In mid-August, as a largely uneventful tropical storm named Fausto was starting to wind down in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Baja California, a plume of moisture it spun off had metastasized into dry thunderstorms that were rolling across northern California, more than 700 miles away. Recently flattened by a record-setting heat wave, the region was blitzed by a 72-hour “siege” of nearly 11,000 lightning strikes from the storms. Hundreds of wildfires sparked to life. As the fires tore across the parched landscape, some of them grew so large they bled into others, coalescing into one of the largest wildfires in state history — the LNU Lightning Complex, which would eventually incinerate more than 360,000 acres across five counties.
By August 20, the sky above parts of Healdsburg, a small tourist town in Sonoma County, roughly 70 miles north of San Francisco, was choked with dark smoke. When they finally decided to escape the deteriorating air quality, Kyle and Katina Connaughton packed their two cats, two dogs, and one of their two daughters (the other was in Boston) and her fiance into a farm truck and headed toward safety in Washington state.
They were familiar with the drill by this point: It was the Connaughtons’ third wildfire in four years. The first, the 2017 Tubbs Fire, had ripped through the region with a ferocity that made it, at the time, the most destructive wildfire in California history. Two years later, the Kincade Fire, the largest ever recorded in Sonoma County up to that point, scorched nearly 78,000 acres across wine country and forced the Connaughtons to evacuate for a week.
In fact, navigating climate disasters has become less an occasional disruption than a way of life. Between the fires, there were the floods. The first, in 2017, was caused by one of the wettest winters in a century, which had followed the state’s historic five-year drought. In 2019, the Russian River approached record levels, leaving pockets of Sonoma County, including the Connaughtons’ property, completely submerged. On top of it all, there was a visit from a hungry bobcat.
The Connaughtons do not live in hell; they live in a culinary vacationland. But in recent years, northern California’s wine country, where they have made their home and built SingleThread — the three-Michelin-starred restaurant, inn, and farm they opened in 2016 — has become a focal point of extreme events propelled by climate change, transforming the image of the region from an agrarian fantasia into one of near-constant existential crisis.
Like Blackberry Farm in Tennessee and the Willows Inn on Washington’s Lummi Island, SingleThread epitomizes an over-the-top ideal of farm-to-table dining. An American nod to the elemental luxuries of the Japanese ryokan, or inn, its 11-course kaiseki-style dinners are crafted from meticulously tended ingredients grown on its nearby five-acre farm, where photogenic rows of micro-seasonal produce managed by Katina are bordered by the banks of the Russian River. Its organic provender, picked at just the right moment, enables the kind of rapturous but understated cooking that “showcases the hard work of the farmer,” as Kyle, the head chef, puts it, leaving diners with a profound, and envious, sense of place. Since opening at the end of 2016, the restaurant has become a magnet for glowing reviews and breathless praise; the San Francisco Chronicle deemed it a “flawless four-star experience.”
While SingleThread’s $375-per-person dinners and rooms starting at $1,150 a night cater to well-heeled diners from the Bay Area and beyond, the lack of distance between its farm and its tables means that the Connaughtons have a limpid view of the challenges that climate change will pose for virtually every restaurant and its suppliers in the coming decades, a perspective that is at once zoomed in and panoramic. Most restaurants don’t own and control the majority of the links in their supply chains, but many are already dealing with climate-related issues, even if at a remove, whether it be the droughts and floods that ravage Midwestern farmland or the hurricanes that seasonally batter the Gulf Coast of the United States.
So as the Connaughtons attempt to chart a course of survival for their restaurant and farm, one made even more perilous by the ongoing pandemic that has drastically altered their business, their experience, though in some respects rarefied, presents a preview of the future of dining amid the realities of the Anthropocene.
Sonoma County has long been considered one of the country’s premiere food and wine destinations, a lower-key counterpart to neighboring Napa Valley. About two hours north of San Francisco, it exemplifies Northern California’s magnetism, with dramatic Pacific views, redwood forests, and rolling hills lined with vineyard rows.
