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Backyard's Daniel Kedan and Marianna Gardenhire on One Year in Sonoma County

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater talks with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.

[Photo: Ryan Hetzel/Backyard]

Chef Daniel Kedan and pastry chef Marianna Gardenhire met when they were both culinary school students working for Thomas Keller: He in the kitchen at Ad Hoc, she in the front-of-house at Bouchon. As they both juggled what Kedan now calls "insane" hours, the duo soaked up Sonoma County's famous farm-to-table approach to dining. "I learned so much just by being a server there, and just being in the kitchen and watching the different techniques they used," Gardenhire says of her experience at Bouchon. "Being able to sit there and watch [chefs] Dave Cruz and Joshua Schwartz and how they handled ingredients, how they handled the staff, the respect they gave to every single small thing."

After a career's worth of stints elsewhere (at the likes of Peter Lowell's, Cantinetta Piero, and P30), Kedan and Gardenhire, now married, decided it was time to open their own place, and Backyard debuted in Forestville, CA on November 1, 2012. "The concept really came about us just living here and having this lifestyle," Kedan says. "We're really lucky to be surrounded by all this great stuff: Food, wine, artisan cheesemakers, and ranchers, and that's really where it came about. It's really what we believe in and what we love more than anything." On the eve of Backyard's first anniversary, Kedan and Gardenhire chatted with Eater about landing in the small town of Forestville, how-to best keep chefs stimulated, and what it was like to land on Michelin's SF Bib Gourmand list less than a year after opening.

You've both worked in restaurants for a long time. What made you decide now was the time to open your own place?
: It was time, plain and simple. We had both worked for people, and just like any other business, you work for people and you learn from them and you learn a lot of what to do and lot of what not to do. And we just got to the point where it was just right. I had just left a job, and we were sitting in our yard, and — as most of our decisions happen — we sit in our yard and we talk about it, and it was, "We could both start looking to go work for somebody else again, or we could pull the trigger and start begging and pleading for people to help us." And that's what we did.

How did you land this specific space?
DK: [Laughter] We were so lucky to find this space. We were looking everywhere else, basically. We were checking out places in Marin, we were looking in Petaluma; we were looking up in the Sierras, in Nevada Country. We were looking everywhere.
MG: From our years working over in West County, we have so much connection with all the farmers here, and the different artisans, so we were always drawn back over to the area. We were actually looking in Petaluma that day?
DK: We looked at two different spots in Petaluma that morning, and they were both, it just wasn't right. Neither of them were right. And we get back to the house and I set this appointment up for the afternoon, and literally Marianna and I were both sitting there, saying, "Is this really where we [want to go]? It's Forestville." But we got in the car, and literally the moment we stepped foot onto the patio, we looked at each other and were like, "This is the spot." The funny thing this, there was two other people that were looking at the place, and it was down to us and one other couple. And the landlord actually gave it to the other couple.
MG: She wasn't sure because it was our first restuarnat.
DK: So she calls me in the afternoon and says, "Sorry, we gave it to somebody else." And I was like, "All right, that's too bad, we'll keep looking." Marianna says to me, "That's so weird, because I saw us in that space." Twelve hours later [the landlord] calls me and says, "I want to give it to you guys, I changed my mind." I think it was us putting it out to the cosmos from our yard. That's the explanation we're going with. [Laughter]

[Photo: Ryan Hetzel/Backyard]

Tell me about Forestville. What about it ultimately drew you guys in?
MG: Forestville is a very small town, and a lot of people say it's a "drive-through" town. So, this town is located on Highway 116 between Sebastopol and Guerneville. Between that span, you have a good 25 to 30 minutes. Our house is up off of River Road, and there's a very popular, well-recognized restaurant, a Michelin-starred restaurant [the Restaurant at Farmhouse Inn], and we're very close to quite a few things. But surrounding us is vineyards and farms and houses. The town goes through phases, and sometimes it's on its up and sometimes it's on its down. But right now, we have quite a few new restaurants. There's three of us that just came through last year, so we have another cafe and a Italian restaurant that just opened. So people are very excited, because they've had to drive 25 minutes to go eat something, or 30 minutes to go grab breakfast. The town is only three blocks long.
DK: This was a town that was kind of the "quiet little town" for a little bit, and now it's kind of rejuvenating itself. There's a lot of younger people coming into the town, as well.
MG: There's a lot of diversity with the people around this area. You never know who [will come in] — farmers, winemakers, cheesemakers. You have ranchers, and then we have a lot of people who have their Summer homes here, or their second house. A lot of people from San Francisco have second homes in this area.

