Djerassi Resident Artists Program: Feeding and nurturing creativity
When artists receive their acceptance letter from Djerassi (jer-AH-see) Resident Artists Program in Woodside, CA, the letter states just how lucky they are to have been chosen for a residency. (In 2016, 868 artists applied and only 7% of them received invitations.) Once artists arrive for their coveted, monthlong stays, another layer of this luck is revealed: Dan Tosh, the Djerassi chef who has been preparing dinners for artists, five nights a week, for the last 10 years.
Everything about this place spells BOUNTY. First there’s the winding road onto the property, when the view opens up to 600 acres of green hills, redwood forests and magnificent views of the Pacific—a vista that makes you stop the car and gasp—all of the glorious acreage preserved and dedicated to the nurturing of art. There’s a sculpture near the Artists’ House, called To Market, To Market, which looks like some cross between a covered wagon and a giant’s grocery cart, overflowing with larger-than-life gourds, evoking a sense of plenty and of connection to the land. And then there’s the dinner. Chef Tosh has a reputation among Djerassi alumni, and when you take your first bite, you understand why. I was so enchanted by the meals, so nurtured by them and attached to them, that I recorded every single meal in my journal.
Djerassi’s founder, Vienna-born chemist and Stanford Professor Carl Djerassi (1923–2015), is most known for his work with oral contraceptives. Often called “The Father of the Pill,” Djerassi, along with two other researchers at Syntex Corporation, isolated the compound—derived from Mexican yams—that would later become the key ingredient in the birth control pill. In the New York Times obituary, Robert D. McFadden summarizes Djerassi’s contribution this way: “His work on the science of birth control helped engender enormous controversies and social changes, altering sexual and reproductive practices, family economics and the working lives of millions of women around the world.”
With the fortune generated by his groundbreaking work with Syntex, and the importance, popularity and widespread use of the Pill, Djerassi purchased the land that now houses both SMIP Ranch (a five-acre farm that grows produce for local Bacchus-managed restaurants) and the Resident Artists Program. As we enter an administration where women’s reproductive rights are in jeopardy, the work of Dr. Carl Djerassi feels both precious and newly relevant.
Among the property’s 69 sculpture installations, completed as far back as 1982, is a tribute to Carl Djerassi’s important work, in the form of several wire-art replicas of pill containers, installed in the broken-out windows of the Old Barn.
Two days after the two-year anniversary of Carl Djerassi’s death, I went back for another taste of Tosh fare, and brought my husband along to photograph Chef Tosh in action. There are no residencies in February; instead, the winter months host a series of week-long workshops by Djerassi alums. For dinner that night, we joined members of a novel writing workshop—five women working under the guidance of Jane Vandenburgh.
In his recently remodeled kitchen, Tosh skinned and trimmed a beautiful filet of salmon, before searing it on a griddle. This was served over a bed of spinach. Side dishes included sautéed chard and a bright, colorful slaw of thinly sliced celery, purple daikon, apples and tarragon, with a horseradish dressing. Because I told him I’d be mentioning how Carl Djerassi changed the world with something found in yams, Tosh worked yams into the menu, browning up sweet potato latkes in the largest iron skillet I’ve ever seen.
Assisting in the kitchen that night was Anza Jarschke, residency manager, who made Lemon Pudding Cake in individual ramekins for dessert. Tosh, whose work in the kitchen appears effortless, offered gentle guidance and instilled confidence as Jarschke baked something she’d never made before. The joy Tosh finds in his job is evidenced by his consistently happy mood, the relaxed vibe in his kitchen and the frequency of his laughter. He can carry on conversations with the artists while simultaneously preparing exquisite and sometimes complicated meals, catering to the specific dietary restrictions of any particular group.
When asked what is the most challenging part of the gig, Tosh said, “managing the minefield of food allergies, aversions, etc.” He added, “I’ve learned a lot.” He’s seen it all: vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan, Paleo, Ayurvedic, kosher and gluten-free. These dietary restrictions and preferences change monthly with each new group, keeping him creative and nimble as a chef. His favorite part of this job: “Getting to know the artists while they’re here. There are some brilliant minds and it makes for fascinating dinner conversations.”
Tosh’s training has all been experiential. He was chef de cuisine at Valeriano’s and a chef for Talula Bay Catering, both in Los Gatos. He credits Takashi Yagihashi for having a huge influence on his cooking style. “I admire his reverence for impeccable ingredients.” When describing his own style, Tosh said, “I try to cook seasonally. We are so fortunate, here in California, to have access to the best produce, meats and fish, year-round. At Djerassi, cooking for the same group of people for four weeks at a time, I never repeat a dish. On the road into the ranch, there’s a piece of art in the form of an altered traffic sign, that says “Yield to Whim” (Frank Foreman, 1983). It’s become a mantra of sorts for the artists who spend time here. I like to take that same approach to my cooking, to experiment, have fun and yield to whim.”
Over the last 10 years, over 1,000 artists have enjoyed these whims and have been fed and nurtured by Chef Tosh. Since Djerassi’s inception in 1979, thousands more have benefitted from the gift of time, time to feed and nurture their own creative hunger, curiosity, talent and drive.
And to think it all started with a yam.
How can you get a piece of this action? There are four ways to sample Chef Dan Tosh’s culinary genius:
1. Apply for and be awarded a month-long residency.
2. Come as a guest of a resident or staff member, on a Friday night, the only night open to guests ($20).
3. Register for one of their public workshops, the cost of which includes the nightly meals.
4. Attend Artful Harvest, the annual auction, where one lucky bidder gets to visit Djerassi with friends, stay overnight in the Middlebrook Studios and savor a meal prepared by Chef Tosh.
For more information or to visit Djerassi, visit Djerassi.org.