Two ambitious Napa and Sonoma chefs aren’t holding back on their dreams.
In the fast-paced food world, successful chefs are constantly charging ahead with ever-innovative ideas. Two established Wine Country chefs—Dustin Valette and Gustavo Rios—prove there’s no resting on culinary laurels in their endless labors of love.
For many people, the challenge of juggling multiple businesses would be maddening. But chef Dustin Valette is so happy he can barely sit still as he tries to sum up the many magical things happening in his life right now: running the upscale, nationally acclaimed Valette restaurant in downtown Healdsburg; overseeing a nascent wine label, Valette Wines, with rock-star vintner partners Bob Cabral, Jesse Katz, and Tom Rochioli; and launching a new multimillion-dollar, 15,700-square-foot multiuse restaurant, retail, and living space off Healdsburg Plaza.
The secret, he says, is to fantasize, then leap right in, fears (and perhaps finances) be damned.
“Sometimes I sit back and think, That’s impossible,” he says, referring to everything he’s taken on since opening Valette in 2015, after a six-year career as executive chef of Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen at Hotel Healdsburg. “I’m the luckiest person. It took me forever to understand this, but apparently I’m crazy. A few years ago, I found out I’m OCD and ADD, so together it’s like, Shiny puppies everywhere, woo-hoo!”
Valette, 38, is a busy guy, sleeping just five hours a night and always walking at a fast clip. As we chat in the wine cellar of his 1872-built house, a block from Valette, I can almost see the sparks flying off him. It’s a home that’s been in his family forever; 11 years ago, he purchased it from relatives, then spent a year remodeling it, including rebuilding the home’s root cellar to fit his 3,000-bottle wine collection. He jumps up to show off the other project he started in the space about two years ago: wine barrel–aged soy sauce. Yet we’re in no rush, he assures me, even though I know he is just a few hours from sold-out Saturday dinner service and has a radio interview later this afternoon, plus a fundraiser.
“My whole life, I’ve always seen things in 3-D, and I can have multiple trains of thought knee-deep, all at the same time,” he says. “I always thought everyone was like that.”
He laughs, and it’s clear that if he’s joking, he’s 100 percent behind the humor. His buoyant attitude is the driving force behind The Matheson, slated for a late 2020 opening in a century-old building on Matheson Street. When complete, the three-story space will include the namesake restaurant, a Roof 106 lounge eatery and outdoor patio, two penthouse condominiums, and retail spaces.
If he weren’t possibly nuts, he would never take it on, Valette admits. “Financially, my project is ludicrously stupid,” he says with a grin. “I have a partner who makes the numbers happen. But I’m not doing this to make money. Because really, money is irrelevant in this world; it’s something we made up so we could trade services and objects. We’re trading a service. I have ideas and a vision.”
He simply had to protect the building, which had sat vacant for the past eight years. Nearly 100 years ago, his great-grandfather Honore opened Snowflake Bakery in the space. His Valette location has a similar story: Honore had also owned Home Bakery in that spot in the 1940s. As a third-generation Healdsburg resident, Valette has always felt a deep commitment to the town, and now he sees an opportunity to operate a business that fits Healdsburg’s heritage, artistic culture, and community-mindedness.
“I come from a very simple, rustic background—not a lot of money,” he explains. “Still, I’m a very fortunate guy; we always had food on our table and we always had shoes on our feet, even if maybe [they were] not brand new.”
In Valette’s view, The Matheson will be more than just a restaurant; it will also be a place where people can learn about local artisans and their work, such as the handcrafted wood tables his eatery will showcase. And he’s taking a scientific approach to sourcing sustainable ingredients. For example, he is working with a marine biologist to select lesser-known fish as menu signatures. The process is still in an early stage, but he wants to find delicious alternatives to overfished types such as wild Atlantic halibut and Puget Sound Chinook salmon.
“People ask me what The Matheson food will be, and I don’t know yet,” he says. “It will be cheaper than Valette, but still excellent. In a perfect world, all my cooks would be paid $100,000 a year, and I’d charge diners $10. Of course, then I’d have to tell you, ‘By the way, we’re bankrupt. We were open one night; it was fun.’”
Still, Valette is determined that his dream of affordable, environmentally responsible cuisine will prevail somehow. Besides his regular menu, he wants to offer a $20 family-style dinner once a week, inviting multiple communal parties of eight to sit at long tables and share news and ideas over $20 bottles of local wine.
“Does it make financial sense?” Valette muses. “Hell no. But it’s for the right reasons: to have fun and create something unique.” With a touch of irony, he adds that he hopes The Matheson will help guests slow down and soak up the experience.
“I’m willing to risk everything—not sleeping, not seeing my kids as often—for that one glorious moment when people come together over food and wine,” Valette says.
He pauses, drops his shoulders, and releases a deep sigh. “I’m not quite there on what exactly that reality is yet,” he concludes. “But I’m shaping my vision.”
