Join us this season as we explore California’s celebrated wine country: the rustic ingredients, world-class destinations and passionate artisans, chef and producers who bring it to life.
Husband-and-wife team Nick and Jen Demarest met as students in culinary school and, years later, opened Harvest Moon Cafe in Sonoma. Their restaurant menu changes every day to reflect the bounty of the local harvest. Here, we ask them all about their backgrounds, their restaurant gardens, and how they stay inspired in the kitchen.
How did you two meet?
Jen: We met in cooking school, at the CIA in Hyde Park in ’94. We were in the same class, but we were in different points in the program, so we would go on externships. Nick went to Santa Fe and worked with David Tanis, a Chez Panisse alum — he had a restaurant there called Café Escalera. So we both ended up there for a period of time. And that’s how we met.
What led you to Sonoma?
Jen: We had many stops along the way. When we were both finally done with school, we spent some time in Santa Fe, and then we went to Glen Rose, Texas and helped open a resort, an upscale hunting lodge resort. Then we went to New York and opened an organic, biodynamic bakery. And then we moved overseas to Cyprus for a year — Nick was the chef for the US Ambassador of Cyprus.
Nick: It wasn’t a bad gig.
Jen: After that, we ended up in California. We were down in Berkeley for a while, and Nick worked at Chez Panisse, and I did some fill-in stuff there and worked at a place called Downtown. We would come up here on our days off and we met some people, made some friends, and then finally moved up here in 2004.
Nick: Ken Frank from La Toque told us about it.
Jen: I worked for Ken — I was a pastry chef at La Toque for a couple of years.
Nick: We had been at a party or something and he was like, what are you doing? And I was like, I don’t know. I was kind of at a point where either I had to stop cooking or do something else.
Jen: He was working in Berkeley. After Chez Panisse, he went to a place called Eccolo and he was the sous chef down there. So he was commuting from up here and was kind of ready to either do something different or try to find our own place.
Nick: So we found the spot. It was a pre-existing restaurant, so we didn’t have to do too much work.
Jen: Kind of a funny story — we started that process in the fall, we found it, and we started to do the financing and everything. And then at one point we didn’t think it was going to work out, because we didn’t have a lot of savings and had just bought a house. So we decided that we should have a kid. I got pregnant, and they came back to us about a month and a half later and wanted to open before the end of the year. We were faced with the dilemma: should we do it, should we not do it? Obviously we decided to do it. We opened in January and I had my daughter in May, so the first couple of months of work I was pregnant. After she was born I had her here a lot — we had the bassinet and she would take naps during service. When she got a little bigger, she was in the Baby Bjorn for a while and I would work the door with her attached to me. She’s eight now — she grew up in the restaurant.
How did you decide on the name, Harvest Moon Cafe?
Nick: We wanted something that wasn’t trendy, and that people would be able to pronounce. Something that felt accessible and approachable. It’s kind of like our menu — even if dishes are really authentic, like a Middle Eastern dish, we don’t call them that; all of the words are in English. We wanted to get rid of that intimidation or fear or ordering.
At first, we were just thinking Harvest. Picking food every day — that’s what we’re all about. But then we were standing at the corner with the papers all signed, and I looked up and there was a big store called Harvest Home. So we started thinking again and came up with Harvest Moon, because this is the Valley of the Moon. We wanted to call it a cafe because it signals accessibility. We’re really mellow — the waiters don’t wear black and white uniforms, because we like a little personality. It has come to symbolize what we do.
When you opened, did you have a concept for what you wanted the restaurant to be? Or did it evolve?
Nick: We had no pre-conceived concept in mind. Concepts are sort of space dependent; I think a lot of restaurants fail because somebody tries to force a concept into a neighborhood instead of letting the space tell them what should be there. One of the things I learned at Chez Panisse was that most of the stuff we used there — ducks, rabbits, produce — the majority came from up here. So I really wanted to focus on what’s happening here. And that’s still what we do today; pretty much everything comes from right here in Sonoma, especially fruits and vegetables. We have a couple of farms we work with, and then we have a big farm that we started six years ago that got pretty serious.
Tell me about the farm you started.
Nick: There’s a guy named Robert Kamen, a screenwriter, and he lives here in Sonoma. For a long time he lived in New York, but he had a little studio he built, a one-room cabin on top of this perch. One year — I think it was back in ’98 — there was a big fire up there and it made him realize he was vulnerable. There was natural drainage from the top of the perch where his house was that wraps down around in front of his property, and it’s a pretty big elevation drop. They came in and cleaned it all out and back-filled it with dirt and we started planting stuff in that area. It acts as a firebreak for his property, and there are vineyards on the property that are certified biodynamic. So part of that (being biodynamic) means you have to have gardens, so it helps that process.
