Interview: chef Douglas KeaneDouglas Keane (center) had two serious sous chefs at The Strand House: Sang Yoon and Neal Fraser.
Chef Douglas Keane spent years climbing the culinary ladder, beginning at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration, for legendary New York restaurants Four Seasons and Lespinasse, and later at Jardiniere and Gary Danko in San Francisco. He and business partner Nick Peyton met while working for Gary Danko. They opened Market an American Restaurant in St. Helena and later made a lasting impression with high flying Cyrus in Healdsburg. Keane has been laying relatively low following the closure of Cyrus. Sure, he and Peyton still own Healdsburg Bar & Grill in town, and Keane keeps busy with ambitious pop-up dinners at restaurants like Jardiniere and The Strand House in Manhattan Beach, which is where I met him. Prior to the dinner, he shared insights into his culinary career and approach, Green Dog Rescue Project, and his future restaurant plans.
Did you always plan to be a chef, or did you consider other careers?
I wanted to be a vet, but I had some trouble with the science. I always had a love for animals. I never seriously pursued it because the science was out of the question, but probably around 11th grade, in high school, I knew I wanted to cook.
What do you remember about your very first night in a professional kitchen?
I remember chef Stefano Battistini screaming at me. It was right after I graduated college. It wasn’t technically my first night. I had cooked in kitchens, but I got a job out of college cooking at The Four Seasons in New York. I just remember him screaming over a microphone: “Speed, Douglas, speed. Move faster.” I was slow.
At what point did you get fast, or did you?
I was a really good line cook. I loved doing it. It was more efficiency than speed. It was more thinking steps ahead. I started becoming a smart cook a couple years after that, when I watched other smart cooks. They removed steps. It was probably three or four years later, my late twenties, when I became technically quicker.
Where are you from originally?
Right outside Detroit, a place called Dearborn, Michigan.
I’ve heard great things about the Middle Eastern food there.
Yeah, incredible. It’s great Arabic food, absolutely.
Do you feel like you were influenced at all by that type of food growing up?
No. I like to eat it, but it wasn’t my style of cooking at all. When I go back there, there’s a burger joint I go to, and any Arabic restaurant I can go to, I go to. There’s a huge Greek population there too. At least there was. There’s a big Greek Town.
I’m more influenced by ingredients. The ingredients from Michigan weren’t that great. Now you’ll see some better stuff, because people have become more into food, but I left at a pretty young age. I was more influenced by my mom as far as early influences go.
What brought you to Sonoma?
I moved there to open my last restaurant, Cyrus. I love wine country, always loved wine country. I love cities, and I love spending time in New York and San Francisco, but I’m really not a city guy. I like to have dirt underneath my feet, I love to have dogs running around, so the country called for me. Sonoma was right. Healdsburg was perfect, and we hit it at the perfect time.
What are some of the most important lessons you learned from Cyrus, and how will you apply those to your next restaurant?
I probably did a lot of things to make Cyrus a lot harder than it needed to be. We did a lot of things to make it better over the years, always pushing ourselves to improve, but I’m not sure I did it as efficiently as I could have. I probably made it too hard to execute without me being there 20 hours a day. There are ways to do it and there are ways to engineer menus where you don’t have as much stress. I got there towards the end, but you’re kind of stuck, because people expect certain things. You’re like, “Oh, god, I wish I could get rid of this,” but you really can’t. When we do it again, I have an eye toward doing those things. I’ve spent a lot of time in Japan in the last few years, and the way those kitchens run are extremely calm, extremely quiet, extremely smooth. Most of the work is done ahead of time, and it’s more about simply preparing something, whether it’s a sear or a poach. Things are almost pre-done. There’s a very zen-like quality to it. I got there, but I couldn’t switch my menu 100%. I’ve got some ideas about how I’d do it differently next time.
At what point in the process are you, in terms of that next restaurant?
I’ll probably end up doing a couple casual things first, or one casual thing. It takes less money to get going, less planning, and you tend to make a profit quicker. I’m working on the next Cyrus. What we’ll call that, I’m not sure. We’re working on a deal with somebody and will hopefully be able to stay in Sonoma County.
Regardless of the concept, what does a dish have to be to go on one of your menus? What is a Douglas Keane dish?