After nearly four years in the making, Single Thread, which many regard as the next iconic American restaurant, opens today in the California Wine Country city of Healdsburg. Executive chef Kyle Connaughton, who most recently ran the experimental kitchen at The Fat Duck in Bray, England, helms the Sonoma County eatery, which offers one seating of an 11-course, fixed-price meal each night. Connaughton did the bulk of his culinary training in Japan, and as a result, his meals at Single Thread feature an overwhelmingly Japanese vibe. Most dishes also incorporate fresh and seasonal produce grown on the restaurant’s nearby five-acre farm, which is run by Katina Connaughton, the chef’s wife. We caught up with chef Kyle before a (memorable) media preview dinner this week to talk about Single Thread’s debut and what he hopes guests remember most.
Why this concept? Why now?
Sonoma has so much to offer in terms of inspired diversity. We wanted to capture that—not only in the restaurant but with our farm and with the [five] guest rooms we have upstairs. We wanted to create an experience that gives our guests the very best of everything Sonoma County has to offer. If you look at the very best restaurant experiences around the world, they all share one thing in common: They all offer a sense of place. When you dine at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, or Michel Bras in Laguiole, France, it’s not just about the meal, it’s about the journey to the towns where the restaurants are located and experiencing everything there. It’s a manifestation of each of these places in a tangible, concentrated form. Everything from the architecture to the materials, the dishes, the ingredients, the chefs, to the hospitality. You just can’t export that somewhere else.
Take us through a typical meal. What is the progression of the night?
You check in downstairs and we take you immediately to the rooftop garden, where we have a little discussion about the menu and you sample a few small bites. It’s a chance for the service team to discuss any last-minute dietary things that we don’t know about or we didn’t capture through the communication process [previously]. It also gives guests a chance to decompress and maybe get a little oriented to north Sonoma County. This way, when you come down the stairs, you feel like you are coming to a dinner party in our home rather than you were coming to a restaurant experience. The meal plays out from there; all told, guests usually are with us for about four hours.
Between Asian flavors, clay pots and other handmade ceramics from Iga, and sake as part of the wine pairings, Japan plays a big role in what happens at Single Thread. One could even say the meals are set up like kaiseki, which comprise a progression of courses that celebrate the seasons. Can you explain what people will learn about Japanese culture as part of their visit?
We’re all about the Japanese concept of shun. This concept has to do with seasonality, but takes it down to a micro level. If you ask an American when asparagus is in season, they’ll say, “Spring.” But spring is a three-month period of time. In the beginning of that time, asparagus doesn’t have very much flavor. Then it hits its peak. Then it starts to go down and it’s still technically available but it becomes very stringy and woody and it’s not as flavorful anymore. We’re not interested in our ingredients on the front end or the back end of that peak time. We’re only interested in them in the middle. That’s shun. It means that every night here is different, that the experience you have one night would not have been the same if you would have come the night before and will not be the same if you come tomorrow. There’s a very famous saying in Japanese: Ichi-go ichi-e. It basically means, “One chance, one encounter.” People say it all the time when something is happening and you’re in the moment and you know that the moment is fleeting and you’re aware that that moment will be over soon. I think that’s the takeaway for us. We want to give people a natural sense of that without ever bashing you over the head with it or being too literal about it.
The meal at Single Thread costs $294 per person and you use a ticket-based reservation system to manage this payment in advance. Why did you opt to set up bookings that way?
It takes the transaction part out of the experience. This way, when you come to Single Thread it’s just like going to a concert or a show. You don’t pay a bill at the end of a Rolling Stones concert. You buy your ticket, you go to the concert, and when things are over, you go home. Of course, if guests order additional wines, we have to present a bill for that. But the basic experience—we wanted that to be separate. There’s a lot of talk around pricing of menus at restaurants like ours, but I rarely see the same discussion happening about tickets to a play or tickets to the symphony or what a round of golf play costs at Pebble Beach. We’re an experience just like any of those other things.
The media—AFAR included—has hyped this opening quite a bit; you’re regularly mentioned alongside stellar restaurants such as The French Laundry and Blue Hill. How do you feel about all that hype?
Obviously, it’s great. You don’t want to open your doors and hear crickets chirping. It’s exciting to see that people are excited about what we’re working on and what we’re doing and that there’s genuine interest. We’ve also tried to be really careful to make sure we don’t take anything for granted. We always talk about [compliments and media scrutiny] as being a pat on the back and a punch in the stomach. Whenever someone says, “This is going to be amazing,” they’re also really saying, “You better deliver right away.” Thankfully, this pressure pushes everyone here to do their life’s best work. We know we’re going to grow and evolve and improve just like anyone in anything else. We also know we’ve got to earn whatever success we’re going to have.
Finally, what do you hope guests take away from Single Thread once they come?
I hope guests feel that above all else, the experience is warm and genuine. This is captured by a Japanese concept called omotenashi, and that warmth for us is more important than anything—even the cuisine. Ultimately, while guests expect to have a great meal, they’re coming to have our food served flawlessly. They’re coming to experience themselves in the dynamics of the table. So often in our business, I think that’s forgotten. Chefs think people are coming to experience THEM, but really there are other things at play: a birthday, an anniversary, a business deal, two wives meeting for the first time. Being able to provide genuine service and care for people in all of these scenarios is really what hospitality is all about.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.