I adore. Goodloe’s cherry balsamic glazed nestled under the cheesecake hit a high note for the meal. I stock my kitchen with cherry balsamic vinegar and dream of creating sauces like hers.

The Grove torta caprese and cherry mascarpone cheesecake

Women chefs supporting other women in the culinary world is a CIA operating principle. In honor of Women’s History Month in March, Mullin has hosted five women chefs for the CIA Alum Guest Chef Series. Mullin recently collaborated with CIA alum Jennifer Jasinski, owner of multiple restaurants in Denver including Rioja where I enjoyed memorable octopus and more.

I asked Mullin about her collaboration with Jasinski. “She inspired our team [to create] her Mediterranean and seafood-centric meal to the delight of guests who were eager to savor something different and memorable from one of the most influential female chefs in the country.”

Mullin’s presence and work at The Grove is a fitting tribute to the two women who founded the CIA with the mission to broaden culinary knowledge. The chef enjoys mentoring the CIA students who intern at the stove and front of the house. All proceeds from The Grove and the other venues benefit CIA student scholarships. A toast to Mullin’s cooking and the future women chefs who comprise half of the CIA culinary students.

The Grove Chef de Cuisine Deborah Mullin at the end of service

Photo credits: Deborah Grossman