A lifetime of prep realized
By Tienlon Ho
Oct. 27, 2016
For the last two years, the buzz has been streaming in from both sides of the Pacific about Single Thread, a farm, restaurant and inn in Sonoma County. Even when it was just an empty building off Healdsburg's downtown square and 5 acres of weeds a few miles north, it was already being talked up as "the most highly anticipated," "most important restaurant" headed by "the best chef you've never heard of." It has been regularly mentioned alongside veritable institutions such as the French Laundry, Manresa and Blue Hill in New York.
If all goes accordingly, Single Thread will finally serve its first guests, at a price of $294 each, at the end of November.
No fewer than 250 well-publicized restaurants opened in the past year in the Bay Area, each trying to distinguish itself with some form of farm-to-table fare, although for most that means simply sourcing from the California growers we are so lucky to live nearby. In comparison, Single Thread has all the trappings of a PR coup: The farm, a dedicated R & D kitchen, a full-time forager, cooks and servers fresh from stints at three-Michelin star restaurants in San Francisco, New York, Copenhagen and Tokyo. There is a cement fermentation tank in the dining room for guest vintners, plus custom ceramics by obscure artisans, a rooftop garden and tasting menus of California cuisine with strong Japanese and French influences.
The setup is so perfect that it would be reasonable to deem Single Thread as just another play for the deep pockets of the food-obsessed - that is, until you meet Kyle and Katina Connaughton, the utterly unpretentious and earnest couple behind this most hyped of hyped openings.
"It certainly is a lot of pressure, isn't it?" Kyle admits when you bring all this up. "But the biggest pressure is knowing that people on our team have moved here from all over the world to help us do this."
And this is when you begin to understand, despite all the hype, how very personal this venture actually is. It is, in many ways, a culmination of their professional lives.
Its germ was planted in Kyle's childhood over tuna rolls in Los Angeles sushi bars with his dad, who sold gymnastics equipment in Japan. But the idea sprouted in 2000, when Kyle took Katina on her first trip there. The two met in their early teens at a Face to Face punk show in Southern California. Since then, they've never left each other's side, through Kyle's early stints in pastry at Spago Beverly Hills and the Ritz-Carlton, sushi at Hama Sushi in Venice, then working with Suzanne Goin at Lucques and AOC, and Michael Cimarusti at Water Grill. Katina cooked, too, in a bakery, at home for the couple's two daughters, and alongside Kyle when he needed.
In Kyoto, Japan, they stayed in old ryokans, roadside inns from the era of traveling merchants and samurai, where dinner and breakfast were cooked with ingredients plucked from surrounding fields. The most elaborate meals were in the form of kaiseki, a progression of courses that celebrate the seasons, where everything from the condensation on a bowl to the order of each dish's arrival symbolizes something in nature. In the 1970s, kaiseki so inspired great French chefs such as Paul Bocuse that they created modern degustation menus, the signature of Western fine dining we all recognize today.
"With kaiseki, the menu can never be the same as it was the day before," says Kyle. "It reflects that particular moment and place." Someday at his own restaurant, he decided, he would only cook with ingredients at their peak of flavor.
For Katina, dinner in the ryokans was theater, but breakfast was something else. "When you are just starting your day, you are in a vulnerable mind-set, not fully dressed or pulled together, needing to be nourished and cared for," she says. She wanted to find a way to introduce restaurant guests to omotenashi, the utmost of personal and dedicated hospitality that she and Kyle experienced every morning. She thought then that their restaurant should have guest rooms, and to do that right, they would need a farm.
But first, Kyle wanted to learn more. He accepted an invitation to cook for Michel Bras, the influential French chef and vegetable master, at Toya in Japan, up north on the Hokkaido tundra. For three years, Kyle's main task was to execute Bras' signature gargouillou dish, which required wandering the countryside, rooting for the 30 or so distinct greens, herbs, flowers and vegetables that compose the dish, then preparing each in its own way, and finally, setting them in delicate postures, like a salad plated by God. On off-days, he apprenticed in local kitchens learning more about sushi, soba and kaiseki.
Meanwhile, Katina was studying sustainable Japanese farming techniques, spending the girls' school hours on strawberry farms, picking up the techniques she might someday sow into her own land. In the winters, the Connaughtons gathered around donabe, clay pots that braise, stew, steam or smoke whole meals while warming everyone nearby. (Kyle co-authored a book on donabe last year.)
But they delayed their plans when celebrated conceptual chef Heston Blumenthal called with an offer to Kyle to head the Fat Duck's experimental kitchen in the village of Bray in the English moorlands. Starting in 2006, Kyle oversaw the development of some of the restaurant's most iconic dishes and techniques, including "granulated" beef, a method of neatly arranging the strands of ground meat for extra tender burgers; the Sound of the Sea, where ocean waves conveyed by an iPod in a conch shell were designed to enhance the flavors of seafood atop edible sand; and even a gilt "pocket watch" that the Mad Hatter might fancy - one that melted into a veal consommé, a recipe that took 18 months of iterations to realize.
