Why Brandon Baltzley Drove From Massachusetts to California for a Single Meal
To say I have a fear of flying would be far toogentle. It would be better to say I have a knee-shaking, spine-tingling phobia of being catapulted into the sky in a magic steel death tube. It wasn’t always this way. Years ago—when I was still touring with a metal band, before I was husband to Laura and father to 1-year-old daughter Faunus—I could zigzag the lower 48 without incident. We’d arrive in a city, play a set, pass out on a stranger’s living room floor, and do it all over again the next day. Then, on a flight to Miami in 2013, my plane took a brief but terrifying nosedive, and the seeds of anxiety were sown. Here’s another understatement for you: Traveling has become a bit of a challenge.
So yes, maybe I’ve lost the taste for the journey, but not the destination. Every year, Laura and I try to check out one big, important restaurant, and this year I knew it had to be SingleThread in Sonoma County, California. I met chef Kyle Connaughton a few years back at an event in Chicago, and I’ve been following him ever since. In many ways, SingleThread is everything I want my restaurant, The Buffalo Jump in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to be: the symbiotic relationship between farm and kitchen, the kind of hospitality you can only get when everyone in the kitchen is family. But Sonoma is a long drive from Cape Cod. I know this, because after dinner service one Monday night last August, Laura and I stuffed Faunus into our Ford Escape with some homemade pemmican, a cooler, bear spray, and an air mattress that fit over our back seat, and we took off for the two-week, 10,000-mile pilgrimage to what I was sure would prove to be the best new restaurant in America.
The journey first took us through Chicago, where we visited chefs David and Anna Posey’s restaurant, Elske. It’s a complicated thing to eat in a nice restaurant with a kid, but David and Anna made it fun, and Faunus surprised us by really digging the chicken liver tartlet. By the end of the meal, she was walking around the dining room like she was running for mayor. Things got a lot less fancy after that. We set up camp in the Badlands, an extraterrestrial landscape of stone spires and buttes in South Dakota. We chased prairie dogs and wild bison, slept three across the air mattress using our body heat to keep warm, and built a very illegal fire to cook the trout and huckleberries we picked up at a local shop.
Those tangy berries followed us at farm stands all the way out to the West Coast. We spotted them on the way to Deadwood, South Dakota, where we accidentally bumped into hundreds of bikers at the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. I got roped into a poker game there and woke up the next day hungover, with a thick wad of cash in my pocket. We ate huckleberries en route to Yellowstone National Park, where I watched Laura and Faunus dance in front of Old Faithful. And we saw huckleberries in a pie at a roadside diner that could have been a Twin Peaks set piece—it inspired my own version, with a flaky shortbread crust.
But by the time we reached Sonoma, we were ready for a real meal. We arrived at SingleThread wicked early and didn’t want to betray how eager we were for the experience, so we killed time driving around the town of Healdsburg. We must have looked out of place with our car busting at its seams—an old woman walked by and welcomed us to California. And after a few more hours of unsuccessfully lying low, we returned to SingleThread. Kyle and his wife, SingleThread’s head farmer Katina Connaughton, gave us a tour of the farm, where they grow a lot of the Japanese produce used in the restaurant kitchen. We ate trout again, this time cooked gently in a clay donabe. We ate porridge infused with stinging nettle and, for dessert, tiny blue chocolate eggs in straw nests. I ended the night with my wife on a balcony, with a bottle of Jim Beam and a sense of contentment.
So was SingleThread worth the trip? When I think about it now, the destination is inextricable from the journey—and in that way, it was the best meal of my life.