Jen: Kamen has vineyards and a tasting room on the plaza. So our gardens are surrounded by vineyards, and he has a house there, too.
Do you decide what you want to plant?
Nick: Yeah. It’s pretty dreamy. I’ve been to a lot of gardens over the years, and this one’s pretty spectacular because of the location and the view. It’s high up and surrounded in vineyards — you can see the entire valley, and on a clear day you can see to San Francisco and Oakland.
After the space came through, how did the philosophy of the restaurant develop? And how would you describe it?
Nick: That’s a tricky question, because where we were in 2006 versus where we are eight years later — it’s different. You’d have to go back and pull out menus from 2006 and look at how the food was worded and how things were and then look at it today. Every once in a while we do that. Back then, the food was super simple because that’s what I was into at that time, and even Jen with desserts. Things would be listed like “grilled something with blank and blank” — three ingredients, that was it.
Now, if you look at a menu, there’s a lot more going on on the plate. That evolution is also because of the connections we’ve made, and the level of produce that’s being grown around here is so much more, even than what it was in 2006. The area has grown a lot, but the diversity of what people are growing and what farmers are willing to grow is changing. It’s not just kale and chard and tomatoes and carrots, you’re starting to see people growing many different varieties of radishes, or these weird Asian greens and stuff like that. We started planting bok choy and a lot of arugula — there were things we liked but we couldn’t get all the time.
There’s one woman we work with who’s a psychologist and runs her own practice in San Francisco. Her form of therapy is that she’s a very serious gardener. We usually buy all of her produce; we’re the only ones who buy it. She just likes gardening, so we end up with a lot of odd-ball things, and that makes your food change. Your choice is to use it or throw it away. We don’t throw anything away. If somebody grows something and walks in the door with it, I will always take it and figure out something to do with it.
I also think a lot of that change and progression has happened because of the people that work for us. When we first opened, in the kitchen it was me and a woman from Berkeley who came up with me. It was just the two of us int he kitchen for five months, and Jen doing desserts and helping out when she could. That person I brought up didn’t have a lot of experience, so therefore it was kind of me always driving the savory part. Now, eight years later, I have four guys that work for me and they all come from varied places. I’m not a control freak chef; we sit down at the end of the night together and write menus together. When you do that, obviously you get a lot of input. Part of my philosophy of keeping my staff happy is that I really involve them and get them to push themselves — read cookbooks, watch cooking shows, go out to eat, get ideas. That’s why the food is what it is today.
Your menu changes every night. How does that affect your process? Is it just what you have to work with that day?
Nick: That’s a big part of it. We sit down at the end of the night and start writing the menu, and it’s kind of based on what we have leftover, what’s come in from any number of sources, and what we want to do. It seems to me that the food kind of progresses; sometimes we’ll be very French focused, and then it switches to Italian, and then there will be a lot of Middle Eastern and North African influences. We’re not above doing things like meatloaf or jambalaya or gumbo. It seems to migrate in that circle. I know when Spanish comes back around that we’ve done a small cycle.
Is that because after you’ve done something for a while, you’re interested in working with different flavors?
Nick: Maybe. But I think it’s a real appreciation for all food, above anything. It would be kind of ridiculous to be always stuck in one mode.
Jen: We’re so used to changing the menu. Most places we’ve worked, the menu has changed. I would go crazy if I was working on the same thing all the time.
Nick: I had a chef come in for dinner a while back, and he was like, isn’t it really hard to change your menu every day? And I was like, isn’t it really hard to do the same menu every day? How do you get up and get inspired every day to go in and make entree X again? I couldn’t do it. Staying inspired is hard. That’s my biggest challenge right now: staying inspired, and keeping my staff inspired and enthusiastic about showing up every day.
Nick: One of my cooks is really into Japanese and Asian food. He’s been her for a long time, but in the last few months he’s really come into his own. So there has been this influx of Asian-inspired dishes, and I’m really interested in all of that.
Also, in the last few years, I’ve really looked forward to padron peppers — I love those things. We make sausage, so we’ve been doing padrons and sausage with some shaved cheese over the top. They’re just so good, so simple. Maybe because they’re dangerous — one out of ten is blindingly hot. It’s kind of like roulette. I think I like that part.
