Rolling through Redwood City on a slow-crawling weekend Caltrain, you can't help but notice the archway proclaiming "Climate Best by Government Test," a slogan dating back to the 1920s, when the U.S. government determined that the Peninsula was at the epicenter of one of the world's three best year-round climates. While San Francisco is shuddering in fog, the suburban towns strung along the southern end of San Francisco Bay--shielded from the marine chill by the high-shrugged spine of the Santa Cruz mountains--bask in humidity-free sunshine, day after day. So it seems only fitting that Sunset would have built its "Laboratory for Western Living" in Menlo Park, its climate just as perfect as its bragging neighbor just a few whistle-stops to the north.
Sunset's spacious ranch-style digs--and its extensive surrounding gardens--really are a laboratory, where everything gets field-tested: new tomato varieties, outdoor kitchen designs, tasty taco recipes, and a whole lot of cacti and lavender. Plants are planted to see how they fare in a prototypical (if ideal) Western climate; garden layouts are arranged; and the test kitchen is always cooking. While the campus looks like more like a spa-hotel than an office, it's a workplace nonetheless, and the public gets to wander in and around it only once a year, during its annual Sunset's Celebration Weekend, held this year on June 1-2. It's a two-day festival of cooking, gardening, and outdoor living demonstrations, with seminars and tastings of local wines and beers, tours of the test kitchen, brand promotions, talks with travel writers and professionals, and lots of how-to by local chefs and TV cooking-show celebrities, along with cookbook authors and Sunset editors.
And since you can't talk about food all day long without wanting to eat some, and this being the Bay Area in 2013, much of the food for sale came from a long double row of Off the Grid trucks, with many popular local mobile (and sit-down) eateries representing.
John Fink of The Whole Beast was on hand, selling massive, fabulous-looking barbecued ribs, potato salad and slaw, while the staff of Marianne Despres's El Sur dished out empanadas from her signature Citroen van.
After Nopalito ran out of gorditas and chips, they turned into a popsicle stand, selling strawberry, lime sherbet, and dark chocolate-cinnamon pops, while the roving bartenders at Rye on the Road stirred up some cooling Pimm's Cups. Despres, who grew up in Menlo Park, was particularly excited to be on the roster of chef-demonstrators in the outdoor kitchen, showing off the technique behind her popular Parisien empanada, made with proscuitto, ham, scallions, and a mixture of cheeses.
But back to that test kitchen: As a city renter who's written four cookbooks plus countless food columns, I've gotten used to doing my recipe development and testing in studio-apartment kitchens the size of a tissue box--or in shared kitchens already crammed full of other people's cereal boxes and leftover pad Thai. And while my experiences may be more scrappy than most, your typical cookbook author can only dream of having have a workspace like the Sunset test kitchen. This is no industrial, fluorescent-lit restaurant kitchen, all roaring burners, stainless-steel tables and cavernous sinks; instead, with its wood-paneled cabinets and comfortable counters, it's most like an extremely well-organized and well-stocked home kitchen, if your kitchen at home was twice the size of your living room.