Driving Ms Jackie

  (l-r) Culinary Institute of America in Saint Helena / With Cheryl Goss and South African-born winemaker Anthony Bell / Revellining in the culinary abundance at Dean and DeLuca / Sunday Times (p)

 (l-r) Culinary Institute of America in Saint Helena / With Cheryl Goss and South African-born winemaker Anthony Bell / Revellining in the culinary abundance at Dean and DeLuca / Sunday Times (p)

Award-winning KZN chef Jackie Cameron travels via her taste buds. I caught up with her in the Napa Valley waiting for a splurge at The French Laundry
— Wanda Hennig / Sunday Food

If you want to lose weight, spend the day with a chef. This is not something that crossed my mind when Jackie Cameron e-mailed to say she was coming to Northern California - specifically San Francisco and Napa - on a culinary adventure with Cheryl Goss, owner of Hartford House where Jackie wows diners with her innovative cuisine.

"It's good to travel with Cheryl because then she knows where I’m coming from when I have certain ideas for the restaurant," Jackie says.

The pair previously ate at Ferran Adrià’s erstwhile el Bulli in Spain when it was rated "world's best restaurant". Jackie's journeys are like an Olympic work-out for the taste buds. Travelling solo in Sydney, Australia, 'I did 12 restaurants in 11 days".

Yes, she saw the Sydney Opera House. "I booked a bus tour and took in everything I could. You can only eat for so many hours a day."

When she travels, Jackie says, "I feel I'm like a sponge. I'm there to look at the food, obviously, but also anything and everything from the service to how the linen is starched and the serviettes folded. I'm not a chef who stays in the kitchen. I need to fuel myself, teach myself, so I can go back and teach my team."

The trip to the US is to celebrate Jackie’s 10 anniversary at Hartford House and the restaurant's inclusion, once more, on the list of South Africa’s Top 10 eateries.

A long-time fan of US chef Thomas Keller, whose The French Laundry in Yountville, about 10 minutes north of the city of Napa (north of San Francisco) has been named 'world's best restaurant" several times, their focus is to eat at all five Keller restaurants, two of which are in New York City. It’s Jackie's first time in the US, "which is crazy, given my understanding and love of Thomas Keller's food. Because I've taught myself most things - not worked under another chef - if I ever have a query, I refer to his books to explain techniques and principles".

The Napa Valley ranks up there with Disneyland in terms of popularity with around five million visitors a year. It is the United States' most prestigious wine region. Among the more than 400 wineries, many largescale, are a growing number of boutique establishments producing some of the world’s best wines.

I offer to be Jackie and Cheryl's chauffeur-cum-tour guide on the single day they have free. I have only one day to plan the itinerary but come up with a round-trip of assorted food and wine experiences that reflect the valley.

I find Jackie and Cheryl at Sweetie Pies, a cafe in the historic Napa Mill on the Napa River. This area has been redeveloped over the past 10 years to give wine country charm to what was a pretty drab city.

We head first for Yountville where two nights previously they ate at the first of the five Thomas Keller restaurants, Ad Hoc. "Childhood memory food and hearty food with soul that you might share," says Jackie of Ad Hoc. Yesterday they did Keller's Bouchon. "Bistro food," says Jackie. "You might have a steak and chips. I had a beautiful white sausage and mash."

That night they will eat at the famed French Laundry where Kellar's philosophy is to create an emotional experience. "In the end, a great meal is not about the food and wine. A great meal is an emotional experience," is a quote from their website.

When I meet up with Jackie and Cheryl, they’re having an emotional experience but not the one Keller had in mind. They made their booking, three months in advance, for four. Two of the party have dropped out.

Jackie is trying to find two people to join them, which involves paying the prix fixe $270 a head (plus wine and service). When they try to cancel the extra bookings, they're told they'll be bumped and put on a waiting-list. That, or pay for the no-shows.

Jackie calls and SMSes on her South African cellphone as we head north up Highway 29, past vineyards and wineries that extend way off into the hills to our left and right. (She is ultimately successful.)

Near Yountville we spot the sign for Anthony Bell’s Bell Wine Cellars. I've heard he is South African so I stop. Tasting is by appointment only. We walk in and say we're South Africans and is Anthony Bell there? In true South African style, the Stellenbosch University viticulture alum, who has huge Napa Valley credentials and who handcrafts limited edition wines, comes to meet us. Pedigrees and mutual friends are discovered as wines are poured.

Then it's on to Inglenook, the historic vineyards, winery and family home that Francis Ford Coppola bought with proceeds from The Godfather and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Estate ambassador Harold Francis has been assigned to take us on a private tour of the winery, the upstairs gallery filled with movie memorabilia, and to then pour the wines, which include the 2009 Rubicon, their flagship Bordeaux blend, which retails at $200.

From here we cut a dash to Dean & DeLuca, an emporium of local, artisanal and international foods. This is foodie swoonterritory and Jackie, not immune, laments that while South African selections are becoming more abundant, she'd like to wave a wand to summon a resource like this.

I give them 30 minutes to browse in the upscale wine country town of Saint Helena then it's on to the historic castle-like building that houses the Culinary Institute of America, offering innovative curriculum and programmes to would-be chefs and day-trippers. "I did get a little jealous looking at what the students are offered and hope they appreciate how lucky they are," Jackie says after our quick tour of kitchens, lecture halls, cafe, flavour bar and store.

At nearby Meadowood, where the head chef was recently named "best in the west", we're told we can't go into the restaurant as it’s not open - but push the door and are welcomed in and shown around.

And then we’re off to our final stop, heading back toward Napa on the alternative Silverado Trail that is also lined with wineries. At state-of-the-art Quintessa we’ve been assigned estate director and one-time winner of the the world's best sommelier title, Larry Stone.

He takes us to taste on a hill overlooking the property, which includes a valley, a lake, a river, wine caves, five hills and micro-climates that let them produce 40 different wines from 26 different vineyard blocks.

When I leave Jackie at 7pm after a photo shoot in the gorgeous French Laundry veggie garden a narrow street away from the restaurant, I identify why I'm feeling a little weak. Yes, we sipped on wine. Mainly, I sipped and spat, being the designated driver. But not a morsel of food has crossed our lips.

Jackie has two hours until their 9pm booking. I could drive home for dinner - just an hour away and I have a diet Red Bull in my car. But I detour to Oxbow Market, Napa's culinary emporium (visited by the KZN duo the day before) and order a croque-monsieur followed by a single scoop of salted caramel ice cream - it's organic, artisanal, from Three Twins. I drive home feeling well fed - and slim.