And the space was previously a restaurant?
DK: Yes, it's been a restaurant for about 30 years. It was a Mexican restaurant that people to this day still talk about: "Oh, this was my first job," "I used to hang out in the back after hours," or "I remember being here at six years old and the smells?" it made this space. And then there was a couple restaurants in between them and us, and that's kind of what we're hoping to do now.
MG: So many people have a connection to this space... The building is over 100 years old; at one point it was a hotel, at one point it was a brothel. At one point they made fabric patterns upstairs. We also have an astrologer above us that's been there for 30 years, in one of the apartments upstairs.
DK: There's a really cool energy to this building.

What was the build-out like?
DK: The hoods were in, the gas line was in, and the bathrooms were up to code. And everything else was an empty shell.
MG: There was not a piece of equipment, not a chair, nothing.
DK: So we re-tiled the floor, painted all the walls; there was nothing too structural that we did, but it was an empty shell when we got it. We signed the lease the first week in July, and we opened November 1.
MG: It was really fast. We were so fortunate and so lucky. Every time we would sit there at night and say, "Oh my goodness, how is this going to happen?" — whether it was having more investors or having that permit go through or having something happen — and then the next morning, it would be like a ray of sunshine. And it would go through, or something would happen. It was really really amazing.
DK: Every single time we were at that point of, "Is this really going to happen?" — we've got to this point — whether it was money, or whether it was this or that? we're really fortunate there was a lot of people that really believed in us.

Do you feel like being in a small town helped you in that way? As opposed to being in a San Francisco...
MG: Absolutely. Sonoma County was amazing, and they were so supportive because they really wanted to see more businesses out here, and they wanted to see more growth. And being that we were independent, and what we were doing was helping and working with the ranchers and farmers and the community, they were very very supportive. We still went through all the standard paperwork — nobody handed us anything — but... they were just really kind. I remember, we didn't encounter really too many hiccups and all the hiccups were very minor. For our first restaurant, that was one of the things for us: If you go to San Francisco or if we were in Oakland or Berkeley, it's a bigger monster. It's a bigger thing. And for our first restaurant, we really wanted to focus on the food, focus on working with local farmers, and having it, for our first one, we kind of like being a little bit more out the country.
DK: But literally, we did pretty much everything ourselves. And we did it in such a way that there was no extra time. We didn't have the extra funding, we didn't have the extra time.

[Photo: Ryan Hetzel/Backyard]

You mentioned earlier how a big part of the concept was foraging partnerships with farmers and artisans. How did those early conversations go?
DK: Marianna and I both had worked in the area and started building some relationships working in other restaurants. ? Sometimes, a relationship works out really well, and sometimes it doesn't. There are some amazing farmers that we've built unbelievable relationships with that now we consider family... But it all starts by having the same ideology, and having the same belief system where you're doing what's great for the land, what's great for the community, what's great for not only the individual but everybody around them. For us, the greatest thing — we're in a tiny little town, this is our first year as a restaurant — but pretty much 95 percent of every dollar that comes into this restaurant is based in Sonoma County. And it doesn't go to big huge [entities] — the money goes to Brad, it goes to Tom, it goes to Nathan, and the list goes on and on. And that's the greatest thing about it, that our hard work and everybody's hard work goes to all these people that we get to see on a daily basis.
MG: We're serving food that was picked that morning. And we're having produce in every single day... sometimes you'll have a farmer come in and he has a surplus of cauliflower. So, you make cauliflower gratin or cauliflower soup or you do something with it; you're constantly working with each other... Having the flexibility keeps us stimulated and excited as well, because you never know what's going to walk in the door. ? It keeps everyone stimulated. It keeps the people coming in to eat stimulated, it keeps us stimulated, the farmers are stimulated. You're constantly thriving: We don't sit there and look at a checklist and check off, "I need lettuce today, I need onions, or I need this." You're constantly moving. It's very stimulating.

