Full Belly Files | My iPhone’s Best Food & Drink Experiences of 2021

Looking Back Through a Year of Photos

Maybe it’s my own internal manners monitor, but I often feel the side-eyed look of strangers — and friends and family — when I whip out my iPhone to snap pictures of my next bite, whether that’s at a restaurant or at my own kitchen table. 

Part of me laments that this admittedly annoying step now exists between making/ordering food and actual eating. There’s that bragging, FOMO-inducing element once these pics are posted to social media, the lingering questions over what it means to elevate sustenance to stardom, and the abrupt intrusion of technology onto the once-sacred space of a shared table.  

But a larger part of me is happy that it’s become acceptable. The taking-pictures-of-food movement is showcasing chefs and home cooks like never before, introducing us to new restaurants and cuisines that we may never otherwise know about, and celebrating a massive swath of our multicultural food world, from Michelin-starred sushi and smashburgers to mochi donuts and crispy lumpia. It’s leveling a playing field that was once only open to “professional” tastemakers and established media outlets. 

For me, it’s also about keeping a personal record of what I’ve been up to, as these photos leave an anecdote-inspiring visual map of where I’ve eaten and, more importantly, whom I’ve eaten with. These photos fire up stories about otherwise-forgotten days, sometimes just for having another laugh about what happened that night, other times for more poignant ponderings about what life had in store for us down the road. 

And when I take pictures of my food, dammit, it’s for work. That’s my best, most frequently relied-upon excuse when I feel the side-eyes: “I’m working!!!”

So when it came time to compile my own list of favorite eating and drinking experiences from 2021, I turned right to my iPhone and scoured thousands of this past year’s photos to deliver the following report. Since I settled on just one photo per month (okay, sometimes two), this is really just a fraction of what I’d consider worthy edible highlights, but it still makes a tasty walk down memory lane.

January: Aperitivo’s Pasta Club

Credit: Matt Kettmann

With COVID still raging post-holidays, I took the advice of numerous food fans and reached out to Aperitivo to give their Pasta Club a try. The result were these partially homemade spinach dumplings called strangolapreti with a bright red wine from the schiava grape grown in Kalterersee, a region surrounding Lake Kaltern. I wrote about it here.


Credit: Matt Kettmann

In February, I came out of my COVID shell to travel to the hinterlands around Los Angeles to research a story on a resurgence in Southern California winemaking. A highlight of that adventure was eating paella with the inimitable Juan Alonso, the chef and restaurant owner of Le Chene in the Sierra Pelona Valley and vintner at Alonso Family Wines. Along with wines from around L.A. County, we went deep into his cellar that afternoon. Read my Wine Enthusiast feature on L.A.’s next generation winemakers here.

March: Breaking in New Grill

Credit: Matt Kettmann

After brief consideration of buying a camping trailer — an expensive, somewhat challenging toy that we would have used sporadically — my family’s COVID project was building an outdoor kitchen, an expensive, familiar toy that we use constantly. After many months of building, the setup was officially ready by March 31, when we broke it in by grilling what looks like chicken. The highlight was spending time with my longtime friend, colleague, and constant cancer survivor Ethan Stewart of @thelast3days fame.

April: Knighted by Richard Sanford

Credit: Matt Kettmann

In November 2020, I published my first book, Vines & Vision: The Winemakers of Santa Barbara County, along with my coconspirator, the photographer Macduff Everton. (It’s basically sold out, but there are some copies at wineries around town, and a handful of signed copies left straight from us here.) Macduff and I see each other often, usually for book-related things, but sometimes for fun. That was the case when my family came to his house to eat dinner with Thekla and Richard Sanford, legends of our wine industry. At the end of that night, Richard “knighted” me with some of his bow ties, which was humbling and just plain awesome. 

