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Inspired stories about artisan wine and taste makers.
by L.M. Archer FWS, Bourgogne ML
Sondra Bernstein | the girl and the fig | sonoma
Sondra Bernstein | the girl and the fig
“Country food with a French passion.”
by: L.M. Archer. FWS | Bourgogne ML
Sondra Bernstein owns an enviable eatery empire in Sonoma that includes the girl and the fig and Suite D in Sonoma, the fig cafe in Glen Ellen, the fig and girl caters, and the fig store fine foods. She’s also the author of numerous cook books, an early proponent of Rhone wines, and tireless champion of Sonoma Wine Country.
Here, Bernstein opens up to Red Thread™ about her life as Sonoma’s ‘culinary diva.’
r/T™: People know you as Sonoma’s hugely successful ‘culinary diva.’ Perhaps not so many know the backstory to your ‘overnight’ success, including a nearly-disastrous experience at TGIF.
Turning a potentially difficult situation around into a positive one is a necessary skill in the hospitality industry.
Talk about the most compelling challenges that you’ve faced, how you overcame them, and what you learned from them that informs how you make your business decisions today.
SB: Well, I don’t know about “diva,” but thank you! Every day is a new challenge in this business.
I suppose I would say that when you really care about your craft, and push yourself to create something you’re very proud of, and that thing isn’t received the way you’d hoped, that can be very difficult.
But we try to take those moments in stride and learn from them. We’ve had successes and failures along the way, we’ve opened and closed restaurants, and have certainly had the occasional flop, but I try to take what I can, learn from those moments, and move forward. It’s what drives us to do better.
r/T™: Talk about the first moment you realized you belonged in the culinary world, and what that felt like. Has that passion ever wavered over the years? What motivates you to keep going?
SB: Well, you might know that I began as a photographer. I waited tables through college and intended to pursue photography – in fact, my first paid gig as a photographer was for TGI Fridays. As far as my passion for restaurants, it didn’t happen all at once…I loved the buzz of restaurants, the people, the pace. It’s exciting, and addicting; somewhere along the line, I realized I was hooked. I’d fallen in love with it, and have never stopped loving it.
I’m always inspired by creativity. The world of food is constantly evolving, and we are always learning, and finding new ways to create. I’m inspired by the incredible makers we have the privilege of working with, and by the people we are lucky enough to feed in our restaurants every day. I love touching their lives in a small way, and making people happy.
r/T™: You seem like a force of nature unto yourself. Any mentors or role models who have inspired you along the way?
SB: Definitely. When I was first getting started in the business, Richard Melman made a big impression on me.
When he launched his “Lettuce Entertain You” concept, it was something completely new and very fun. Fusing entertainment and a quirky playfulness with fresh, delicious, beautiful food appealed to me a great deal - it spoke to all the senses, which is what a dining experience should be, in my opinion.
r/T™: You appear to be a true artisan - you started out studying photography in college, your venues offer sensually appealing artwork underscored by great music, and you often compare running a restaurant to theatre. Do you have any creative aspect of what you do that you enjoy most, e.g., creating and sourcing the food and wine, designing the spaces, choreographing events,
interacting with people, etc.?
SB: I love it all! It would be very hard to choose just one thing. That’s really what keeps this work compelling and always interesting. I enjoy design and photography, so it’s wonderful to be able to make that a part of what I do, I feel like food should be beautiful and delicious and so I enjoy all of the creative aspects there.
I’m passionate about wine, about stories, about people, and I do love to throw a party! In a lot of ways, every aspect informs another and makes it impossible to separate them.
r/T™: Take us through a typical day juggling the girl in the fig restaurant in Sonoma, pop-up event venue Suite D, the fig cafe in Glen Ellen, plus catering, specialty foods, organic gardens, and innumerable charity and social events.
SB: Well, my days start early! There are many times that I feel like I need to be in a million places at once. It can be chaotic, but it’s also exhilarating, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
In the course of one day there might be recipe or wine tastings, web design, creating promotional materials or menus, blogging, a stop at the farm, meetings with my staff, wine tasting, photo shoots.
I learned a long time ago that I need to work with a team of people whom I really believe in and can count on that makes it manageable. That, and I have to be really good at multi-tasking!
r/T™ Talk about your affinity for Rhone wines. How did it start? Any Rhone up-and-coming winemakers who excite you? Any modifications contemplated to the current “Rhone Alone” program?
SB: When we opened the original restaurant back in ‘97 we were trying to decide on our wine list. We were on a budget and we were new - not a lot of wineries would have known us.
I was reminiscing about my time in the Rhone, dining in little cafes on the drive from Provence to Nice, and how a tumbler of beautiful wine was always served with your meal. It was a part of the recipe, the way it’s a part of life there, and I thought to myself that that’s what I wanted - the wine, the food, the valley, to come together in one experience.
Back then there were not many plantings of Californian Rhones, but we set out to find them and it just worked. At the same time, we knew we needed wines that would not overshadow the food. We have this incredible bounty of local produce, meat, seafood, dairies, and wanted a unique wine list that would enhance those items, instead of define or overpower them.
California Rhones are sophisticated but approachable, elegant but playful, everything that we wanted our wine offerings to be. And it gives us this unique opportunity to start a conversation with our guests, and maybe introduce them to something new, and also to represent these talented and innovative producers who we really believe it. It’s been a lot of fun for us; and, no, I don’t foresee us changing it anytime soon!
r/T™ What to you consider your greatest accomplishment?
SB: I think that staying fresh and relevant in this business is the biggest
challenge. The fact that we’ve managed to do that for eighteen-plus years, while remaining true to the hearts of our restaurants and our vision is something I’m very proud of.
r/T™: Anything you still hope to accomplish?
SB: There are always new projects calling to me. Right now, we’re working on a project that our management team created - and it is probably long overdue. They have created an idea for the girl & the fig’s “fig rig” - a food truck that we can make available to events, markets, festivals. It’s been an awesome collaboration, and we’re really excited about it.
r/T™: Anything else you care to share with readers about what makes Sonoma so special for you as a culinary professional?
SB: As a place for food, I don’t know that there’s anywhere like Sonoma. The landscape is so abundant, there are such deeply committed and talented artisans, and, beyond that, there are people here who really know and appreciate good food and wine and are thoughtful in their choices.
I think that anyone involved in food appreciates what a very special place Sonoma is. I feel so fortunate to live here, to have my business here, to be a part of what makes this place what it is.
r/T™: Finally, if your experience as a ‘culinary diva’ has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
SB: The culinary world is constantly changing, new information is constantly coming to the forefront, and we are always learning. It’s never a static state of having “figured it out,” I don’t think. What I’ve learned is that I must always be learning, and I love that!
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Durae Hardy & Team figgirl