Luckily, there’s room on the planet for all kinds of eating. Think about the craftsmanship of the artisans who make by hand every dish, every fork. Or the toil of the restaurants’ exclusive farmers. Such horticultural devotion—where biodiversity and sustainability are foremost in the quest to cultivate nutrient-dense, flavor-rich produce practically seals the restaurants’ prestigious Michelin and Relais & Châteaux (relaischateaux.comus) distinctions. Michelin publications, meanwhile, document these efforts and, as such, are widely respected barometers of taste. “Our properties are defined by their local heritage and passion for their terroir,” says Philippe Gombert, president of Relais & Châteaux, an exclusive association of luxury boutique hotels and restaurants. “Their unique and authentic culinary journeys start with the land.”
All new employees at SingleThread (singlethreadfarms.com) in Healdsburg start with one week of work on the farm—a 5-acre plot located 7 miles from the restaurant on the banks of the Russian River—under the guidance of farmer Katina Connaughton. Barring wildfire and flood-constant perils of modern-day California—this winter, they’ll be digging up the dark-green likes of Komatsuna (Japanese mustard spinach) and Piracicaba broccoli. “I want everyone who works at SingleThread to have an appreciation of how hard farming is,” says Katina’s husband, chef Kyle Connaughton. “It’s backbreaking and requires so much patience and skill. The things they grow can take months, even years, whereas the kitchen will have the harvest for just one day.”
This perspective is translated to the diners at the dawn of the meal, when they are seated at a table preset with a mossy woodland landscape, nestled with small dishes of vegetables and seafood. Who could deny this exquisite snapshot of what Katina calls, “a fleeting moment on the farm”? Similarly, at the Restaurant at Meadowood (therestaurantatmeadowood.com) in St. Helena, chef Christopher Kostow builds diners’ anticipation by showcasing the daily harvest from the restaurant’s 3 ½-acre culinary farm, located on the valley floor adjacent to the Napa River, in the same fertile alluvial soil that grows the grapes that make the region’s world-class wine. The diners receive a sneak peek of the forthcoming dishes when a beautiful blackwalnut box, spilling with produce in its raw, earthly form—Beas kohlrabi; Fioretto cauliflower; and a cover-crop mix of fava beans, vetch, daikon and mustard greens will make an appearance this winter—arrives at the table, giving farmer Zac Yoder’s work an opening credit in the cinematic dining experience.
With biblical patience and fortitude, Peter Martinelli of West Marin’s Fresh Run Farm—which grows exclusively for chef Michael Tusk of Quince (quincerestaurant.com) in San Francisco—overcame a long drought that even a dreamy microclimate had difficulty redeeming. Snug between two ridges in Bolinas, the morning fog and cool coastal air are good for cultivating tender lettuces and mild chicories, while the productive, loamy soil is responsible for the uniquely rich flavor of the sunchokes, Di Cicco broccoli and La Ratte fingerling potatoes that will be gratefully harvested this winter.
The climate and environment require innovation to get by in the lean years.
“During those dry years, we only grew jack-o’-lantern pumpkins, dry-farmed potatoes and a few greens,” says Martinelli of the scarcity and hardship known to many California farms for much of the last decade. Fortunately, California is officially free of drought for the first time in a long time. Lest there remains any doubt as to why the restaurants on the luxury-dining circuit tend to fetishize the farm, keep in mind that here, in a land prone to natural disasters, a bountiful harvest can never be taken for granted—and there’s nothing out of this world about that.