Credit: Matt Kettmann

May: Market Forager Wagyu Burgers

Credit: Matt Kettmann

When a regionally famous chef shows up at your door selling meats, it’s wise that you buy. Such was my lesson when Justin West, of Julienne and Wildwood fame, brought his Market Forager truck to my driveway last spring. Among other winning buys, like the scallops and Manhattan steaks, I purchased a load of premade Wagyu burger patties. They’re so simple yet so delicious. I just bought more the other days, along with lamb chops and porterhouses and…

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June: Decadence of Bacara & Al Pastor

Credit: Matt Kettmann

I couldn’t pick one highlight for June. On back-to-back days, I ate the most decadent dish of my year and then cooked the most ambitious roast of my life. The former was at San Setto, a new sushi spot at the Ritz-Carlton Bacara: an A5-grade Wagyu roll, seared pieces wrapping around raw ones and topped with caviar, nori oil, miso aioli, and gold flakes. 

The latter was when I decided to shave achiote-marinated pork shoulder, stack it with onion and pineapple, and roast it rotisserie-style on my grill. Yep, al pastor, the horizontal version

July: Canned Cocktails on the Truckee River

Credit: Matt Kettmann

Traveling around with family is still a bit funky in our pandemic world, but we managed to escape to my cousin’s new house on the west side of Lake Tahoe right after the Fourth of July for some mountain air and fun. I’ve been going to Tahoe my whole life, though mostly to South Lake, so I had never floated the Truckee River. I could do it every day, especially with canned cocktails in hand.

August: Fiesta Eats & Late Night Harvests

Credit: Matt Kettmann

Because these two photos are from slightly different worlds, I’m picking two again. The first is the annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta party that I go to, where my Wine Enthusiast colleague, food editor Nils Bernstein, who lives in Mexico, whips up some traditional Mesoamerican foods each year. The inspiration for 2021 was the Yucatán. 

Then I jumped into harvest mode in Monterey County by hanging out for a late-night pick of chardonnay up in Chalone with winemaker Bill Brosseau. I wrote more about that here

September: Getting Hooked at Lake Cachuma

Credit: Matt Kettmann

On the way to staying one night up in Los Olivos, where we checked out the brand new Bar Le Côte, among other highlights, we stopped at Hook’d Bar & Grill at Lake Cachuma. Though the food took a while, we were impressed by the menu and the drink selections, the full lineup of Le Pecheur by fisherman “Crabby” Steve Escobar. Best of all was the lakeside view. 

​​October: Sushi | Bar and Chef Pete in the Wild

Credit: Matt Kettmann

Okay, my last two-photo month. First, I finally ate at Sushi | Bar in Montecito, right after it won a Michelin star. It was the final night of the Giants-Dodgers playoff series, so I wore my Giants hat and my buddy Giuseppe wore his Dodgers cap. The game didn’t turn out well for me, but the sushi was mesmerizing. I wrote more about it here

On the last weekend of the month, I camped with a large group of friends at El Cap, including Chef Peter McNee of Convivo. It was my second time seeing him work in the wild — I wrote about our Santa Cruz Island adventure here — and he whipped up a pasta carbonara one evening. Little did we know that our camping buddy, the artist Chris Potter, would be diagnosed with cancer days later. Support his cause here

November: Margerum Vertical

Credit: Matt Kettmann

I review more than 2,500 wines a year, and it’s almost always new releases. So whenever a winemaker asks me to taste through the vintages in a tasting known as a vertical, I tend to oblige if my schedule aligns. That actually happened twice in November, with Doug Margerum (who’s pictured with me above after our run through his 18 M5 vintages) and then again with John Niven and Rob Takigawa up at Baileyana in the Edna Valley. I wrote more about the experiences here.

December: French Onion Plus Potato Soup

Credit: Matt Kettmann

At the end of 2020, I have pictures of my family eating some French onion soup I made. Earlier this month, without remembering that I’d gone that route last December, I decided to make onion soup again, but this time smoothed out with the addition of potatoes. Once properly caramelized and pureed, I threw it into crocks, topped with bread and cheese, and broiled ’til done. That’s comfort in a soup cup.

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