A Michelin-Starred Chef and Farmer Share the Best Parts About Sonoma
Kyle and Katina Connaughton, the chef and farmer behind the Michelin-starred restaurant SingleThread, made their names championing Sonoma Valley’s rich agricultural bounty. Here’s where they play, beyond the kitchen and fields.
As Kyle and Katina Connaughton see it, there are two versions of wine country: There’s the postcard-pretty place that outsiders envision, a tourist-ready set piece of vineyards, tasting rooms, and elevated bistros. And then there’s the postcard-pretty place where people work and live, a region with distinctive local flavors and more marvelous dimensions than a glossy guidebook tableau could convey.
The latter is the wine country the Connaughtons found in the northern Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, where they run SingleThread, the two-Michelin-star restaurant and inn that is something of a fantasy turned real.
“We’ve lived, worked, and traveled all around the world, but we always had in mind having our own place in Healdsburg,” Kyle says. “We couldn’t have imagined doing this anywhere else.”
At SingleThread, Kyle is the chef while Katina farms a nearby parcel that supplies the kitchen with the bulk of its produce. The operation is a pairing of their complementary passions. But it’s also a reflection of their bountiful surroundings. In the year-round growing season, on a five-acre plot at the north edge of town, Katina harvests more than 70 kinds of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, all destined for the journey from dirt to dining room. Many are hard-to-come-by Japanese varieties—such as Kyoto red carrots and bell-shaped kamo nasu eggplants—that ornament Kyle’s ever-shifting 11-course kaiseki-style menu. What Katina doesn’t cultivate, the Connaughtons acquire from the region’s purveyors and producers. They’ve gone so far as to contract with a farmer to breed a duck—called a Duclair duck—to the restaurant’s just-so specifications.
Their non-working hours are locally focused, too. The couple’s home is eight miles from the farm. On Mondays, the one day a week SingleThread is dark, Kyle and Katina can often be found strolling the town plaza or walking their dog, a Black Mouth Cur named Murray, along the Russian River, which runs close to town. Now and then, they amble over to the Healdsburg Golf Club to hit a bucket of balls or unwind over a beer.
“We love the beauty of the scenery and the outdoor lifestyle here, but also this wonderful town center that’s so vibrant without feeling crowded,” Katina says. “We still enjoy traveling, but nothing makes us quite as happy as coming home.”
SingleThread, like old-growth vines, did not develop overnight. The seed was planted in 1998, when Kyle and Katina, newly wed and in their early 20s, motored north from their hometown of Los Angeles on a wine country road trip. Stumbling onto Healdsburg, they delighted in a main square that attracted travelers with tasting rooms, bakeries, cheese shops, and trattorias but which also brimmed with locals—folks with ties to one another and connections to the land. The couple knew they wanted to put down roots in Sonoma, but first, they wanted to live abroad; they eventually relocated to Japan, then England, for eight years total, with Kyle working in esteemed kitchens and Katina exercising her green thumb. All along, they held onto the dream of Healdsburg, paying visits every chance they got. In 2011, they made the move permanent and got cracking on their ambitious plan.
Though SingleThread, which opened in 2016, is patterned partly on English country inns and Japanese bed-and-breakfasts called ryokans, it’s mostly an homage to the surrounding region. Every evening, Kyle’s prix fixe opens with what he calls “a snapshot of Sonoma County.” A composition of small bites made from ingredients at their often short-lived peak, it’s meant to mirror what’s transpiring at that very moment in nearby farms, fisheries, and fields.
Like Kyle’s menu, Healdsburg has evolved. In the 20 years since the Connaughtons first set foot here, new shops, hotels, and restaurants have layered the town with greater levels of refinement.
“It’s more of a destination now,” Katina says, “But it still possesses that alluring, small-town charm that we initially fell in love with. I can’t see that ever changing.”
Where to Eat and Drink in Sonoma County
Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar: “The owners of this ice cream and pie shop are two darling men who create sweets as sweet as they are,” Katina says. “Their peanut butter pie is a spiritual experience.”
Campo Fina: The ingredients are locally sourced, and the cooking is home-style Italian at this popular local restaurant. “We’re particularly fond of the sugo calabrese,” Katina says. “It’s the best pasta in town, hands down.” Adds Kyle: “There’s also a back patio with a bocce court that gives it a really family-friendly feel.”
Idlewild Wines: Kyle describes this salumi and wine bar just off Healdsburg’s main square as an antidote to the “churn-and-burn” winetasting experience. “They’ll slice you a little cured ham, maybe some local cheese, and you can just hang out and enjoy without feeling that you’re being sold anything.”
Russian River Brewery: Best known for producing Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger, a pair of craft beers that helped put Sonoma County beer on the map, this festive hangout is also a first-rate brewpub. “Along with pouring beer flights, they serve delicious wings, thin-crust pizza, and other pub food done with a lot of care,” Kyle says. Adds Katina: “We recently celebrated our daughter’s 17th birthday here with two tables’ worth of pizza—it was a big, fun, cheesy blur.”
Kistler Vineyards Trenton Roadhouse: In a region brimming with great wineries, Trenton Roadhouse stands out for its laid-back atmosphere and lush chardonnays, Kyle says. “We are huge fans of the tasting experience. It’s not the typical one where you stand at the counter and quickly drink through pours. When we go, we sit and relax at the tables that overlook their beautiful vineyards and winemaking facilities.”
Williams Selyem Winery: To do a tasting, you’ll need to join a members’ list, for which there’s a six-month wait, “but it’s worth the effort,” Kyle says. “The winery has been around for a few decades now but Williams Selyem still feels like a fresh, up-and-coming producer, making incredible and dynamic pinot noir.”
Things to Do in Sonoma County
Copperfield’s Books Inc.: “This is a local, independent book chain with a great selection of travel and gardening books as well as cookbooks,” Katina says. “One of my favorite memories is when we walked there and purchased Kyle’s cookbook, Donabe, the day it hit the shelf.”
Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve: “One of our favorite hikes is through the old-growth redwood trees on the Armstrong Nature Trail,” Kyle says. “The mind-blowing 310-foot-tall trees make you feel as if you’ve entered an ancient world. The oldest of them is called Colonel Armstrong, and it’s thought to be 1,400 years old.”