Ask the inimitable front-of-house man, Nick Peyton, what it means to be successful in the restaurant business and he won’t describe fat bank accounts, fully booked reservations, or even rave reviews. For Peyton, who is partnered with wunderchef Doug Keane in the ultraluxe Cyrus restaurant in Healdsburg, California, the real index of success is psychological. “To look out here,” he declares, gesturing toward Cyrus’s intimate 60-seat dining salon, “and think that my efforts have benefited a whole community…well, that’s a tremendous thing.” What succeeds in the business of fine dining, Peyton continues, “is to create a spiritual path, an emotional path, and a financial path that supports all those involved. If you can achieve that, then it translates to the guest.” Fame and fortune, he infers, will follow.
It certainly has in the case of six-year-old Cyrus—christened with four stars from the San Francisco Chronicle, two stars from Michelin Guide, and glittering accolades from media royalty. Clearly the partners are on the path Peyton extols, but it’s hardly the one of least resistance.
Making a giant leap of faith about a Healdsburg location was the first hurdle for Peyton and Keane. Both partners had carved out their careers in urbane metro restaurants (Peyton at the San Francisco Ritz Carlton and Restaurant Gary Danko; Keane at the Four Seasons, Lespinasse, Jardiniere, and as Gary Danko’s sous chef), so the move to laid-back Healdsburg was radical. With Peyton and Keane aiming to create a premier dining experience on par with Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, many friends and colleagues advised them to choose a similar site in the heart of Napa’s well-heeled wine country. But Chef Keane was the first to defend Healdsburg’s viability. “To me it felt right,” he recalls. “It’s a straight shot down the highway from San Francisco, there’s much less competition than in Napa, and Santa Rosa (south of Healdsburg) is a big town with upscale development…the demographics made sense.”
Sweetening the decision was also the offer from a developer that Cyrus be the anchor restaurant of a new luxury boutique hotel planned for downtown Healdsburg. The partners began their plans for Cyrus—named after the trapper Cyrus Alexander who discovered Sonoma’s Alexander Valley—but it took nearly four years for the location adjacent to Les Mars Hotel to be completed.
Peyton and Keane launched Cyrus with capital from 28 investors—each contributing a modest sum of about $25,000. “It’s like a big family,” Peyton says, explaining their financing. “ We wanted a lot of people caring about us…who allow us to reinvest profits and create the business that we want. With other types of loans, the money can be fairly cheap, but repayment must be made at certain times, and it dictates how you run your restaurant.”
Without immediate bottom-line pressures, Peyton and Keane have been able to indulge their vision. In the first year, for example, Keane didn’t even look at food costs. “The only thing that mattered was to make guests happy and establish a reputation.” Now he reviews ingredient prices as needed, but finds that since Cyrus’s four-star review and sold-out seatings, suppliers are eager to please. “”We spend so much money now,” the chef reports. “I can usually tell suppliers what I want to pay. I don’t beat them up…but incrementals really add up for us.”
As the restaurant took off following the media raves, the partners also made the unorthodox decision to take seatings away, reducing covers (and revenue) from about 100 a night to 85. “There was just too much hustle in the dining room, and we felt it in the kitchen,” says Keane, whose labor-intensive menu is exclusively tailored to the guest with five- to eight-course dinner choices ($102 to $130, sans alcohol). Some of the chef’s recent inspirations include Sea Bream with Galangal Noodles,Glazed Gulf Shrimp with Banana Blossoms and Coconut Milk Froth; Farro Pasta with Creamed Spinach, Poached Egg, and Truffle Froths; and Seared Foie Gras A La Pineapple Baba Au Rhum (served flambéed, tableside).
One of the few benefits of Cyrus’s much-delayed opening was that the partners had ample time to assemble “a cadre of top-flight professionals,” as Peyton calls their staff. Healdsburg itself yielded few experienced candidates, but Peyton was optimistic they could attract the all-stars they needed. “My litany is that if you build it, they will come.” Explaining his faith, he adds, “I’m a one-trick pony…this is what I do. And so now after 30 years of managing restaurants, I’ve developed a reputation and more than a few relationships.” The result being that several captains, back waiters, the general manager, a hostess, and a sommelier all left secure positions in San Francisco and elsewhere to migrate to Healdsburg on the belief that whatever Peyton was involved in would prosper.
For Chef Keane, recruiting his opening kitchen crew was considerably more angst-ridden. Although he had his right-hand man, Glassell, on board, and talented Pastry Chef Annie Clemmons in the wings, Keane needed cooks. And not just any cooks. More like culinary soldiers, in fact. “With my first crew, I told them how hard it was going to be, how disciplined, how much they were going to clean,” Keane recalls, “and what we would expect, and what we wouldn’t tolerate. I had the talk of death with them. I tried to scare them so ultimately it wouldn’t be as bad as they thought.”
Even so, the rigors of Keane’s kitchen proved too much for most; in the first year he saw a 90 percent turnover in his crew. “There was a lot of disillusionment in the beginning,” the chef states, unapologetically. “100 percent dedication brings a certain discipline and obedience with it. This is not a meathead kitchen. For instance, we don’t cook with tongs. They’re used almost everywhere, but we don’t allow tongs because people rape food with tongs…you have to learn how to touch and feel and respect the food. So we use a spoon. That’s a hard adjustment for most cooks.” Keane’s culinary standards also demand perfect results. “Cooks by nature are defensive, so if you tell them to throw out a piece of fish they cooked because it’s slightly overdone or has a small burnt edge, they take it personally. Sure, people make mistakes, and we walk them through it afterwards, but in the middle of service, there’s no discussion. Throw it out, and do it over.”
Keane’s staffing pains were almost instantly mitigated by the power of the press. “Now with the reviews, the cooks get it,” he says. “Everything has changed. Resumes come in all the time.” Given the intense work demanded of his four-star food, Keane still expects and encourages a regular turnover of staff in the kitchen. “Cooks have about a two-year cycle max. They get too tired in the same kitchen. In two years you get to show them your repertoire, then they need to move on.”
A Matter of Time
By contrast, Peyton aims for longevity among his dining room staff. “The longer the team stays together,” the maitre’d insists, “the better they will be...more seamless, more confident. And, guests who come in and know each face already have a sense of trust.”
Hospitality training is ongoing at Cyrus, because “every last one of us needs to be reminded of every step of service,” Peyton insists. “If you don’t review every single step regularly, things will erode. No matter how basic it is—how you put down a plate, how you set a table, when to use a tray—every little thing matters. You have to constantly address what is the standard and reinforce the hell out of it.”
Cyrus’s black-suited captains and back waiters are responsible for highly choreographed tableside service, including a caviar cart, flambé sauces, truffle-shaving, a cut-to-order cheese selection, and a rolling selection of bonbons, fruit patés, and other sweets that guests choose as an amenity before departing. Brendan Sapp, a captain since the opening, is undaunted by the tableside specials, “It gives us more opportunity to connect with the guest and intuit what they want.”
Before each dinner service, Peyton announces the guest list for the evening. “We want everyone in the room to know who is coming,” he states. The staff keeps a record of guest preferences, celebrations, and so on, on Open Table. “If I see that a person has visited us three times,” says Peyton, “and I have no notes on them, I will tell the captain, ‘Get me some notes. We should know more about them. What are their preferences?’ These efforts make people feel looked after."