When the Connaughtons first thought about moving to the area in 1999, they were taken by its pastoral charm. “We got married on the Mendocino coast when we were 23, just the two of us,” says Kyle, who, like Katina, is now 44. “We planned our wedding around going to Chez Panisse, and on the way from Mendocino to Berkeley to eat, we pulled over in Healdsburg.”
“We had driven through the night, so we were a little foggy-headed and starry-eyed. The sun was coming up. It was so beautiful,” Katina says.
“We said, ‘This is it. This is the place,’” Kyle adds.
It took them years to actually move to Healdsburg. In the interim, they lived all over, gradually picking up the skills that would go into establishing SingleThread as a restaurant and farm. In Los Angeles, where they had met in high school, Kyle started his career in high-end kitchens like Spago and Lucques. After that, they went to Hokkaido, Japan, where for two and a half years he cooked at Michel Bras’s Toya, and Katina studied agriculture on several farms in the region, which was renowned for its strawberries. Then they spent five years in England, with Kyle running research and development at Heston Blumenthal’s the Fat Duck, and Katina tending the culinary gardens at a Victorian estate. All the while, they were sowing the seeds of the project that could combine their endeavors.
Arriving back in California in 2010, Kyle worked on the Modernist Cuisine cookbook and helped develop the curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa campus, while Katina studied sustainable agriculture. For the next four years, they looked at properties in Sonoma and dreamed of a restaurant supported by their own farm. “Sonoma was one of the few places in America that people were really coming for the food and wine experience,” Kyle says. “But the biggest driver was to be part of the agricultural community here, that this kind of farming could work here, and it could work year round.”
Despite high land prices, the sylvan image of Sonoma as a paradise of small, sustainable growers is largely earned: According to the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, 44 percent of its nearly 3,600 farms cover less than 10 acres, while more of its producers are certified organic than in any other California county besides San Diego, which is roughly three times as large.
The Connaughtons took the plunge in 2014, when the winemaker and butcher Peter Seghesio rented them a restaurant space off of Healdsburg’s main square and, outside of town next to a vineyard on his historic ranch, a fallow parcel where Katina could practice a biodiverse, hand-worked agriculture, growing hundreds of specialty crops based on the Japanese concept of 72 microseasons.
Katina uses no tractors or chemicals in her fields; instead, she regenerates the soil with compost, fixes nitrogen with cover crops, and minimizes tillage so as not to disturb the microbiology her team has worked so hard to enrich. These practices help the soil retain water, amp up its natural fertility, reduce runoff, and, though scientists debate this phenomenon in farming, may also sequester greenhouse gases.
The farm’s elaborate rotation reflects its emphasis on biodiversity: Among its 300-odd plant varieties are the purple barley and Badger Flame beets that Kyle has kitchen tested for Row 7 Seed Company; sweet, red rocoto peppers and yellow amaranth that Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez Véliz introduced to the Connaughtons; many Japanese greens and vegetables; and a huge assortment of annuals, including some 30 tomato cultivars and eight types of eggplants. Myriad cover crops — favas, peas, mustard greens — end up together as a course on the SingleThread menu.
“It is a discipline for us to be mindful of every crop; we are keeping our finger on the pulse selecting it when it is at its moment of peak flavor,” Katina explains. “We’re communicating with the kitchen: ‘This is almost there. It’s going to be another four days before this asparagus is really singing.’” SingleThread’s kitchen is Katina’s only customer, and the restaurant’s investors and deep-pocketed clientele subsidize her operation. In return, her painstaking approach serves as a quality check on the ingredients that go into SingleThread’s prix fixe menu.
For Kyle, the farm has been a vehicle for educating the next generation of chefs. Circumstances permitting, employees of the SingleThread kitchen spend their first week in Katina’s fields, and the whole team pitches in with harvests. Many who come to work there have never been on a farm, let alone one run according to Katina’s principles. The setup schools the chefs in the ebb and flow of the farm’s boutique food system, forcing them to be more creative with what it yields. The result is a panoply of heady, produce-forward dishes that indulge guests in an intimate experience of hyperseasonality.
