Catching up with a Sonoma Valley High grad: Zach Sterner

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Zachary Sterner never had a passion for cooking growing up. He doesn’t have a fond, old memory of rolling pasta with grandma or bonding over cooking with mom. Instead, Sterner found his passion in a Sonoma Valley High School classroom.

Sterner was 16 when he took Brigitta Crews’ culinary class, and that set him on the path he is on today.

“It was fun, just being able to create stuff and the end goal is you got to eat it,” Sterner said. “Instead of just sitting and listening to someone lecture, it’s actually exciting. It was a fun class. And I was pretty good at it, so that also helped too.”

After his first class, Sterner got a job working at the Cellar Cat Café through high school. For Sterner’s senior project in 2003, he was in charge of putting on the big fundraiser for the SVHS culinary arts at the Sonoma Mission Inn. Sterner played executive chef for the day and was in charge of all his fellow classmates as well.

“When I did the fundraiser at Sonoma Mission, the chef there said ‘Holy cow this kid is 18 years old and he’s handling this like he should take my job,’” Sterner said.

After that, Sterner knew his path and passion in life. He bypassed the college option and went straight to working at his uncle’s restaurant in Petaluma called Semolina. Then he worked at the Ledson Hotel’s Harmony Restaurant in Sonoma, where he started at 19. Within just a couple weeks, he was promoted to sous chef.

“I was the youngest person in the kitchen but still a manager there, so that was pretty awesome,” Sterner said.

Next, he took some time off in Australia before coming back to his passion at Solage Resort in Calistoga, where he worked for six and a half years as sous chef. When he left Solage, he did odd jobs here and there, like working at a bakery, being a private chef and even doing his own catering for a bit. This led him to where he is now, as an owner and chef at his family’s restaurant.

The restaurant, Twelve 28 Kitchen, is in Penn Valley, where his family relocated after 30 years in Sonoma. Sterner and his dad, Mike Sterner, work the front of house, while his mom, Laurie Sterner, does all the baking and pastries. His sisters, Allie and Emily Sterner, also come up and help out at the restaurant. The family business is only missing the fourth sibling, Max Sterner, who lives in Portland. (All four children graduated from SVHS).

During their time in Sonoma, the Sterners owned a scrapbooking store and a hardware store, but they started talking about opening up a restaurant when Zach began cooking.

“When they moved up to Nevada County, they realized there was no good food anywhere,” Sterner said. “We just figured that if we could bring the Bay Area cuisine up here, it would be a hit. There are definitely plenty of Bay Area translants that have moved up here, so we gave them a place to get good food.”

Sterner describes the restaurant’s food as “California Cuisine with different local influences.” They get their ingredients from local farmers and farmer’s markets.

“It is all different types of cuisine, pretty much whatever I’m excited to eat,” Sterner said. “We just like to change it up for people up here. We have lots of regulars, and there are always people asking, “What’s new? Anything new tonight?” When I tell them something, they’re in there three hours later eating dinner. We get excited about it when everyone else gets excited about it.”

Sterner has had people drive from Sacramento just to eat at his restaurant. Despite just opening on Dec. 28, 2016, people are already saying his food is the best in Nevada County. However, he says it’s not easy work, and he typically works 12-16 hours a day with no days off, but it’s different when you’re working for yourself and your family. Still, working with family is an interesting dynamic.

“We’re definitely not a shy family; we say how we feel at any given moment,” Sterner said. “There are some difficult times, but they said they wouldn’t have done this without me so I want to make them happy. I want this place to be successful, something they’re proud of.”

Sterner said there is no new restaurant on the horizon yet, but the family is always talking about different ideas.

Because Sterner accomplished everything he has without going to college, he wants current SVHS students to know that there are other options.

“If you have a passion for something, run with it, don’t let society tell you you need to go to a four-year college. If you have something you love, just follow that,” he said.

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