This time of year, tomatoes. Sonoma tomatoes are starting to happen, probably this week. I don’t ever really get tired of tomatoes; I could eat a tomato salad every day. We do panzanella, and I think we do a really good one. Part of changing the menu every day is that we do testers every day, so I taste the food with the cooks and then the waiters get to taste everything. Man, you get a good panzanella — when the bread is perfect, and the tomatoes are perfect, and it’s all perfectly dressed, and the basil’s good — it’s hard to beat. There’s a reason why tomato and mozzarella is on every Italian menu for the last five years: it’s freakin’ good when it’s good.
Tell us more about the testers. Is that right before service?
Nick: Yeah, between 5 and 5:30.
Jen: And then he can make little changes, like if anything needs to be perfected in any way then that’s the time they do it.
Nick: We don’t print the menu until 5:20. It’s sketchy.
Jen: Especially when the printer decides not to work.
Nick: When the printer breaks, and we have to run down to Staples and get a new printer. It’s nerve-racking, but it’s what we do.
Do you cook at home?
Jen: It’s different. Usually it’s on me to cook when we’re at home, because he doesn’t feel like it. And I cook totally differently when I’m home, because I want to try to be on the healthy side and do stuff that’s good for us.
What sort of things do you make?
Jen: Sometimes we’ll just grill a piece of fish, with a quinoa salad or something like that. On a super simple night we’ll do soft tacos. Something easy.
Nick: Last night we had pasta with pesto and cannellini beans.
You’re in wine country — does it change how you work, thinking about how the wine and food are going to work together?
Nick: The wine list has the same sort of philosophy as the food; it changes a lot. I can go out to eat and look at a wine list and say, OK, this place never changes their wine list. I can tell by the wines that are on the list. It’s the same as the food — if you walked in with a flat of tomatoes, I would pay you for them. If somebody who’s making wine here walks in and says, hey, I’ve started a winery, I’ll pretty much always buy the wine. Because I believe in supporting people from here who are trying to make things and better the valley. I think it’s just important to have that part of it.
It’s easy to call up a wine distributor and say, bring me wine X. It’s another thing to take the time to taste wine with people and hear their philosophy. I think it’s important to make that connection with that person, because then they understand where I’m coming from, too, and what the restaurant needs from them. Usually a lot of the winemakers will come in here for dinner, so that relationship gets started with the staff. And it’s also important for them to come in and taste the staff on the wine, if they can — just like we taste the food, they have to taste the wine.
Also, one thing we try to do that’s really challenging is cut down the waste of the overall restaurant, and the whole carbon footprint and environmental impact. We’ve tried to minimize all of that. Our biggest waste is wine — so much wine goes through here. I went through a phase where I wanted to phase out foreign wine because it takes so much to ship from there to here. But you know, I just love a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape or bottle of Sancerre. They are wines that you can’t get here, because the style isn’t appreciated by American winemakers, so it’s kind of a conundrum. It’s a hard choice to make.
The amount of foreign wine is probably about 25%, less than a third at any given time. The reality is, people come here for Sonoma wine. Foreign wine we sell is to Sonoma winemakers who are tired of tasting the same thing.
Any go-to food and wine pairings for summer?
Nick: I always try to find food that people find challenging to pair with. You hear winemakers say artichokes are really hard, or asparagus. I love doing asparagus salads when it’s in season and doing wine dinners, because I think asparagus and unoaked Chardonnay really work together. Or a medium-bodied Sauvignon Blanc with asparagus. Same with artichokes; I love Chardonnay and artichokes.
Beyond that, everything is sort of basic. It’s easy to pair a Cab with a steak.
If you weren’t cooking, what would you be doing?
Jen: Nick would be building furniture and restoring trucks.
Nick: I think she’d probably be a florist. We’d probably have a permanent lemonade stand in our yard.
Jen: The good thing about that is that I do get to do some of that stuff — not solely, but I get to incorporate it, having our own place.
What’s your favorite thing about living and working in wine country?
Nick: As a chef, you can’t argue with the amount of stuff that’s grown here, and the ease of getting it. If you look through a book and see some crazy ingredient, you can find it. In other places, you’re probably not going to find bok choy.
Jen: It’s the whole lifestyle. You’ve got the food, the wine, the weather is awesome, there are a million places to hike and be outside. It’s the whole package. And I like the fact that it’s still kind of a small town. We’re not really city people — Berkeley was fun, but we were ready to move to the country.
Nick: I like visiting cities, but I’ll always live outside of a city. This is perfect. In 40 minutes I can be in Berkeley or San Francisco; we can go see a play in San Francisco and sleep well here.