Even before the Connaughtons opened their restaurant, in December 2016, the media were happy to give them a platform to spread their gospel. Once SingleThread launched, it hit all sorts of top lists — the San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, World’s 50 Best — and garnered three Michelin stars in just two years’ time. Innumerable magazines carried photographs of the couple arm-in-arm in their fields, the picture of the farm-to-table sublime.
Dan Barber, one of the luminaries of the haute farm-to-table movement as the co-owner of Blue Hill at Stone Barns and cofounder of Row 7, is effusive about SingleThread and its implications for the future of agronomy and cuisine. “Katina and Kyle are modeling a more resilient kind of farming: diverse, dynamic, and interrelated,” he says. “We know that this kind of system will be essential in meeting the challenges of the future. But they are also modeling the right kind of cooking — one that reflects the needs of the landscape.”
There is reflecting the needs of the landscape, and then there is responding to the exigencies of a landscape under assault by a climate that is violently shifting. “Sonoma County is located to receive all of the impacts of climate change,” says Caitlin Cornwall, a senior project manager at the Sonoma Ecology Center. “We are close enough to the coast to get the coastal impact and close enough to the interior to get the heat and drought.”
Sonoma farmers are “doing pretty darned good” at climate-smart farming, says Evan Wiig, the director of membership and communications at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, a California nonprofit that advocates for small, sustainable agriculture. With the help of earmarked state grants, they are cutting water use, minimizing methane emissions from livestock, and working on improving the soil’s carbon-storing capacity — all of which helps to lower greenhouse gas emissions. There are 1,800 grape growers, so there’s plenty of monocropping, but the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association is making some progress on long-term sustainability, too, piloting a project on 18 vineyards that will generate the data-rich modeling behind a planned Climate Adaptation certification for California farms. “There’s a lot of open-mindedness here” and an “incredibly supportive community,” Wiig says. “People value their farms and their local food and are aware of the impact on climate when it comes to agriculture.”
In some sense, it would be difficult for them not to be: Wineries and sleek restaurants here tout their connection to the land, and the earth-friendly ethos is a selling point for an annual tourism economy worth $2 billion. Ten percent of the county’s jobs — 22,345 in 2019 — are in the hospitality sector, and tourist-generated tax revenues offset local taxes to the tune of more than $1,000 a year per household. Sonoma’s farm-to-table charisma is not just a marketing ploy; it’s a lifeline.
But meteorological catastrophes are mounting, and it is becoming more difficult for even the most forward-thinking farmers and welcoming hospitality professionals to adapt as the region’s redwood forests are scorched, tainting its wines with smoke; the rhythm of the flood season quickens, repeatedly drowning its coastal and riverside properties; and the lingering whiff of apocalypse empties out its reservations books.
The Connaughtons’ first confrontation with this gathering crisis came less than two months after SingleThread opened its doors. Their farm sits smack dab on the Russian River, where it narrows and bends around Healdsburg en route to the Pacific Ocean. Killdeer and other wading birds kick up a ruckus between the rows of tatsoi and mizuna. Its location in a flood plain wasn’t a deterrent to the Seghesio family, which has occupied the land since the 1890s. Before the Connaughtons’ arrival, Kyle says, it had been “many decades” since flooding had been an issue.
That changed in January 2017, when the Russian River breached its banks, inundating the farm with four feet of water. “It seemed massive at the time,” says Katina. “We were still just finding our footing.” They were fortunate, though. “The water receded quickly, and we rebounded quickly.” It was wintertime, the farm’s quieter season, and Katina was able to shift some production to raised beds on the inn’s rooftop.
Nine months later, the fires arrived. Fire season is a natural phenomenon in Northern California; it’s part of the cycle of ecological balance that maintains habitat for the region’s plants and animals. “But climate change is reducing return periods and accelerating [fires],” says Dr. José Javier Hernández Ayala, director of the Climate Research Center at Sonoma State University. “The warmer and drier it gets, the better the conditions for fires to become out of control … and the winds are driven by differences in temperature in different parts of California.” As we move to a warmer planet, he explains, a higher contrast between locations leads to a contrast in pressure, whipping up stronger winds. Those winds push flames higher and further.
