It may seem like success has been quick to arrive for Kyle and Katina Connaughton, the husband and wife team behind SingleThread. Having only opened in 2016, the restaurant and boutique inn in Healdsburg, California, in Sonoma County in the heart of wine country, already has two Michelin stars and has just been named the Miele One to Watch ahead of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018, which you can live-stream on 19 June on Fine Dining Lovers. But they’ve been planning it most of their adult lives.
“This will be our 25th year together,” says Katina. “We’ve had a lot of time to flesh out the details and to really complete the vision.”
Let’s jump back a bit: chef Kyle and farmer Katina – the restaurant has its own five acre farm nearby that supplies around 70% of its produce – first met at a punk show in LA, where they both grew up, when they were teens. They’ve lived in Japan, where Kyle worked under Michel Bras and Katina really started to get deep into agriculture, and in the UK where Kyle headed up the research kitchen at The Fat Duck for five years.
When they decided they wanted to move back to California and do good on their long held dream to open their own farm to table restaurant with rooms, the kind of place where you feel off the beaten track and you can dine and stay and really take in an area and an experience, the kind of place they like to go to, thoughts turned to Sonoma County.
“We got married just north of Sonoma,” recalls Kyle. “We really fell in love with the area and started coming up from LA, first to Napa because of all the amazing things that were going on with food and wine, and then just more and more we discovered the Sonoma side of wine country, and it just really spoke to us. It was very agricultural; there was a lot of diversity here in what people were doing, so obviously winemaking, but also cheesemaking and raising poultry and various things. There’s a real artisan spirit here.”
Talking of falling in love, I’ve heard that SingleThread is staffed largely by couples, many of whom arrived together, I tell them: "Yes, it’s really attracted people who want to be part of the family-style atmosphere of what we do, we have more couples than not,” says Kyle.
The Connaughtons have Japan in their souls and it was there that the vision for SingleThread really began to take shape, when Katina started to learn about local sustainable farming practices working at farms on Hokkaido. SingleThread serves a plant-heavy Kaiseki-style tasting menu based on 72 micro-seasons so that guests can “really experience the best of Sonoma county on that particular day, at that particular moment,” says Kyle. It also means of course that guests will have a completely different dining experience every time they come.
Summer Vegetables from the Farm, Charred Negi, and Black Cod in the Fukkura-san Donabe
There is a constant back and forth conversation going on between kitchen and farm they say, about what’s working and what they need more of and they’re always experimenting with new varieties, the only constant being the onion, which they grow all year round, the ‘single thread’ that gives the restaurant its name. They’d like to become a little more self-sufficient, but having really “plugged in” to their local community, one that has been brought even closer after the terrible fires of October 2017 (thankfully they weren’t directly affected), they recognise the importance of supporting local farmers too.
“We love to grow as much as we can for the restaurant, but we have such a supportive and incredible agricultural community here,” says Katina. “Some of these farms are so deep rooted, they’ve been around for decades. We would be foolish not to lean on that for some specialty items.”
The Japanese influence extends into the dining room too, with dark wood paneling, linen lanterns and earthenware made by Japanese artisans. The Japanese philosophy of Omentanashi, or selfless hospitality, underpins the whole operation.
“Ultimately we want the guests to feel that they’re coming to our home for a dinner party,” says Kyle. “We’ve worked really hard to take away some of the more administrative things of the dining experience.”
This means no technology is visible to the guests at any time, so you won’t find someone looking up your reservation on a computer when you arrive or see staff communicating via headsets or phones. There is plenty of technology being utlised of course, for example the kitchen team can be notified via app of any dietary or allergy requirements, which will pop up on two TV screens in the kitchen, and there are cameras to track the movement of guests around the building, but the visual cues aren’t there.
In the dining room they’ve employed subtle lighting and sound programmes to help personalise the dining experience and reflect the energy in the room. This is partly a legacy of Kyle’s time working with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, who he says taught him about how creating the ultimate dining experience is about so much more than just the food and service, but “Sight and sound and smell and context and nostalgia and storytelling.”
Left: the dining room; right: Sonoma Grains with Wild Nettle and Duck Broth
One Big Family
The word ‘family’ crops up a lot when you speak to the Connaughtons: their team, many of whom have joined from some of the best restaurants in the world, are now ‘family’ and they want to dedicate their One to Watch award to them they say. They also have a family of their own, two children aged 17 and 22, but with SingleThread the line between work and home life is well and truly blurred. That’s the way they like it.
“Even if we separate ourselves, we’re still talking about it: talking about a new dish, or talking about the farm, or a new idea,” says Kyle.
The family likes to take a trip up the to Redwoods or to the coast to refresh and rejuvenate themselves and actually it’s where they have some of their best ideas, on little days out. And of course, there’s plenty of great foraging to be done out in the forest, or on the seashore.