So do you remember opening night?
DK: Oh, of course. Which part do you want to know about: The couple days beforehand when neither of us slept, or at 5:30 we're still prepping and there's already a line at the door?
MG: We definitely did not expect as many people as showed up. Definitely the first week we were not prepared. It felt like everyone in the county came out to see us, and we were definitely overwhelmed by the amount of people. We thought —
: We didn't really advertise it.
MG: It was very overwhelming. I don't want to say it was like a deer in the headlights, because we knew what we were getting into, but we were definitely...
DK: We were not expecting to do 100 people on opening night. And in the process, our computer system had gone down. We used a system based out of North Carolina, and that was when the huge hurricane [Sandy hit], so they were shut down for two weeks. So we didn't have a computer system our first couple days. It was interesting, trying to figure out how to run a credit card with a system that won't even turn on. It was fun.

So how did the kitchen get through it?
DK: The first night, we had our confusions and there was chaos and then we stopped, took a couple deep breaths, and went it ticket by ticket and got it out. That was the one thing, it was our opening night, and we had that, "Hey, it's our opening night, if things take a little bit longer, oh well." And we made sure that we put out what we were proud of.
MG: And some people were forgiving, and some people were not. I'd say it was about a good month before we started to get into a good solid groove. Having the computer issues, having a couple different issues, and having a staff that hasn't worked together before. The back of the house, half of them had worked together at different places before, but there were some choppy moments. But you keep your head up, and at the end of the day, even if something took a little bit longer to get out — maybe something took an extra 15 to 20 minutes to get to the table — as long as the food was great, I think that's what really shined through at the end of the day.

Did you launch brunch right at the beginning?
DK: So, it was fun: We did. We opened Thursday night — and yeah, did brunch Saturday. And then Monday we started breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
MG: And now we've taken out breakfast because...
DK: It just didn't work. We either needed to open at six in the morning and do serious breakfast, or not do it. And we decided to not do it.

Why was it important for you to do lunch and brunch right off the bat?
DK: Because we're insane. That's why.
MG: People were asking for it. While we were opening, it was amazing: Every single day, while we were working, whether we were painting or whatever we were doing in here, people would stop in and say, '"e'd really love to have lunch, we'd really love to have breakfast." So we started to think about that concept and said, "Why not, Dan loves brunch."
DK: I am one of the few chefs that really loves cooking brunch. Brunch is just fast, and it's fun...
MG: And we're also in wine country. We have a fun brunch.

[Photo: Ryan Hetzel/Backyard]

You were recently acknowledged by Michelin. It may be too early to tell, but how much effect does something like that have on business?
DK: Oh, we can tell. This weekend was one of those "holy cow" weekends.
MG: We definitely were very very busy. We were already pretty busy because it's October and it's that time of year, but it's definitely — there was a lot of people coming in that were talking about it. Like, "We heard about the Bib Gourmand, and so we're coming to see you."
DK: The other thing I want to say too, that aside from the gains in revenue or the extra people coming in, the most important thing is the excitement in us and in our staff and the people we support and that support us. It was the most amazing thing in the world, as restaurant owners. I couldn't even wait: The second people walked in the door that worked here, I was like, "Did you hear? Did you hear?" It just kind of solidified the hard work that we all we do, and the only way I can describe it just really exciting.
MG: I think, we don't do anything different than a lot of other people do, but I think it shows that we are a GMO-free restaurant, 100 percent. 90 percent of everything is from our community. It can be done. You do not have to rely on huge companies and huge corporations and mass-produced food. You can strengthen your community, you can support each other. And we're still overwhelmed and still a little shocked from getting the Bib Gourmand?
DK: Especially within our first year.
MG: And we still have these — we have to recheck the list, like, "Did that really just happen?" It's amazing.
DK: On Thursday, I probably checked the list like 10 times to make sure that our name didn't get taken off, that it wasn't a joke.

Does it feel like it's been a year?
DK: Ten years and one month, all at the time same.
MG: And then sometimes it feels like a blink of an eye. There's some times where you're like, it feels like we've always been here, and the next day, it seems like yesterday. It just varies from day to day, how you feel. I guess on the days you're more tired, you're like, "Wow, it definitely feels like 10 years." And then on days, like when we won the Bib Gourmand, it's overwhelming and you're like, "Wait, we just got started." So, it's really amazing and for us, it's so? to see where we'll be in the next five years and just see how we continue to progress and how we continue to push forward, and to do more and more, just different things. It's very exciting, and very enlivening.

· All One Year In Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Sonoma County Coverage on Eater [-E-]


6566 Front St., Forestville, CA 95436

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