In October 2017, just such conditions led to the Tubbs Fire. The inferno burned for over three weeks, ripping through 36,807 acres of Sonoma, Napa, and Lake counties, destroying thousands of homes and hundreds of businesses and killing at least 22 people. Like other restaurants in Sonoma, SingleThread was forced to temporarily close. “We couldn’t have done business if we wanted to,” says Katina. “At one point, we had fires in every direction 15 miles from us.”
As devastating as the Tubbs Fire was, the Connaughtons were not required to evacuate. Katina continued to work the fields, and the farm kept producing. She and Kyle worked with other local chefs to help a new relief organization, which later became Sonoma Family Meal, get off the ground and feed residents displaced by the fire. Over the next year, while the incendiary Camp Fire wreaked havoc further north, in Sonoma, things proved milder, and after the climate dramas of their first year in business, the Connaughtons settled back into the groove that had brought their restaurant such tremendous acclaim.
Trouble returned in February 2019, when a meteorological phenomenon called the Pineapple Express unleashed a torrent across northern California. Defined as an atmospheric river, it takes the form of a narrow, sodden ribbon of weather stretching hundreds of miles over the Pacific. In recent years it has been roiled by climate change, bringing larger, more unpredictable and extreme storms north from the tropics. Sonoma is directly in its path: The county has the highest rate of repetitive flood loss damage in the West. With farm ditches redirecting water downhill, and growing commercial and residential development in the watershed compacting soils or covering them with impermeable surfaces like concrete, much of that water has nowhere to go but the Russian River.
The initial flood, on Valentine’s Day, spilled four feet over the river banks. The second one, 12 days later, rose 10 feet, drowning SingleThread’s crops in millions of gallons of storm runoff. “The farm was completely under,” Katina says. “You could just see the very tip of the greenhouse.” Squash starts floated up and out of the greenhouse, some riding a planting table like a raft. As she and her two farm managers worked to rescue them, the tags identifying them as either conventional or one of SingleThread’s boutique Japanese varieties got jumbled. When the plants eventually fruited, they discovered that they had hundreds of pounds of run-of-the-mill delicata and spaghetti squash on their hands.
That, it turns out, is the kind of problem that the SingleThread kitchen is designed to solve: The squash appeared with quail egg in one of the bites that make up the kaiseki’s first course, as well as in a mixed-pumpkin soup poured over Dungeness crab. And, of course, the staff ate plenty of spaghetti squash for family meal. “We also pickled some in miso, which we’ll put away for a year. We’ll probably use it as a garnish,” says Kyle. “There is no waste.”
The same couldn’t be said for other crops: Kale and other brassicas, as well as all the tender greens, had to be trashed; plants saturated by contaminated flood water are not edible, no matter how they’re cooked. The real concern, though, was the soil. If it were polluted, that would be a longer-term problem. “We had the soil tested, the water tested. We did so many analyses,” says Katina.
The results came back miraculously clean and, in a testament to Katina’s farming practices, with the soil’s nutrients intact. To make up for the lost crops, SingleThread leaned on its perennials — strawberries, garlic, and flowers that, dormant in winter, survived the flood — while Katina moved as many plantings as possible to the intensive container garden and glasshouse on the restaurant’s roof. The garden “provides the kitchen with some of the comforts of the farm,” she says. “It boosts our morale. It’s like, ‘All right, we’re not totally underwater.’”
Still, plantings in such a small space couldn’t replace five acres of destroyed crops — the restaurant filled the gap in part by buying produce from other local farmers — and the amendments and repairs needed to bring the fields back were expensive. The 2019 floods caused $155 million in losses for county residents; roughly 1,900 homes and 578 businesses were damaged. The town of Guerneville, which is downstream from Healdsburg, was surrounded by water, turning it into an island and isolating its population. According to the Press Democrat, flooding has cost Sonoma County more than $5 billion over the past four decades.
As the Connaughtons rebuilt, they gleaned what they could from the experience, adapting their practices and modifying their seasonal forecasts. “We learned the topography of the land, so we planted a lot of our winter crops on higher ground in anticipation of flooding,” Katina explains. “We increased the amount of flats we sow in anticipation of losing crops.”
