Chef Kyle Connaughton’s singular focus leads to a singular sensation
Chef Kyle Connaughton has treaded a most purposeful path in life.
It started at age 9 with a bite of raw fish. He was so enraptured by that first encounter with sushi that he knew he had found his life’s calling then and there.
It continued steadfastly as a teenager, when he spotted a free-spirited, dark-haired girl in the crowd at a Southern California punk rock concert and knew instantly they would be together forever. Two kids and a quarter century later, he and his now-wife Katina still are.
And it held fast as he worked alongside Michelin three-star chefs Michel Bras in Japan and Heston Blumenthal in the United Kingdom, and dreamed of owning his own world-class restaurant someday. Years later, when he visited Healdsburg, he knew he had found the ideal location to do so.
Those deliberate, calibrated steps led Kyle and Katina to open this past December what is arguably the most anticipated and most ambitious Northern California restaurant of late: SingleThread Farm-Restaurant-Inn. Despite a grinding two years of construction on the $7 million project, Kyle says he never wavered in his belief that it would come to fruition. Because somehow, some way, he’s always managed to accomplish what he has set his mind—and heart—to do.
“SingleThread has been my ultimate goal,” Kyle, 40, says emphatically. “Everything we’ve done for the last 22 years has been toward getting to this.’’
“This” is a multi-faceted gem. It is first and foremost an ambitious 54-seat restaurant, serving a $294 tasting menu, with much of the refined fare cooked in handmade Japanese donabe earthenware pots. It is where the service is so rarefied that diners get to select their own handmade steak knife, with blades forged from a 1968 Volkswagen. It is where a corner of the dining room houses a concrete fermentation tank—filled with an exclusive vintage to be crafted by a different Sonoma winemaker each year—making it the smallest licensed winery in the country. (“It has its own address and can get its own mail,” Kyle quips). It is also a boutique inn with five luxury rooms upstairs, each outfitted with a Japanese toilet and soaking tub. It incorporates its own five-acre organic farm two miles away, raising laying hens, flowers and specialty Japanese produce for the restaurant. It encompasses nearby Pilot R&D, a company founded by Kyle, where innovative equipment is developed for leading restaurants.
SingleThread is all that and more. It is a Far East meets Far West amalgamation of Old World hospitality and sleek modernity. As the name implies, Kyle says, a single thread runs through all of these components, connecting them, and making them far greater than the sum of their parts.
Its genesis began in his childhood, when Kyle would tag along regularly on trips to Japan with his father, who was president of a company that manufactured Olympic-caliber gymnastics equipment. The culture, and particularly the food, made a lasting impression. Recalls Kyle: “When I had sushi for the first time as a kid, I said, ‘Whatever this is, I’m doing it.’ I never looked back.’’
He would eventually become a chef at Bras’s Toya Japon in Hokkaido, while Katina worked on a strawberry farm, learning sustainable practices. The couple lived in Japan for three and a half years, as Kyle also rotated through other Japanese kitchens to immerse himself in the arts of kaiseki, izakaya, sushi and soba. They would have stayed far longer if not for an offer Kyle could not refuse: to be head chef of research and development for the experimental kitchen at Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck.
After five years in that role, helping to develop some of The Fat Duck’s most fabled dishes, it was time for Kyle and Katina to contemplate opening their own restaurant. For two years, they searched for the perfect location, finding it in Sonoma Wine Country, a region that reminded them of the bucolic countryside in Europe and Japan, where Michelin-starred restaurants offered far more than just top-notch food.
“You have these great restaurants there with the experience of eating dinner, then staying over and waking up to breakfast,” Kyle says. “I wanted our own Sonoma Wine Country experience of that. We didn’t want people to just walk in, then walk out, after dining. We want people to feel like they have really had time to relax. We felt we could really curate an experience like that.”
And they have—down to the minutest detail. Construction had already started on the building that houses the restaurant and inn when Kyle and Katina came upon it. It was to have been a tasting room and inn for Seghesio Vineyards. But when that historic Zinfandel producer was sold to Napa-based Crimson Wine Group, those plans were scrapped. Kyle and Katina ended up taking over the building with a 25-year-lease, and redesigning everything.
The result is a space that has the air of a traditional Japanese ryokan reinvented with California contemporary flair. Dinner reservations are booked ahead through Tock, the online platform co-founded by Chef Grant Achatz of Chicago’s Alinea and his business partner Nick Kokonas, that allows diners to make pre-paid ticketed reservations. Tock also allows diners to include information on dietary restrictions or dislikes, which the restaurant then follows up on, so that the menu is customized to their tastes well before they arrive at SingleThread.
“It was born from my years of working at tasting menu restaurants and seeing the wife slide something off her plate to her husband when the waiter turns his or her back,” Kyle says. “Now, we can accommodate any dietary requirement. You can fight it—or you can create a system to embrace it.”
When guests arrive, they are escorted to the roof to enjoy sparkling wine and canapes accompanied by 360° views of the surrounding countryside. On chilly evenings they can warm themselves at a crackling fire pit flanked by a greenhouse and planters of fresh herbs and citrus.
After their roof experience, guests take the elevator back down to the first floor to a waiting area cloistered from everything except an open window into the kitchen, where chefs can be seen silently plating intricate dishes. It’s a tease of the show that’s to come when they are led through an 11-foot door into the dining room that’s wrapped around the open kitchen. At the close of the evening, massive pocket doors are pulled together to close off the kitchen as the team cleans up, as if signaling that the performance has come to an end.
At the back of the kitchen is the arresting array of donabe, handmade by eighth-generation master potters. The pots are instrumental in smoking Monterey abalone over cherry wood, and for cooking aromatic dishes such as black cod with leeks in chamomile dashi, as well as Sonoma barley and faro finished with guinea hen and matsutake broth. That’s not to say that modernist liquid nitrogen and sous vide equipment are not utilized. But donabe is decidedly the cooking method of choice at SingleThread.
“Donabe has stood the test of time,’’ Kyle says.” It’s not only beautiful, but it functions really well. It’s old technology, but still relevant today.’’
The ethos of farm-to-table is so paramount at this restaurant that the dining room even features a dozen loomed shoji-like screens, each woven to depict the DNA strands of a different vegetable. Much of the produce comes from the restaurant’s farm, which grows varieties such as Aleppo peppers, asparagus and strawberries, as well as Japanese specialties such as negi (slender leeks), red komatsuna (a hybrid of spinach and mustard) and wasabina (a mustard plant that tastes of wasabi).
It was once the Seghesio family’s vegetable garden. Now, it is very much a Connaughton family endeavor, with Katina assisted by her brother, Vince Rothermund, who gave up a career in biotech to be her co-farmer, and the Connaughtons’ 20-year-old daughter Chloe, who looks after two beehives and a flock of Speckled Sussex and Araucana chickens at the farm.
For Katina, 39, it’s by far the biggest undertaking she has tackled. “It’s daunting, but so exciting,” she says. “I feel incredibly fortunate to come to work here. I get to do what I love with the one I love.”
Other restaurants may boast of menus that change with the four seasons, but SingleThread goes way beyond that, charting the year over 72 seasons. It adheres to the Japanese practice of “shun,’’ which dictates that every ingredient be used only when it is absolutely at its peak, which can sometimes be only a few days. As Kyle explains, “The menu is all about showing that day, that moment.”
Now, it is finally SingleThread’s moment. Kyle knows that expectations start in the stratosphere for his long-awaited, much publicized restaurant, financed in large part by New York City real estate developer Tony Greenberg. But he is prepared for what may come. After all, for him this is no temporary stopover; this is his terminus.
“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he says. “It’s been worth the wait.”