Cyrus Chef Douglas Keane
It was her birthday, so, following a few canapés, we started with the Grand Caviar and Champagne Cart.
Nick Peyton, partner, maitre d’ and Tim Gunn look-alike, escorted the cart, just one of countless orchestrations he conducted that evening like a culinary Zubin Mehta with the New York Philharmonic.
Looking back, neither of us can remember the precise movements, the flow of words, the choreography that ushered the ingredients to our plates. There was a grace to it, a perfect, seamless dance that would be repeated all through the evening.
The caviar wasn’t beluga, osetra or sevruga, but it wasn’t priced at $150 an ounce, either (You can have osetra if you want it, from Israel or Uruguay.). This came from California, farm-raised white sturgeon and, frankly, it was sustainable so who cares? The champagne fit the mood, the moment and the exact chemical profile needed to showcase the caviar. The dinner had barely begun and we felt satisfied.
Excuse me while we interrupt this meal, but for a moment we need to cut to the chase. We didn’t come to Cyrus to fawn at the feet of another rock-star chef. We already knew the accolades: two Michelin Stars, perhaps more important to Cyrus Chef Douglas Keane were the four stars bestowed by Michael Bauer of the San Francisco Chronicle, the James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific, one of Gourmet magazine’s top 50 restaurants in America. The list goes on.
But in a lengthy interview conducted earlier, Chef Keane only focused on the Michael Bauer review because he liked what Bauer said and the way he said it. Intelligently. “Honestly, it was the nicest review I have ever read. Before it came out I actually got very nervous. I hacked into the computer system at the Chronicle and read it to Nick. He sent a thank-you e-mail to Bauer before the review was printed. He answered back wondering where we read it.”
But what Douglas Keane talked about, much more than awards, was dogs. Not the ones in buns—four-footed canines, the furry creatures with the cold noses and the heart-melting loyalty. Douglas Keane loves dogs.
At first blush, he is not a touchy-feely, give-me-a-hug kind of guy. But insert a canine into the conversation and the room goes warm. His heart suddenly opens. And that’s where rock-star status hits the mark. Because Douglas Keane—chef, husband, father—cares more deeply about dogs than about stars, and thanks to that status, he wields some canine clout. More on that in a moment.
The caviar was followed by the inevitable amuse-bouche. It was delicious, whatever it was, but who can remember. In a galaxy, how do you keep track of each star?
Then came chilled salmon with ginger and daikon with a snap-pea-basil broth, and then a chilled artichoke soup with fresh garbanzos and fennel. The broth and the soup had the intense, concentrated flavor of wheat grass juice, without the bitterness. It was like descending to the molecular level of the chlorophyll. It was like tasting photosynthesis. Stunning.
But then so was the chorizo-crusted scallop with sweet corn and lobster broth. If Nick had walked up right then with the check, we would have been satisfied. But we weren’t even halfway through the eight-course tasting menu.
Being midway on the Michelin ladder wasn’t Doug’s goal when he and Nick opened Cyrus. “Nick and I are both pretty simple guys. We wanted a world-class restaurant, but we’re both, you know, just sort of artisans, where we both just wanted to do our craft. Never even thought about Michelin, it was just something you read about. And this town seemed like the best place to do it.”
The town is Healdsburg, 30 years ago a sleepy, dusty ag community with about as much sophistication as Manteca. But as the Wine Country tsunami swept across Sonoma County, Healdsburg woke up, reinvented itself and opened the door to upscale enterprises like Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, the Healdsburg Hotel, and Cyrus.
The town resonated for Keane. “There was a feeling about Sonoma County. The instant I put my feet down here, I felt like home for the first time since I left Detroit. I’ve moved around and cooked everywhere, but I always wanted to be up in Wine Country, and when I came up here I said, yeah! This is it. I mean, I love big cities, I love New York, I enjoyed San Francisco, but up here, it’s so different. People are spending a little bit of time, even if it’s just to eat and drink. When we first opened, people would come into the kitchen and say, ‘Hey, thanks for opening here.’ It was such a great feeling.”
Healdsburg is also a town that loves dogs. The town square, a block south of the restaurant, is dog friendly and pooches appear to be present wherever you look.
Which suits Douglas Keane just fine, because he’s been up to his apron with dog stuff.
Take Finnegan, his rescue Lab blend, who hangs out in the office and is allowed, just for the camera, to pose in the kitchen with a big bowl of milk.
Or take Cash, the 110-pound mastiff/pitbull mix who ended up on the local animal shelter’s potential euthanasia list until Doug intervened, filed a lawsuit, made Cash a cause célèbre and front-page news. Doug had already become an animal shelter volunteer and a certified dog trainer, but rescuing Cash was his first attempt at public intervention.
