In 2012, after seven successful years and two Michelin stars, acclaimed Healdsburg restaurant Cyrus, named for an early settler of Sonoma County, closed its doors following a lease dispute and subsequent settlement. The closure of such a lauded temple of fine dining shocked fans.
Owner and chef Douglas Keane had been running nonstop, delivering with his team a labor-intensive dining experience five nights a week. He was admittedly “obsessed” with Michelin, always gut-checking decisions against how he thought critics would react. For the survivor of a brain tumor in 2003, long before Cyrus, he says it wasn’t the healthiest way to operate.
Keane says he knew then the industry was “broken,” citing symptoms like high turnover, especially in the back of the house; low profits; and the lack of work-life balance. But he didn’t have time to figure out a different way to run the business — until the restaurant’s sudden closure. “With that break, I began to ponder what it might look like — I wasn’t going to do dysfunction again,” Keane says.
He and his longtime business partner, ebullient maitre d’ Nick Peyton, began to bounce ideas around. Remarkably, the vision they landed on then is almost identical to the new version of Cyrus, which they opened 10 years later in September 2022, in the quaint wine-country town of Geyserville. “I don’t care if people are judging us anymore,” Keane says now. “We’ve done all of that. We’ve let it all go.”
In its first six months, the new Cyrus has offered a glimpse into what can happen when a chef and restaurant team rethink the traditional fine dining model, prioritizing employee satisfaction and loosening the expectations around earning a sacred Michelin star. “I’m not saying, ‘fuck Michelin,’” Keane clarifies. He and his staff were happily surprised by the star they received in December and celebrated over a bottle of Champagne. But he swears he didn’t know a reviewer was coming and wouldn’t have done things differently if he had.
In the first iteration of the restaurant, the team made decisions in anticipation of what they thought Michelin’s reviewers might want, Peyton says. “And that obsession ruined our motivation.” Now, they’re focused on what makes the best experience for both guests and staff. Thanks to that shift, Keane, Peyton, and chef-partner Drew Glassell seem to be achieving something else: greater happiness — and a path to longevity — within the daily grind.
The chef’s table at Cyrus during a recent service.
Keane says staffing was always an issue. “We thought, what if you could stop struggling to find people, just pay them better and treat them better?” he says. “The only way was to become leaner and engineer it — the experience, the jobs, the plating — and use technology for more consistency.”
Stripping away options and extras often seen as standard in fine dining — like an a la carte menu and abundant displays of breads, cheeses, and confections — on top of using more technology helped streamline the number of people needed to make Cyrus 2.0 possible.
For example, the restaurant doesn’t employ a host or bartender, nor a bevy of prep cooks. There are no table linens beyond a single, oversized napkin per diner, because linens would require money to launder, fold, store, and set up. Dishes like steaks and chawanmushi are cooked sous vide when possible, to reserve the finer searing work for actual cooks. A chocolate tempering machine, typical in high-volume pastry operations and hotels but not at most restaurants, supports the tight, three-person pastry team by eliminating the need for one employee to be dedicated solely to chocolate.
The result is a smaller team with larger salaries. Every full-time employee — there are currently 20 — is guaranteed a minimum of $65,000 a year and most make more, Keane says, a fact a number of employees confirmed to Eater. The only exception is a part-time glass polisher, a $20/hour position added earlier this year when the need outgrew what Keane thought was fair to have his wife do for free.
It took management some time but health benefits kicked in on February 1 for all full-time employees as well, with an employer-paid portion (roughly half the cost) and choice of plans. Keane also aims to close the restaurant for a week this summer and two next winter; after one year with Cyrus, employees will get one of those weeks as paid vacation, and after two years on staff, Keane plans to make it all three.
Executive pastry chef Joshua Gaulin, a fine dining veteran from Michael Mina, Quince, and most recently the new Four Seasons in Calistoga, was initially torn by the Cyrus opportunity. Leaving the stability and benefits — not just medical, dental, and life insurance, but also free stays — afforded by a luxury hotel chain was tough. “But at the Four Seasons, I worked Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day,” Gaulin says. At Cyrus, staff were off for three days in a row at Thanksgiving, as well as on Christmas Eve and Day. He’s looking forward to a 10-day summer break, too. “I’ve already planned a trip to Europe, which I’ve never done before,” he says.
But succeeding in Cyrus’s organizational design also requires a mindset shift, Gaulin says, as there’s no “morning team” handling mise en place for the nighttime cooks. “Instead, each cook is a true chef de partie, handling everything in their station. You ask yourself, do I need these perfectly-diced-whatevers and 15 of them, or four micro-of-this-flower pointed at this angle, on each dish?” he says. “That’s the battle I fight. I like things a certain way, and you have to engineer how you work to make sense in this restaurant.”
The team structure — a relatively flat organization, with a cross-training mentality built in — also provides opportunities to learn other roles and grow quickly.
Like Gaulin, Karla Garcia came from the Four Seasons. She started at Cyrus as a server and at the bar station, which is really just a little section of countertop in the open kitchen, but she quickly demonstrated the skills and knowledge necessary to be a captain, essentially a conductor of the guest experience for a full seating. “Front of the house was always out of my comfort zone, because I can be very shy,” she says, citing her culinary degree and background in a kitchen. But she takes pride in how hard she works and becoming captain has made her more confident. “The promotion feels amazing,” she says.
Getting the “right fit” guides the hiring process at Cyrus.
Entremetier Jessy Padilla trained at beloved Healdsburg restaurants Scopa and Campo Fina under chef-restaurateur Ari Rosen before both restaurants closed. Rosen, who Padilla describes as a mentor, recommended Padilla directly to Keane. He staged for a day before being offered the job and says the hiring chefs didn’t talk about talent, but the importance of fit.