They also started facing reality. If this were the new normal, then farming on the banks of the Russian River might no longer be tenable. The Connaughtons started looking at real estate outside of the flood zone, hoping to buy a bigger property with room for animals and the space to welcome guests of the restaurant and inn for tours. As much as higher ground might safeguard them from flooding, though, it wouldn’t necessarily protect them from fire, which returned with a vengeance in the fall of 2019.
It started on the night of October 23. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, high-voltage power lines northeast of the Sonoma town of Geyserville sparked a flame. Propelled by high winds, it quickly grew into the Kincade Fire, burning nearly 78,000 acres across Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino counties over two weeks.
After the fatalities of the Tubbs Fire two years prior, officials took no chances, ordering a mandatory evacuation of much of Sonoma County, including Healdsburg. Like all of their neighbors, the Connaughtons had to leave town, returning a week later to a thick blanket of smoke. A hard frost settled in shortly afterward, and with the sun unable to penetrate the haze, the ice sat on the ground. Almost every tender thing on the five-acre plot died.
Before 2019 was over, SingleThread endured a last man-made natural disaster, though one that was less a function of climate change than probable habitat loss: A bobcat worked its way through a bicep-sized hole in one of the chicken coops and slaughtered 36 chickens. Katina had been attached to them — as babies, they had survived in the Connaughtons’ garage during the Kincade fire as the couple was forced to evacuate. The cat was still there when SingleThread’s farm harvest manager found them massacred; Katina cried as Peter Seghesio killed it with his shotgun. “I’ve got to admit, I’m usually such an optimist, but the year left me defeated,” Katina says.
By early 2020, things at the farm seemed to be looking up again. On a warm day in February, it was in full bloom: Katina had just pulled rows of cabbage and broccoli and was tending to second-generation growth. Kyle was in the greenhouse, relaxed but focused, talking the managers through the specs for a harvest of two different sizes of komatsuna leaves for the evening’s dinner. “We knew that at the rate we move, those events would be behind us in no time, and the field would start to flourish, and that’s where we are now,” Katina said.
But the full toll of the Kincade Fire was slow to reveal itself. While it was the largest ever in Sonoma at the time, destroying 374 structures, most of the burn was in largely unpopulated areas, leaving Healdsburg untouched. Yet “national news outlets want to tell this super-disaster story,” Kyle said, “and then people are afraid to come.”
Bookings plummeted at SingleThread and at restaurants throughout the county. “This is a place of visitors, and the story that gets out there is that Healdsburg has been wiped off the map,” Kyle said. “People started canceling their weddings nine months in advance.”
Speaking then, Kyle couldn’t have known that the worst was still to come: a pandemic that would force not only Sonoma, but virtually the entirety of the planet’s human population to a near standstill. On March 16, Gov. Gavin Newsom called for California restaurants to suspend dine-in service in order to help stem the spread of COVID-19. Like most restaurants across the country, the Connaughtons closed their doors, and they furloughed 70 percent of their employees.
In March, inspired by the San Francisco restaurant Che Fico, Kyle began working with SingleThread’s corporate and private partners to raise funds that would pay ailing local restaurants to provide food to people in need, with a focus on serving the area’s suddenly unemployed agriculture and restaurant workers. His partners in the effort were Sonoma Family Meal and Corazón Healdsburg, a charity that provides a variety of resources to the area’s Latinx community, from college preparation to disaster relief.
Within days of the shutdown, Sonoma Family Meal and its 17 partner restaurants, including SingleThread, were serving 11,000 meals per week. The Connaughtons were responsible for 1,000 of them, which were subsidized through donations from SingleThread’s wealthy patrons and winery partners. “People are always surprised how well our restaurants are able to collaborate,” says Sonoma Family Meal CEO Heather Irwin. “This isn’t our first rodeo. We all know the process of emergency.”
Several months in, SingleThread has no intention of scaling back. Katina’s farm is pulling double duty as a supplier for the restaurant and a dedicated pantry for the program, and plans are in the works for a purpose-built kitchen annex. “We don’t want to switch it on and then switch it off. We want to build on what we’ve done,” Kyle says. “Just because we open our doors doesn’t mean food insecurity goes away. … It’s a permanent thing for us now, and guests that come to dine will have the ability to donate to it.”