“No one would ever have listened to me if I wasn’t a celebrity chef, whatever you want to call it—I hate that term. But if I wasn’t a two-Michelin star chef, no one would have given a shit about this dog. But because of who I was, I was able to get this dog out.”
Next up for me was the black sea bass with pea sprouts and asparagus and, lemon verbena. The crusted skin, the blend of flavors merging in the mouth in perfect harmony. Ah!
She reached into the vegetarian menu for glazed tofu with asparagus and spring onions. I ate half of her asparagus. That’s what I do.
Doug’s entry point into cooking was trying to get a date in high school. “So I joined a cooking class at St. Josephina, and I did get a prom date out of it. But also, my mom was a great cook, was always trying different recipes on her days off. She was Polish, but she would try anything. I cooked through high school, and then Stan Bromley—one of my best friends, my mentor, a food and beverage guy now retired from Four Seasons, Stan told me, ‘You need to go to hotel school.’ So I went to Cornell. We were pretty sure it was a computer error that I got in, but I did, and I spent as much time as I could in the kitchen.
“After graduation, I went down to New York and got the shit kicked out of me in great kitchens, I got screamed at and yelled at and learned how to move fast, and I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it.”
She doesn’t eat meat. I do. So I had the seared wagyu beef cheek with green and black garlic, lotus root, and natural jelly. Again, the perfect blend of flavors, the beef tender as a baby’s butt. She chose the pasta fagioli with arugula and red wine reduction. I ate a bunch of her fazool. Waste not, want not.
Part of Doug’s New York education came at the now-shuttered Lespinasse, an esteemed restaurant with a million-dollar kitchen that became the model for Cyrus.
“I said, I’m going to be in this kitchen for 20 years and it’s got to be right, I’ve got to have room to do some stuff. A great kitchen has design efficiency, functionality, you’re not stepping over each other, but you also don’t want too much space, too much space is a bad thing, you get sloppy. I know how I cook, so you say, OK, after you cook this, you’re going to put the pan where? And so you have to think about all these things. Where’s the meat guy going to slice his meat off the meat station? I took a lot of ideas from Lespinasse because it made sense. But, I didn’t have a million dollars.”
To say that we were getting full doesn’t do justice to what we were feeling. You go to Rome, there is so much to see, to feel, to experience that you never want to sleep, but eventually you get tired. It was like that, as if, “We’re so tired, but we haven’t even been to the Pantheon yet.”
Our Pantheon was the platter of artisanal and farmhouse cheeses, a meal, truly, unto itself.”
Celebrity chefs are constantly asked to define their food. People like labels. That’s been a challenge for Doug.
“I didn’t care about demographics or markets at all. I just wanted to cook what I wanted to cook. That’s why I had such a hard time naming this cuisine. And what I came up with was ‘Contemporary luxury,’ that means absolutely nothing. It’s not French, it’s not California, it wasn’t Asian, fusion was an ugly word. But I’m going to change it, I’m going to make up another one.”
Ask Doug to define what he does and he offers one word: Umami. In Japanese it means “pleasant, savory taste,” but that doesn’t tell you enough. The kanji symbol implies food that is delicious, but it’s also about pairings and blended flavors. So what name does Doug come up with? One suggestion sounds hip and slightly offensive.
“CalJap?” He laughs. “JapCal? Calanese? I don’t know. I always knew the style I wanted. I wanted to wow people, and I wanted a lot of acid, because I thought that’s how you keep people’s interest. I wanted Umami. Even back when I didn’t understand it completely but I knew it was important. I’ve learned a lot more about it since.”
We’re not done. The goat milk panna cotta with rhubarb, parsley-lime ice arrives. We stare at it desperately for a moment, then dig in. I finish what she doesn’t. That’s got to be it, right? Nope. Here comes the cocoa nib affogato with condensed milk semifreddo. And, oh my God, the world’s greatest chocolate chip cookie comes warm in a sealed vacuum chamber. Help, there’s more. Yuzu crémeux (look it up), bergamot meringue and cream cheese ice cream. We’re dying now. But wait! There’s a semi truck full of mignardises, every kind of cookie and chocolate treat a chocolate-addicted adult child could ask for.
Double-edged Douglas Keane, the un-rock-star rock-star chef, master of the kitchen, master of Finnegan the Dog, has done us in. We melt into the floor. We’re done.
Cyrus, 29 North Street, Healdsburg, CA 95448, 707.433.3311, cyrusrestaurant.com.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA