By Florence Fabricant
Single what? Kyle who?
The full names are now on the food map. SingleThread is the restaurant and inn that the chef Kyle Connaughton and his wife, Katina Connaughton, opened without much fanfare in early December 2016 in Healdsburg, Calif. The Michelin Guides soon picked up the scent and within 10 months awarded the restaurant two stars. Then the culinary world began to notice.
“It happened very fast,” said the tall, soft-spoken Mr. Connaughton. “And this year we were named ‘The One To Watch,’ an impossible thing to get.” He was referring to the “rising star” award that’s part of the World's 50 Best Restaurants ranking.
Mr. Connaughton’s career has not made him a household name. His jobs have been in the background, in kitchens, not drawing acclaim. Even the restaurant’s name, SingleThread, is puzzling. Mr. Connaughton said they struggled with what to call it; what they chose refers to “a single thread of hospitality,” a unified approach that drives the entire enterprise, which includes a five-room inn.
It’s the first restaurant that Mr. Connaughton, 42, has ever owned, and its almost instant critical success makes it an enviable phenomenon. But it is also the result of years of dreaming and planning, two years of construction and, thanks to investors, a budget in the millions of dollars. Unlike some first-time restaurateurs, Mr. Connaughton is a talented chef who is well-grounded, confident and equipped with years of kitchen and management experience.
The inn has a Japanese aesthetic, with its dark wood, Zenlike simplicity and the handmade donabe casseroles on display in the gleaming kitchen that can be seen from the vestibule. The dining room is decorated in neutral tones, with well-spaced tables. The interior design is the work of AvroKo Design of New York.
Though popular preparations like hand rolls or ramen are not on the menu, and Western ingredients like caviar, foie gras, and pecans figure in some dishes, Japan informs a great deal of the food, with fermented elements and flavors, and the precision with which the components are presented, often on dinnerware by Japanese artisans.
Nightly offerings might include Japanese turnips in a sun-dried turnip dashi broth; king salmon seasoned with a shio koji (fermented rice) vinaigrette; black cod in a miso broth seasoned with cod bones, grilled over Japanese charcoal; and confections, or wagashi, like Japanese cheesecake. A Japanese breakfast — featuring tamago omelet, fresh yuba (tofu skin) with barrel-aged ponzu sauce and miso soup — is among the choices for overnight guests.
“I was attracted to Japanese things from the time I was young,” said Mr. Connaughton, a native of Southern California. Early in his career, he interned at Japanese restaurants in Los Angeles. After graduating from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, he attended the California Sushi Academy in Los Angeles and the Sushi Chef Institute in Torrance, Calif., and went on to the kitchens of some marquee restaurants in California, including Spago Beverly Hills.
Mr. Connaughton worked for several years in Japan, notably at the restaurant owned by the French chef, Michel Bras, in Hokkaido in northern Japan, and for six years he ran the research and development lab for the influential chef Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck in Bray, near London. (Mr. Connaughton gives the chef a shout-out on another breakfast, English-style.) He has been involved with the Culinary Institute of America, with Nathan Myhrvold’s elaborate Modernist Cuisine project, and even did consulting work for the Chipotle chain. But none of these experiences, which deepened his culinary acumen, put him in the limelight or wrested him from his passion for Japan. “The Japanese have a reverence for repetition and mastery,” he said. “I struggle to get young chefs to understand that it’s not necessary to keep going on to something new.”
The dinner menu at Single Thread is an 11-course tasting with fish and vegetarian options; dishes change daily, though repeats may show up. Wine pairings are offered from the 1,800-bottle cellar, with mostly Californian and European selections.
“I love the Japanese kaiseki format and the way the Japanese express the seasons,” he said. About 70 percent of the dishes, he said, is driven by and depend on the products that he and his wife raise on their five-acre farm in the San Lorenzo vineyard area in Healdsburg.
The farm’s vegetable and flower gardens, heirloom fruit orchards, beehives, greenhouse, heritage-breed chickens, a grove of more than 100 olive trees, vineyard and cattle are the responsibility of Ms. Connaughton, who studied sustainable agriculture and English and Japanese gardens. The couple, who met in high school in Southern California, have two daughters, Chloe, 22, and Ava, 17.
It’s one thing for the Connaughtons to be fledgling restaurateurs with a staff of 18 in the kitchen. But they’ve also taken on the demands of the inn, an elegant two-story structure built from the ground up, with five comfortably minimalist rooms, which, Mr. Connaughton said, they try to run like a home. A rooftop lounge with copious plantings has views of the surrounding countryside.
When the Connaughtons decided several years ago that they were ready to open their own restaurant, they considered a number of locations but settled on Healdsburg, because it was not far from San Francisco and yet was rural, a setting that was personally pleasing.
“This is a great farming community,” Mr. Connaughton said. “That’s why we’re here.”
SingleThread Farm - Restaurant -Inn, 131 North Street, Healdsburg, Calif., 707-723-4646, Open for dinner nightly and weekend lunch ($295 plus optional wine pairings); the five rooms are $800 to $1,500 per night, including breakfast. To Book SingleThread