As the pandemic has dragged on, infection rates surging and falling and surging again, it has forced the restaurant to continually adapt. The entire staff returned in June, but plans to resume indoor dining service were scuttled less than a month later. Instead, the Connaughtons opened a semi-permanent wine bar on SingleThread’s roof and launched a fall series of $375-a-head dinners at the nearby Kistler Vineyards. Sold out through the season, with plans for a January series on the horizon, the outdoor dinners have helped keep SingleThread afloat and fund the meal program. Kyle says the charity work is now a permanent part of the SingleThread workflow — despite the early challenges of another virulent fire season.
On August 17, the LNU Lightning Complex Fires hit. Ignited by rainless thunderstorms in the midst of a scorching heat wave, the vicious series of blazes spread with terrifying intensity. With mounting air-quality problems causing them concern for the health and safety of their staff and their family, the Connaughtons halted all operations and fled to Washington to wait out the worst of the crisis.
In a testament to the growing normalcy of disaster — or the strength of will to project normalcy in the face of disaster — they returned only a week later, when the fires were 25 percent contained, immediately reopening their rooftop wine bar, resuming the vineyard dinners, and getting back to the meals program, even as the smoke still hung in the air. “The fires are an unfortunate thing we’ll need to figure out how we continue to live with,” Kyle says.
But SingleThread has also been lucky, as the Connaughtons were reminded a month later when another inferno, the Glass Fire, tore through parts of Napa and Sonoma in late September, forcing thousands to evacuate and leveling more than 1,500 structures — including the Meadowood resort, home to the Restaurant at Meadowood, another three-Michelin-starred farm-to-table establishment.
Despite that and other high-profile losses in the county, the Connaughtons are investing ever more deeply in Sonoma. Just as the smoke cleared, they announced they had found the land they had been looking for. Purchased in partnership with Kistler owner Bill Price, the 24-acre property is surrounded by fire breaks — a creek on one side, and vineyards on the others — and sits well outside the Russian River flood zone. It’s as defensible a space as one gets in Sonoma County, and Katina has big plans to turn it into a farm-to-table utopia — with a beekeeper on site, along with artisan residencies, mushroom farming, a floral design studio, farm tours, and workshops on regenerative agriculture. There will also be enough land for the Connaughtons to significantly increase the fresh produce they dedicate to Sonoma Family Meal and other relief groups.
Fire is always a concern in wine country, as is its ghostly aftermath, when the tourists that restaurants like SingleThread rely upon disappear in the wake of bad news. “But I don’t think that’s where our heads are at now,” Katina says. “We’re expanding our sustainability footprint, and by doing so will be able to strengthen food security here in Sonoma County … we’re not thinking about it solely from a guest perspective.”
It used to be that harvest defined the seasonal cycle of a farm-to-table restaurant. Increasingly in Sonoma, it’s disaster, not the crop rotation, that’s the salient marker. But as the Connaughtons evolve their polyglot business, flying in the face of climate crisis to try to keep actualizing that dream they first had over two decades ago, SingleThread may offer a paradigm for other restaurants of its kind: high-end establishments with the resources and donors to respond to climate change and the needs of their communities. In a disaster-ravaged world where people have more on their minds than fine dining, the Connaughtons are creating a model of continued relevance.
At least for now. As scientists predict more fires, more floods, more droughts — more extreme everything — one wonders if it’s only a matter of time before the Connaughtons and other Sonoma farmers must cry uncle, joining millions of people as climate migrants. The future seems at once uncertain and foreseeable. For now, though, SingleThread’s owners are determined to make it work. “We are committed to being here,” Kyle says. “We’ve put down our roots here, so we’ll continue to work and hope that it can be viable.”
Betsy Andrews is a food writer, the author of two books of poetry, New Jersey and The Bottom, and co-curator of the website Global Poemic.
Michael Woolsey is a photographer based in the Bay Area.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
This story was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit news organization.