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On a sunny afternoon, Katina Connaughton stood under a brilliant blue sky in Sonoma, California, searching for a queen. Standing in front of a beehive, she held a rack of honeycomb in gloved hands. The buzzing grew louder as the bees protested the intrusion. “I don’t see one,” she said, slightly disappointed as she slotted the rack back in the hive, “but I’m sure there’ll be a queen soon.”
Raven-haired and beautiful, her arms covered in tattoos of vegetables, Connaughton seems regal enough. She is the co-owner and head farmer of the Single Thread, a five-acre farm, 52-seat restaurant and five-room hotel that opened in Healdsburg in January and has already become the talk of the valley and beyond. Two years in development, the restaurant serves an 11-course tasting menu at $293 a head, making it one of the most expensive and ambitious in the country.
As Connaughton tended to the bees, her husband, co-owner and chef Kyle Connaughton, sat in the shade of a nearby shed, fielding questions from the San Francisco Chronicle’s veteran restaurant critic Michael Bauer. As an indicator of the buzz, the critic had already visited the restaurant three times. (Bauer eventually bestowed upon it the highest rating, writing “A Flawless 4 Stars on Arrival”.)
Sonoma, a large county of farms, vineyards and ranches north of San Francisco has been long overshadowed by neighbouring Napa, home of the celebrated French Laundry, in terms of food and wine. Kyle Connaughton hopes to change that. He spent years in Japan at Michel Bras’ restaurant in Toya, and with Yoshihiro Murata in Kyoto. In England he was the head of research and development at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck. Five years ago, the Connaughtons moved to Sonoma to look for a home for their next project. The aim, he says, was to translate the Japanese haute cuisine tradition kaiseki to American shores.
Though often analogised to French haute cuisine, kaiseki stems from 9th-century monastic cooking with a strict dogma on the order and preparation of courses. However, what really animates it is the focus on local and seasonal ingredients. “What better place to do that than Sonoma?” asks Kyle.
According to kaiseki chefs the year is divided not into four but into 72 micro-seasons. It is Katina’s job to observe these on the farm and provide ingredients at the optimum moment of freshness. She learnt to farm first from the housewives of Hokkaido and later while serving as a personal chef for George Harrison’s family at Friar Park, their estate in Oxfordshire. There, she turned the culinary gardens, well-kempt but not fully utilised, into engines of produce. But this is her first professional farm and the stakes are high — 70 per cent of the restaurant’s ingredients come from the farm and all of the eggs. The rest, such as the Duclair ducks, the lamb and guinea hens are raised in Sonoma. The abalone is from Monterey Bay and the sea urchin from Santa Barbara.
On the day I visited, the fields were already heavy with Japanese long onions called kujo negi, baby radishes, Lambon peas, fava beans, cabbages, white asparagus, and all other manner of exotic sounding brassica such as komatsuna and mizuna. Katina aims to harvest about 20kg per day but the micro-seasons are fleeting and the cadence of nature uncompromising. Today, for instance, there was a glut of baby Tokyo turnips and Kyle was under pressure to put all his wife’s work to use. “You don’t want to go to bed with an angry farmer,” he told me.
A few hours later, the turnips arrived on my plate, in a course entitled “Late Winter in Sonoma.” Now they gently curled around a sliver of cured aji pepper, part of an ensemble that includes tiny dishes of roasted and fermented carrots with black sesame cream, purple peacock broccoli with goma-ae and eggs with chawanmushi custard, smoked sabayon and caviar. All were served on a multi-level platform made with wood, Spanish moss collected that day off the oaks, and fresh flowers. Kyle appeared at the pass in the large open kitchen, now in his chef’s whites, surveying the dining room. His wife was nowhere to be seen but, one would imagine, the farmer was far from angry.
Illustration by Matthew Cook