Setting oneself apart from the competition in a place as saturated with excellent restaurants as California is impressive. What’s more impressive, is the ability to then double down on sticking to your principles and making calculable, systematic changes to resolve the dysfunction inherent in the industry of fine dining. Enter: Chef Douglass Keane of one Michelin-starred Cyrus restaurant.
After seven successful years and earning two Michelin stars, Chef Keane made the decision to close his acclaimed Sonoma County restaurant (Cyrus’ first iteration) in 2012. He was ready to transition away from a demanding, relentless work environment that had led him and his team to become overly fixated on Michelin ratings, resulting in burnout and a loss of the passion that initially drew them to the restaurant industry.
Over the next decade, Chef Keane, along with longtime business partner, Nick Peyton, dedicated themselves to reimagining what he perceived as a flawed system. In September 2022, he revealed the new location for Cyrus in Geyserville, California. In opening the revamped Cyrus, the duo has hyper-focused on addressing and changing the fine dining model, both operationally within their restaurant, and experientially for their guests.
An evening dining at Cyrus is truly an immersive culinary adventure that goes beyond your typical 2+ hour prefix menu. Diners experience a 20-course tasting that begins in the Champagne Bubbles Lounge with views of the vineyards and mountainous terrain in the background, and ending in The Chocolate Room.
“The immersion was really about thinking about the best dining experiences I’ve ever had and that they usually were at someone’s home,” explains Chef Keane on the inspiration behind this culinary adventure. “Not only do you get a great meal, but you get to know them better. So having people be able to talk to us while we are cooking is just like being at someone’s house. Yes, we take the food and service very serious, but we don’t take ourselves so seriously. It is just dinner after all.”
In the Bubbles Lounge guests start their evening off with libations and canapés that include Gougère with Comté Fondue and Steamed Egg Custard with Aged Caviar. The journey then proceeds to the Kitchen Table where diners engage with the chefs directly and observe them doing what they do best. During this time guests are encouraged to roam the open kitchen and ask questions as they delight in five small, but mighty bites, that include Fois Gras Torchon with Whole Roasted Quince and Saiko Miso Butter and the A5 Wagyu with Yuzu Kosho.
“There is so much interest in cooking and fine dining that I wanted to peel back some of the mystery and eliteness of it and let you see what we do,” he continues. “Its fun to for cooks who don’t normally get interaction with the people they are feeding to actually see them and connect with them. Its as fun for us as it is for the guests.”
The next leg of the journey brings the group to the dining room with its sweeping views of Alexander Valley. Each individual party is brought to their own personal table, which remains theirs for the night. The following seven courses are highly curated, stand out dishes, each covering a range of textures, aromas and tastes that you would hope for from a lauded culinary experience. Think: Black Bean Chicken Roulade with Black Garlic and Kimchee and Akaushi Short Rib with an Umeshu Consommé.
The final stop on the tour leads guests to the mysterious Chocolate Room where diners are presented with a parting gift of house-made chocolates and an incredible fountain of chocolate. This experience is personalized and simply show-stopping.
We sat down with Chef Douglass Keane to talk about the Cyrus’ dining experience, menu inspiration, its sustainable business model and more. Here’s what he had to say.
What is the inspiration for each of the phases (Bubble Lounge, Kitchen Table, Dining Room and Chocolate Room) at Cyrus?
Each room was really just an extension of what you typically do at someone’s house. You come in and have a drink and a snack in their living room — check out their view (Bubbles), you move into the kitchen while they finish dinner and talk to them (Kitchen Table), you go sit down in their dining room for entrees (Dining Room). It was important to us to have you on a Journey but also make it feel connected. And part of that philosophy is reinforced by the five tastes in Bubbles at the beginning and then the five tastes in Chocolate at the end. Bringing the Journey full circle.The Chocolate Room was such a special way to end the dining experience.
Talk about how this room and sweet ending to the dining journey came about.
At the previous Cyrus we had a candy cart and also sent out mini crispy crème donuts and that was basically our riff on all the mignardises carts we had seen. It was a lot of work and I don’t think that unique. We wanted something that was completely our own and would also make you smile and say ‘wow’ at the same time. And also connect the beginning of the Journey to the end of the Journey in a subtle way.
I literally said, ‘what if you could walk into a room and see an eight foot chocolate waterfall and smell chocolate all around you. Wouldn’t that be a fucking cool way to end.’ As you finished your birthday celebration or anniversary or whatever special occasion and you looked into your loved ones eyes or held a hand or hugged and took a picture you felt like you experienced something truly unique and fun enough to make you smile. One last surprise before we sent you off to your home.
What were a few of your top goals and priorities when re-opening Cyrus in Sept. 2022 in Geyserville? What were some of the things you definitely didn’t want to take with you from your previous chef experience?
The biggest goal was to serve as a catalyst for changing the dysfunctional business model that plagues the hospitality industry and has for decades. Covid brought everything to light and was definitely the straw that broke the camels back but the issues (low cash flow/profits, high turnover, high stress, low wages) have all existed as long as I can remember.
But when you are on the hamster wheel it’s a little hard to see clearly as to what should be done to make solid changes but a nice long break while we plotted Cyrus 2.0 gave Nick (Peyton) and myself space to think and plot a strategy to fix some of the ails.
The other top goal was to also change the discussion about fine dining and how these type of meals are experienced. I like to say that the first Cyrus was everything we had seen in our careers with our special tweak or unique perspective. But 2.0 is us creating a completely unique experience unlike any in the world in a truly unique setting floating above the vines and constantly asking the question, ‘what if’?
People eating in Sonoma County are very generous with their time and they give you a full evening to take care of them. One of the things I would constantly hear and observe is people saying, ‘I hate sitting at the same table for that long,’ so we thought about how we would take you on a Dining Journey that would keep you immersed, energized and never fatigued. I think the thing I’m most proud of is that we have achieved a lot of our goals and have not had to sacrifice any level of luxury or guest experience.
Talk about the ways that you and the Cyrus team have pivoted to ensure a happier workforce and more sustainable business model. What was the catalyst for this decision?
The catalyst was simply all of the dysfunction in the industry. The fact that hospitality is at its core, people taking care of other people but somehow, we forgot how to take care of our team(s). The answer was there in the basic definition, but I think we (the industry as a whole) became too obsessed about what a tire company, a water company and others thought about us than we did our guests and employees.
I really want this industry to be able to be a respected profession where people can have full careers and not just use it as a steppingstone to a different field or line of work. Why can’t we make a good profit, pay people well and treat them right with time off, benefits and still create a magical experience that transports our guests for a few hours.
Each of the staff members were so incredibly personable, attentive, and down to earth. Do you put extra attention to the types of people you employ? Talk about work life balance at Cyrus.
We hire on attitude as the most important attribute. Much more valuable than skill. We can teach the mechanics over time if they are lacking a little but its really hard to change people’s attitudes. Its also hard to change culture once you are going so to set the culture from the absolute very beginning was vital. We spent a lot of time just talking to people about how this was going to be different than other restaurants, the good and the bad points.
We discussed that we were trying to do something that could possibly affect other restaurants down the road and that they needed to believe in us and the mission or it would not be a good job for them. We are basically asking less people to do more things each day (or more efficiently) but paying them better and giving them more time off. Its math and engineering at its simplest. But setting the culture was paramount and now that we have it keeps going on because we are great at hiring and the team keeps the culture protected and evolving.