In the summers, Kyle and Katina came home to California and found themselves regularly in Sonoma and Napa counties, where they met kindred spirits among the growers and winemakers. They scouted for the right plot for the project there, for years watching deals fall through, until finally in 2014, they heard the Seghesio family might make available their building on the site of Healdsburg's old post office and a sizeable corner of a fallow vineyard.
By then, the Connaughtons felt more than ready. Supporting Blumenthal at the height of his fame, Kyle says, taught him about the motivations that drive a chef in the long run. After topping out on Michelin stars and the World's 50 Best list, "Heston said it best - accolades like those are a pat on the back and punch in the stomach. There's nowhere to go but down," Kyle says. "So the only thing you can ever do is to cook authentically, take creative risks and hope the rest follows."
Kyle says his mentor also taught him how innovation depends on each member of the team feeling free to exercise their own expertise. In developing dishes for the Single Thread menu, for instance, he often calls upon each cook to prepare his or her own take.
Innovation can spring from anywhere this way, including the farm, which is Katina's domain. Katina plots the plantings for the year broken down into 72 seasons, which breaks down to five-day increments of peak freshness. There are perhaps only five days for a certain variety of negi (leek-like onions), longer for the squashes. Katina sits in bed most nights reading seed catalogs and tracking climate and growth in an almanac of sorts on Google Drive. ("She'll ask, as I'm falling asleep, whether I'd be interested in purple something-or-other," Kyle says.) By day, she moves earth in a wheelbarrow bigger than herself.
"I can't say that all the varieties are so different to me flavorwise," she acknowledges. "I grow them because they are each distinct to Kyle. I love that man so I grow him negi!" (Currently, six varieties.)
While it took more than a year of tilling and growing cover crops to get the farm back in shape, Katina's beds are so prolific that with the restaurant yet to open, colleagues at other restaurants have been benefiting from gift baskets. The cooks have been practicing dealing with overabundance, too, using whatever is ready in a regular series of test dinners for friends and investors. (Single Thread's backers include Tony Greenberg of UPVentures; Plan Do See, which owns Omotenashi Hotels in Japan; and numerous local private investors.) Pastry chef Matt Siciliano says resourcefulness is so important here that when Kyle interviewed him for the job, he asked, "How would you feel if a bunch of peas came off the farm right now?")
Though guests are welcome to visit, the farm isn't for show. It will supply the restaurant with about 70 percent of its produce needs, mostly Asian varieties of greens like mizuna, mitsuba, tatsoi and specialty herbs like okahijiki (saltwort) that are difficult to source - plus plenty of eggs for breakfast, Katina adds.
"We don't plan on growing everything ourselves when we live in such a rich agricultural community with generations of farmers who do what they do so well," she says. She cites Bernier Farms, a Geyserville allium specialist since the mid-1970s. Not only can Bernier grow masses of quality onions, the growers there were excited to respond to cooks' specifications, like blanching a crop under soil mounds as they grow so the leaves will be pale and superbly tender.
That leaves room for Katina to experiment with varieties uncommon in the Bay Area. Along a deep bend of the Russian River, which runs along the farm, she has a crop of myoga (ginger) adapting to the Sonoma heat. In the greenhouse, thick hedges of shiso varieties are thriving. They bolted up so fast, in fact, that the leaves are now too tough for the cooks to use. Rather than waste what was already grown, she took the problem to the research and development team.
The R & D team is officially Pilot, a food lab in a low-slung house just a 10-minute stroll from the restaurant and four blocks from Kyle and Katina's home. Kyle founded Pilot in 2014 with Ali Bouzari, a food biochemist; Dan Felder, the former head of the Momofuku Culinary Lab; and Dana Peck, a lawyer who specializes in startups. Besides supporting the restaurant, Pilot develops food products and hones the methods to make them for private clients. Among their early projects were cricket-flour energy bars and a specialized Dremel saw that slices through an eggshell in seconds.
For Katina's shiso leaves, Bouzari and Felder tested various methods of pickling and lacto-fermentation to see which countered the toughness while preserving its minty flavor, eventually settling on a straight salt brine.
The challenges the Single Thread cooks bring the Pilot team run the gamut. When Kyle came with an idea to serve the 11 opening canapes in a way reminiscent of the formal opening course in kaiseki, where little bites are arrayed on a wooden platter, Felder headed to the woodshop to carve insets in planks of raw-edged redwood, adding lichen and moss as cover to make the experience like a treasure hunt in a Sonoma forest. Another week, the cooks wanted a lower-fat ice cream that retained its smoothness.
"Other ideas come from living in a beautiful place where delicious things just fall off trees," Peck says. A couple months ago, loquats were ripening all along the neighborhood streets, so the team picked buckets full and cured them like olives, making "oliquats," sweet and briny explosions of flavor.
Between all this, the Pilot team has been consumed for the past six months with creating a bread course for the restaurant. In Western tasting menus, bread is a traditional transition from small bites to the heart of the meal, but for Single Thread, Kyle wanted a new approach.
