These dog days of summer are meant for lounging — next to the nearest body of water and for as long as possible. And while peanut butter and jelly or tuna fish sandwiches with a side of flaming hot Cheetos may suffice every now and then, it’s nice to pack your cooler with food that has more pizzazz.
Someone who knows a thing or two about putting together perfect poolside menus is Tim Bodell, executive chef at Coppola Winery in Geyserville. The winery has one of the most enviable poolside perches in Sonoma County and an easygoing, finger-food-driven menu distinct from its more upscale restaurant, Rustic.
“I love the idea of handheld poolside (food), because eating with your hands, to me, is a fun experience,” Bodell said. “When you’re out enjoying the pool on a beautiful day, I don’t want to fuss with a knife and fork.”
As the father of an 11-year-old who loves the pool and the beach, Bodell has given plenty of thought to easy, make-ahead, family-friendly finger foods that pack easily into a cooler and let him enjoy a leisurely casual day.
Bodell cut his teeth, culinarily speaking, working as a teenager in cheese steak and pizza shops where he grew up, in the Philadelphia area.
“My mom instilled a love of cooking in me from a very young age. I had a really wide-open palate,” he said. “(But) we didn’t eat out much at all. I didn’t really have a window into the profession of being a chef.”
That changed when he was 18 and began working for a trained chef who took him under his wing.
“Very shortly into my relationship with him, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do, and I hit the ground running,” he said.
Bodell enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, and earned a degree in culinary arts. After, he moved to the West Coast and spent several years in and around Bend, Oregon, before making Sonoma County his home about 14 years ago.
He ran his own catering company and worked at a handful of local restaurants for a couple of years when the job at Coppola came open. He already knew it was somewhere he wanted to work.
“It was the first winery I actually visited when I moved to this area,” he said. ”We loved the wines and loved the vibe of the place. Shortly after that, we came up for dinner and just sort of further fell in love with the property and the story of the property.”
Not many chefs can say they were mentored by a legendary Hollywood filmmaker, but Bodell can.
“I’ve been just so, so fortunate to have built and forged a close relationship with Mr. (Francis Ford) Coppola over the years. You know, he’s been a role model and a grandfatherly figure to me over the years,” said Bodell, noting the relationship went beyond purely professional after he lost his home in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. “After the fires, he was incredibly generous to my family.”
The “Godfather” director also helped shape his culinary philosophy, Bodell said.
“(Coppola) likes seasonal food. He likes family recipes, and he’s an incredible storyteller at his core. The power of food to tell a story, I think, is certainly something that I’ve picked up from him,” he said.
Bodell takes pride in the property’s culinary garden, tended by Pat McKenna. The garden lies just beyond the terrace of Rustic on a small triangle of land that was once planted with old-vine zinfandel grapes.
He pitched the idea of a culinary garden to Coppola in an email, and the one word reply came minutes later.
As winery visitors arrived at the pool on a recent day to claim their cabanas and lounge chairs under striped umbrellas, it seemed reasonable to wonder if the chef ever has pool envy.
“Having been a chef for so long, I came to grips long ago that when everybody else is enjoying themselves, more than likely I’m working very, very hard,” Bodell said. “I have hospitality in my heart. Making people feel good is just part of my DNA. It brings me incredible pleasure to have people here enjoying all the hard work.”
On days off, Bodell and his family love spending time near the water, whether at the pool with friends or at their happy place, Doran Beach, where they recently spent an entire day that included breakfast, lunch and dinner on the sand.
Wherever they are, he said, he wants his cooler packed with fun, easy-to-eat finger foods.
“My wife really loves cold fried chicken and has requested it many times over the years for a day at the pool or beach. And it’s something that has a bit of nostalgia,” he said.
Not only is it a family-friendly food, his recipe is also gluten-free, meaning just about anyone can enjoy it.