For his first experience working at a Michelin-starred restaurant, Cyrus isn’t the “cutthroat” environment he expected. “Everyone looks out for each other because of the energy the chefs give off,” Padilla says. “It’s very much non-militant, and everyone takes care of one another. It’s pretty amazing.”
Assistant pastry chef Anh Vu also appreciates the tight, supportive team environment. Vu, now 27, got her first food job at Bouchon Bakery in New York. She went from Bouchon to a Los Angeles bakery to the Four Seasons, where she met Gaulin. What appealed to her about Cyrus was the opportunity for creativity and the chance to push herself thanks to the restaurant’s cross-training approach.
Music is prominent in the kitchen during prep and service — more noticeable than it may be at other restaurants due to diners’ constant access to all kitchen spaces at Cyrus. Staff take turns choosing the playlist, with classic rock and ’90s alternative adding exuberance to an already festive ambiance at the chef’s table. Chef tournant Mauricio Alvarado enjoys the chance to choose the tunes. “I feel like I’m part of this team, part of this journey,” Alvarado says. The Houston native landed his first kitchen job washing dishes at age 16. Now 24, he says Cyrus feels different, starting with the pay, work-life balance, and overall vibe. “Restaurant workers deserve this, to be sustainable and live life, enjoy days off and not be so stressed.”
The cross-training model — where cooks sometimes run food and servers sometimes help with the staff meal — also deepens the sense of teamwork, Alvarado says. “I feel like there’s no front house and back house, we’re all just one type of house.”
In addition to improving the work culture, the fresh approach meant rejiggering costs. Keane sees it as a “math equation.”
Making his vision a reality took 10 years, during which Keane worked on a book that’s nearly finished, focused on his other Wine Country restaurants (Healdsburg Bar & Grill and Two Birds One Stone), consulted in D.C., and won Top Chef Masters. The decade also saw multiple stops and starts for Cyrus 2.0 — business deals at other locations that fell through and slowdowns caused by a pandemic — before the chef ultimately raised more than $5 million from a combination of longtime and new investors. The team opted to rely solely on investment funds, eschewing the bank loan route to avoid the massive interest and debt that comes with it.
Having a set number of covers per night at a prebooked price ($295, plus a service charge) makes food and operating costs more predictable. A private dining room, occasional buyouts, and special off-site events add to the revenue stream, but Keane doesn’t say yes to everything. He always returns to the question: What’s enough?
For instance, Cyrus initially opened five days a week, with three nightly seatings of 12. Two months in, they went down to four nights a week, but added another seating each night. That decision did something almost unheard of in the restaurant world: increased cash flow for the restaurant and employee days off, simultaneously.
Investors’ first suggestion in response to the schedule change was to reduce staff pay by a day. “No, that’s not the concept,” Keane says he told them. “We’re going to pay people the same. Because the concept isn’t to save on costs and increase revenue. It’s to give everyone a better life.”
At one point, the team toyed with opening Monday through Friday and having weekends off. There’s some precedent, Keane says, pointing to restaurants in Paris that close on weekends and during the summer. But Saturday nights at Cyrus have triple the demand of other days of the week. “If I had bigger balls, I would’ve done it,” he says.
Despite the changes, the Cyrus team continues to push the creative envelope. During a meal, the staff takes diners on a literal journey through a series of rooms for different courses, an experience that culminates with a visit to a Willy Wonka-inspired chocolate room, where guests face truffles on what appears to be a levitating dish and a custom fountain wall that continuously pumps 500 pounds of chocolate into a mesmerizing cascade. “Dining is entertainment,” Keane says. “We just wanted to reinvent it, do what we’ve always wanted to do, think outside the box.”
What’s missing at the end of the experience is the uncomfortable sense of being stuffed, as is often the case after multicourse tasting menus. This too is intentional. “I wanted you to leave satiated but not overly full,” Keane says, reflecting on an important takeaway from his time spent at the culinary academy in Kyoto, Japan, years ago. The sense of calm with which the Japanese chefs ran their kitchens influenced Keane as well. “They worked hard, long hours, and it was very precise, but it’s not this testosterone-filled, endorphin-inducing kitchen environment where you’re always running at 99 percent because if you don’t, you’re not doing it right.”
At this point in his career, he’s more relaxed, but hasn’t lost his sense of urgency. “I don’t think you do better when you’re under stress,” he says. “The people that need to be managed by being screamed at all day long, I can’t manage them anymore.”
Keane is resistant to being seen as having solved the fine dining conundrum for everyone. It’s still early for Cyrus; the new restaurant is only six months old. And there are those, including arguably the world’s most famous and successful fine dining chef, who insist the hours and standards and economics required to run a successful high-end restaurant simply don’t work.
Nevertheless, Keane is trying, but in a new way. Restaurant work remains exhausting — “physically taxing,” according to Garcia, due to the nature of the always-on-the-feet job. But the latest iteration of Cyrus is the product of Keane and his business partners assessing what’s right for themselves at this point in their lives, and what they can and should do for the people who work for them.
Now 51, Keane derives joy from running a kitchen that feels fun for everyone, spending downtime with his wife and their 13 animals (a mix of dogs, goats, sheep, pigs, and chickens), and staying away from reviews. “I haven’t read anything written about me in a long, long time.” he says. “I used to care way too much.”
When asked how he feels now, Keane says, “A hundred percent grateful. For the investors, for the opportunity, for the team. And just having a lot of fun.”
News Source: https://sf.eater.com/2023/3/15/23641741/cyrus-restaurant-geyserville-douglas-keane