As the new executive chef at the high-end Solbar restaurant at Solage Calistoga resort, Gustavo Rios has big shoes to fill: his own. Because, while Rios only took the helm in February, it’s actually a return home for him. He was on Solbar’s opening team in 2007 and worked in the kitchen until 2015, when he departed to help launch another Solage project, the nearby French bistro Evangeline.
Rios wasn’t looking for a change, but he couldn’t resist the chance to continue working with Solbar’s founding executive chef, Brandon Sharp, at Evangeline. And it meant a promotion from his role as chef de cuisine at Solbar. At the new Gallic and Creole boutique restaurant, he was top dog.
“I left because it was an opportunity to be an executive chef and learn more—otherwise I would have stayed here,” he says at Solbar on a quiet morning. “It was a blast. To be honest, I did not miss [the resort’s] room service and catering duties or working holidays.”
Yet, after Evangeline was sold to its general manager in 2017, Rios began thinking about his next move. He loved the bistro, but without the backing of Auberge, Solage’s parent entity, expenses became a concern. “A restaurant that small is a challenge financially,” he says.
Today, Rios, 35, is back in the thick of a very busy, highly popular destination that has him working around the clock. Serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, and weekend brunch, Solbar is one of Napa Valley’s most cherished spots, and a typical lunch service welcomes up to 200 guests. In the months the chef has been in charge, he has updated all the menus, retrained the staff, put together special events like winemaker dinners, and personally greeted diners to see what they liked (or didn’t like).
All the while, in the back of his mind, Rios has thought about getting back the Michelin star that Solbar was once famous for. In the 2017 Michelin Guide, Solbar earned its eighth consecutive one-star rating, designating it among the top dining destinations in Napa Valley. Marketing gimmick or not, the star is a coveted honor; this year, one-star eateries include lofty spots such as Auberge du Soleil, Bouchon, Kenzo, and La Toque. Solbar is currently named a Michelin L’Assiette, a label for restaurants that “simply serve good food,” keeping company with local eateries like Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc, Miminashi, Press, and, yes, Evangeline.
“Everybody keeps talking about it, but hey, no pressure,” Rios says with a laugh. “It’s on my to-do list, though, really, I wouldn’t be doing anything differently anyway. I strive for excellence, and we only have one job—not for Michelin, but for everyday guests.”
Every customer, he adds, is treated as if he or she secretly might be one of the Michelin inspectors, who (according to Michelin) visit a restaurant at least three times for the guide. It can take a new chef some three years to build enough of a reputation to get on Michelin’s radar, and often that status goes away when the chef does—as was the scenario with Solbar and Brandon Sharp.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Rios says. “It’s a great honor, but it’s sad because it makes more noise when you lose it than when you gain it. And look at most other one-star Michelin restaurants: They’re small. None of them has the same kitchen producing breakfast, lunch, dinner, room service, and events like we do.”
Regardless of when or if that star comes, Rios is striving for consistency across his creative, California-focused menus. “If you come in and have the nicest steak ever, you can’t wait to come back in,” he says. “But then if it’s not the same, you’re like, ‘Oh, well, I don’t think I’m going to give it another shot.’”
He has also introduced dishes and brought back iconic favorites. New lunch best sellers include Pacific halibut ceviche with avo-cado, spicy salsa verde, cucumber, and purple potato chips; and Sharp’s beloved Lucky Pig platter—which Rios revived and updated—of al pastor–rubbed pork shoulder with steamed buns, spicy avocado crema, pineapple-tomatillo salsa, pickled onions, and lettuce cups.
“[Sharp’s pork is] a staple; it’s part of Solbar,” he says, smiling. “My ego is OK if we’re selling hundreds and hundreds of them.”
Diners can expect a lot of premium seafood, too, such as dinner’s new flaky, savory, olive oil–poached Alaskan halibut presented with local morel mushrooms, California white asparagus, and béarnaise sauce. And why not, from a chef who grew up in Ensenada, Mexico, with a marine biologist father and a family that loves to cook.
The career ladder has been demanding for Rios, who had previously worked at top spots including Bouchon Bistro and Ad Hoc in Yountville, The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and Peninsula Beverly Hills. He joined Solbar as a prep cook, then rose to chef de partie (line cook), sous chef, and finally chef de cuisine.
These days, he spends a lot of time doing administrative tasks. “My biggest challenge has been to manage my time wisely, so I can be next to the guys during meal service,” he says. “I’ve got to either come in early or stay later so I can be hands-on through prime time.”
He looks around the restaurant, which is filling up for another bustling lunchtime. “Awards are nice, but I don’t want to be the guy who hides in his office,” Rios says. “I’ve had to become a leader by example. A young line cook isn’t going to respect a chef who isn’t there, and the diners will taste the difference.”