The team liked the idea of osembei, thin rice crackers. Instead of mostly rice, Bouzari (whose doctoral thesis earned him the moniker Dr. Potato) proposed a blend with potato starch broken down to a creamy texture with diastatic malt powder. There were troubles with flavor (too much like Pringles) and fleeting crunchiness. They tried molding them in pastry chef Siciliano's old stove-top pizzelle iron. They played with ratios of starches; temperatures; and other molds, tracking more than 80 iterations until last week when everyone agreed they had a winner. With the recipe set, Kyle and chef de cuisine Aaron Koseba are working on service details. such as how to keep the crackers warm long enough to survive guests caught up in conversation (the current plan involves a bed of heated obsidian and loosely woven cloth).
All this was just for the interlude between the third and fourth courses, which probably strikes anyone outside fine dining as borderline obsessive. In explaining the motivation behind six months of work, Kyle distilled it to this: "We just didn't want to destroy appetites with an 'Oh my god, I ate too much bread' moment."
Kyle and the culinary team continue to work on finalizing the rest of the dishes, which will fall into three 11-course menus - vegetarian, pescatarian, and full-on omnivore - though what particular dishes each guest can expect will depend entirely on conversations when making their bookings, and with their servers over the welcome bites served in the rooftop garden.
"I've always thought tasting menus are so often presented as something locked in, really missed opportunities to serve guests what they want," Kyle says. "We wanted to use this format as a way to engage more, not just make things easier on ourselves."
Though the menus will follow the flow of kaiseki, with its transitions from refreshing to savory and moments of reprieve, they will otherwise be unbound by formalities. In kaiseki, for example, there is always a futamono course, a soup with a lid to capture the aromas wafting from the broth. Kyle's take will be abalone with white alba mushrooms in a silver leaf tea - no lid.
He is keenly aware of the dangers of adopting another culture's tradition without fully conveying its meaning. "The whole world is open to us. That's the freedom that we have being outside that tradition," Kyle says. "We can draw from tradition and pay respect with careful consideration of its nuances. But it would feel weird if we insisted that there were always a lid on this course. It would be replicating a form without its meaning."
"This is ultimately food about Sonoma," Siciliano says. In planning the capping sweet course, known as wagashi, traditionally involving rice flour sweets served with tea, Siciliano deliberately held back from direct references, playing instead with a beet dish with chicory and chervil and a bite of apple butter layered with a lemon coriander cream. "I'm never going to make wagashi the way they do in Japan, because those makers started doing so generations ago," he says, "so I'm trying to move the conversation forward and create something unexpected."
As they await the restaurant kitchen to be completed, the entire culinary team has been working out of Kyle and Katina's renovated farmhouse on a four-burner Viking range, a portable Cuisinart oven that is usually relegated to the garage for lack of counter space, and the family's donabe. On one afternoon, three sous chefs and the sommelier were touching shoulders as they used every available countertop and a makeshift plywood workbench to prepare a vegetable tureen, a black cod dish, a melon dessert and various cocktails. Katina squeezed by, dropping off some of the day's harvest and lugging buckets of flowers she was arranging for the next evening's test dinner.
"There's something about these moments in the very beginning, how you handle the challenges together, that reflect how things will be the future," Kyle says, surveying the scene. "It's a moment you can't have again."
In this era of Bay Area startups (culinary and otherwise), there can be a reflexive eye-rolling when you hear someone talk about farm-fresh anything, or R & D, or the romance of cramming a team into cramped quarters before the big launch. It doesn't help that to pay for all that, prices have to be high - out of reach to many, which is especially wincing as Healdsburg adjusts to hordes of wealthy weekenders while holding town meetings to find ways to keep rental prices down for everyone else.
But now Kyle attends those meetings and makes a point to be transparent about Single Thread's hiring and sourcing. Everything within Single Thread is interconnected, and so it is becoming with the community outside it, too. "We live here now, and we want to live here for the rest of our lives," he says.
Which is to say that when Kyle and Katina tell you Single Thread is an extension of their home, you can't help but understand. And when they say they want to give each guest a truly personal and memorable experience, you believe it. Not because of the breathless press or the hefty bill, but because every detail will come from a real piece of the Connaughtons' journey - from Katina's mornings in Kyoto, to Kyle tweaking the details of recipes for famous chefs for endless months, and their quiet evenings over donabe as a family. All of this will be distilled into each dish.
On an afternoon visit to check on the construction of the restaurant, the Connaughtons lingered outside, looking at a barren two-story trellis on which Katina will eventually nurse creeping vines to climb skyward. There was a riot of hammering coming from inside.
"Sometimes you can't plan everything, and then it all comes together anyway," Katina says with a shrug. Like all the parts of their past that have coalesced into this moment, it all feels inevitable.
A local man who has been admiring the changes peers in the window as he rolls by in his wheelchair. "You gonna buy this place?" he asks.
"Thinking about it," Kyle says.
Single Thread, 131 North St., Healdsburg. Single Thread seats 52 people each night for dinner, in addition to 10 more in a private dining room. It is accepting bookings starting Dec. 3. The menu costs $294 per person, inclusive of service and tax; beverage pairings range from $72 to $385. Guest rooms are available from $800 to $1,350 per night, depending on season, including breakfast.