“We like to be all about balance,” says Kyle Connaughton of Healdsburg’s exactingly detailed SingleThread Farm – Restaurant – Inn. “That’s the narrative of what we do.”
It sounds like a deliberate understatement for a Japan-trained chef who, with his wife Katina, spent years preparing to open and pole-vaulted straight to two Michelin stars. However, Connaughton is speaking candidly of his team’s approach to luxury, which carries a steep price tag — $1,000 for a dinner for two is more a floor than a ceiling — although the daily tasting menus are more vegetable-forward than led by exquisite morsels flown from Tsujiki Fish Market. Even truffles, a barometer of opulence if there ever was one, are starting to become available locally, Connaughton notes.
But Relais & Châteaux GourmetFest is anything but understated. There, meals routinely command $1,500 price tags and chefs hobnob with muckety-mucks amid oceans of caviar, rare Champagnes from decades ago, and other delicacies. For its fifth year, in Carmel from March 15-18, GourmetFest brings together a number of boldface names who participated in its inaugural run, including Joshua Skenes of Saison, Charles Phan of Slanted Door, Bostonian restaurateur and 2017 James Beard Award winner Barbara Lynch, and the Connaughtons themselves.
The SingleThread principals will work on two meals this year at the restaurant Aubergine, a dinner called Rarities and a lunch called Rarities of the Sea (sponsored by Krug Champagne). Even with titles like that, Connaughton insists that neither will place splendor over taste.
“We’re looking at unique and special ingredients — and I didn’t take it to mean they necessarily have to be luxurious ingredients to be rare,” he says. About Rarities of the Sea, he adds that “this is looking at more unusual or lesser-known things from the ocean, with an eye toward sustainability — and a big part of the sustainability of seafood is the diversity.”
In other words, serve something people might not be familiar with and you get the same wow-factor payoff as if you’d dredged the bays surrounding Hokkaido’s Shakotan peninsula for sea urchin.
But doesn’t the increasing sophistication of California palates work against such a strategy? Arugula and radicchio weren’t household words until the 1980s, and now they’re old hat. This is where Connaughton’s adherence to a Japanese aesthetic takes over.
“Wowing people is really about the whole,” he says. “The sum of all the parts, from the food to the dishes to the cooking to the ingredients to the dishware to the hospitality. The multisensory aspects of the dining experience.”
SingleThread’s 11-course menu is tailored to diners tastes, slaloming around their professed aversions — no surprise on either count — and it’s in keeping with the Japanese concept of shun. While the term also happens to be the name of a brand of high-end cutlery, it means sourcing and serving things at the absolute apex of their quality. (It also relates to the practice among Tokyo residents of giving $50 boxes of 12 flawless strawberries as gifts.)
“I’d rather put my energy into presenting ingredients that are at their peak freshness, at their time of the season, than say, ‘I have this rare, obscure ingredient that we flew from halfway around the world,’ ” Connaughton says.
“It’s about finding something different,” he adds, “and different is good as long as it’s good.”
That’s a tautology that’s hard to quarrel with. The soils around SingleThread’s farm are well-suited to growing a variety of Japanese produce, and last fall, the Connaughtons harvested a number of heirloom pumpkins of the type grown in Kansai, near Kyoto. It was a learning experience.
“Some were incredibly delicious, and some were chalky and flavorless,” he says. “We wouldn’t serve something that had a cool name that ultimately wasn’t that delicious. We kinda go, ‘Well, chalk it up to learning,’ or we’ll have those for family meal. And we’ll know for next year.”
Fifteen months after SingleThread’s December 2016 debut, only a few small details have changed. Apart from closing for a week in January to recharge in Tahoe and give the staff a rest, it’s mostly been a seven-day-a-week thing. So the lavishness GourmetFest promises is, first and foremost, a weekend off. Except for the fact that he’ll be working.
“We revel in stuff that’s like, ‘This is so over-the-top,’ ” he says. “Who doesn’t want that? I can’t wait to cook with some of these people.”
Relais & Châteaux GourmetFest, March 15-18 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, gourmetfestcarmel.com