For Chef Kyle Connaughton, the secret to his thoroughly modern approach to food is rooted in centuries-old tradition. In the spring of 2016, Connaughton and his wife Katina debuted Single Thread Farm, a restaurant-farm-B&B concept in Sonoma County, California, after spending nearly four years building the operation from the ground up. Prior to embarking on this entrepreneurial path, the Connaughtons spent several years living and working on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, where they settled into a rural, highly agricultural community with their two young daughters. While his wife learned traditional farming techniques from the villagers, Chef Connaughton cooked at Michel Bras TOYA Japon and learned the art of sushi, izakaya, and kaiseki in other traditional Japanese kitchens.
But the couple’s education wasn’t limited solely to food. While in Japan, the Connaughtons learned the art of omotenashi, the Japanese spirit of thoughtfulness and anticipation in hospitality. “The characters for omotenashi can be read two ways,” Chef Connaughton explains. “One essentially means ‘front-facing,’ and it means that you don’t turn your back on the guest… The other [is] ‘to be holding nothing in your hand,’ which means that you’re not kind of smiling and nodding and saying yes, [but actually] thinking about the money, or the tip.”
At Single Thread Farm, the couple has applied both interpretations of omotenashi. “In a literal way, we have designed every area so there is never a time when service or anyone else is turning their back on the guests. But really, what it means is that [we] are always open [and] there for the guest…they’re not here to experience us, they’re here to experience themselves and [we] facilitate that.”
To address the second interpretation, the Connaughtons re-evaluated the transactional component of dining. When booking a reservation at Single Thread, guests pay upfront, so that a physical bill never makes an appearance during the visit—a tactic the Connaughtons believe allows guests to enjoy the experience more fully.
After their stint in Hokkaido, the couple moved to England in 2006, where Chef Connaughton oversaw the The Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen, helming research and development and working alongside Chef Heston Blumenthal for almost five years. While there, he focused on developing the menu for The Fat Duck, and fully immersed himself in the art of sous vide. “We were using sous vide more than any other restaurant I had ever seen,” he notes. “It gave us time to consider every possible aspect in creating a dish—time and temperature, every concentration of a brine. It was a very, very long, intense, methodical way to go about creating a new dish.”
Now, in his own kitchen, Kyle Connaughton artfully blends those scientific sous vide techniques with the time-honored traditions he learned in Japan. “I am a huge believer in [sous vide] — I am not the type of person who thinks sous vide cooking somehow changes or takes away or alters the craft of cooking at all,” he explains, noting that most of his sous vide dishes are finished with additional methods of cooking, which range from searing to utilizing the thousand-year-old technology of Japanese donabe earthenware. “I’m the type of person where I just want whatever’s best for the ingredient,” he notes. “We’re in an era now where chefs have a better understanding of the underlying science of cooking…we’re really going back to thinking a lot about the dish, the ingredients, and the flavors.”