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Amid Pandemic Shutdowns, Some Local Chefs Started Working from Home

The challenges of the past year have turned these Sonoma Valley chefs into small-scale entrepreneurs — and the results are delicious.

It’s tough to keep a great chef down. As restaurants rode the wave of the pandemic, many talented food professionals found their careers taking unplanned turns. Yet rather than throw in the kitchen towel, some creative types turned to opening cottage enterprises, renting large commercial kitchens — or even securing permits for their home kitchens — to create new businesses.

The scale remains small for now, but given the allure of these one-of-a-kind artisan operations, not to mention the local support they’ve received, the sky’s the limit. “This isn’t how I normally launch things,” laughs chef Jennifer McMurry of her new Friday night supper club in Sonoma Valley. “Normally I have to know where I’m going with something before I leap.” But sometimes, not knowing can be delicious.

T & K Mixology, Sonoma

Home-based happy hour became quite a thing this past year, and thanks to craft bartenders Kenneth De Alba, 38, and Tony Leyva, 32, we can rival the region’s best mixologists. The duo introduced their artisanal cocktail mixer company in March 2020, after they lost their full-time jobs at Sonoma’s El Dorado Kitchen due to Covid.

“With bars being shut down, there was an obvious gap in the home market for craft cocktails,” says De Alba. “We looked at store-bought mixers and realized they didn’t taste fresh, and that we could make our own to taste as perfect as something we would serve at the bar.”

The Mint to Be cocktail mix from T&K Mixology in Sonoma. (Courtesy of T&K Mixology)

The result is a heavenly, all-natural quaff made in tiny batches of less than three cases per week in flavors like blood-orange margarita and strawberry.

Glittering like liquid jewels in their hand-labeled canning jars, the colorful mixes are exquisite enough to drink on their own, but T& K includes recipes for expert drinks like a Spicy Mezçal Margarita rimmed with chile salt.

“I’ve always described creating cocktails as cooking, combining fresh ingredients and flavors,” De Alba says. “We try to support local farmers, like using fruit from Watmaugh Strawberries in Sonoma, and organic California citrus. It brings us great joy to work with local businesses, and see how we’ve all come together and helped each other through these difficult times.” To order, search Facebook for T& K Mixology, find them on Instagram @tnkmixology, or email tnkmixology@gmail.com.

Sean of the Bread, Kenwood

For his new home-based business, professional baker Sean Perry managed to come up with the cleverest name we’ve heard in a long time, a riff on popular zombie movie titles of the early 2000s. Perry left his retail bakery job in San Francisco to move to the town of Kenwood last November and immediately sold several starters to neighborhood customers sheltering in place. Soon, orders were pouring in for his own fresh-baked sourdough bread, ancient grain loaves, English muffins, and bagels.

“The science of bread is fascinating, and I love explaining it to people,” Perry explains. “Grain’s ability to develop gluten and trap the wonderful gases produced by fermentation is what makes it a magical gift to humankind.”

Sean Perry, owner of Sean of the Bread, bakes a different style of bread each day in his Kenwood home bakery. (John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Inspired by the tradition of small towns and villages having a local baker, Perry delivers his art within a three-mile radius of Kenwood or will meet customers in town for pick-ups.

It’s worth a drive for the all-natural, golden crusted breads lovingly mixed and shaped by hand, then baked loaf by loaf.

“I wake up around 4 a.m. every day,” he says. “This allows me to ensure that a product will never be rushed, and I can adhere to the bread’s schedule as opposed to trying to force the bread to adhere to mine.” To order, email seanofthebreadkenwood@gmail.com or visit seanofthebreadkenwood.com.

Ta’ Bueno, Sonoma

Surely, a superb cure for pandemic stress has to be gooey, cheese-laden enchiladas bathed in rich sauce, or steamy tamales plumped with lots of toothsome pork cloaked in fruity-smoky guajillo chile sauce. Happiness surely comes in complex, chocolatey chicken mole, sopes made with homemade masa, and creamy arroz con leche.

It’s Erik Mejia to the rescue, who debuted his Ta’ Bueno (“It’s Good”) Mexican food in August 2020 after a heady career at restaurants such as the three-Michelin-starred Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena, which was lost last September in the Glass Fire.

Based on home delivery, Mejia’s concept is run out of a donut shop in Sonoma and showcases family dishes treasured through generations. “We had to call our grandmothers in for this, taking old recipes from our relatives from distinct parts of Mexico,” he says. That includes using real lard in the tamale masa, because, as Mejia, notes, “We are trying to keep Mexican food as authentic as possible. It is very hard to find a substitution for lard that keeps the full flavor, texture, and smoothness of a tamale.”

That said, he has introduced a best-selling vegan tamale that’s sumptuous, too — “because the world and its people are changing.” To order, visit facebook.com/tabuenosonoma, Instagram @tabuenosonoma, email tabuenosonoma@gmail.com or call 707-408-3138.

Kraffty Kitchen, Kenwood

Cookie dough is delightful enough, but when it’s healthy, it’s an extra-special pleasure. Kraffty Kitchen chef-owner Audrey Krafft’s treats are free of sugar, gluten, dairy, and eggs — and are ready to bake, freeze, or simply enjoy raw.

“Growing up, I would make a batch almost every week, occasionally baking cookies but 99% of the time just making it for the delicious dough,” she says. “I was obsessed.”

The fitness coach and personal trainer launched her company in March 2020, when shelter-in-place allowed her to focus on her paleo, vegan, and keto-friendly recipes. Because Krafft is sensitive to most added sugars, she uses zero-calorie monk fruit extract; she also uses a custom combination of almond and cassava flour. Her other secret weapons? Organic vegan butter from Miyoko’s Creamery in Petaluma, and natural vanilla and almond extracts from Sonoma Syrup Co.

“It took me almost a year to get the right consistency, texture and flavor,” she says. “And really, what’s better than eating someone else’s cooking in your jammies in the comfort of your home?” Available at Glen Ellen Market in Glen Ellen or Baker & Cook in Sonoma, or order online at krafftykitchen.com.

Viola Supper Club, Sonoma

Last fall, Jennifer McMurry, formerly of Viola Pastry Boutique and The Pharmacy, realized she had an opportunity to create restaurant-quality meals for longtime customers. Now, every Monday, she creates a new menu, then cooks multi-course, heat-and-eat meals, delivered on Friday. More than catering, it’s become a club, with local members who join on Instagram, then often celebrate their meals together via social media.

One of Viola Supper Club’s hearty dinner salads, with sprouts, chickpeas, and fresh avocado. (Courtesy of Viola Supper Club)

“I created this model directly due to the pandemic,” McMurry says. “I started small, working with former customers who knew me and my food. I really wanted to create something that felt special. It is very personal – I work with every guest individually.”

McMurry named the club for her grandmother, Viola, and follows her rule of showcasing fresh, organic, seasonal ingredients. “We buy local as much as we possibly can,” she says. “I shop at the farmers market every week to determine the menu. We also grow a lot of our own produce, and use local organic eggs and Straus dairy products.”

The menus are marvelous. One recent week, the meal began with chanterelle sformato with Pecorino Romano cheese and organic cauliflower, and ended with cardamom panna cotta and homemade salted caramels. “I’m grateful to have created something new during a pretty rough time,” she says. “It feels amazing every Friday when we get to deliver the food to people, and have a moment to see their excitement.” Join via Instagram @chefjennifermcmurry.

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