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Farmhouse Inn chef Steve Litke retires and spills the beans about his successors

When chef Steve Litke first joined The Farmhouse Inn back in 1999, the Forestville property wasn’t much to look at. The eight-room bed-and-breakfast built in 1873 was run down, flanked by eight dilapidated migrant workers’ cottages and a modest pub, serving what Litke called “a pretty simple menu of soup, salad and a few appetizer and entree options.”

As Farmhouse Inn co-owner Joe Bartolomei now recalls, less charitably, when he and his sister Catherine Bartolomei bought the place in 2001, “it was an absolute dump.” The pub featured burgers, served by housekeepers at card tables in the casual dining room.

That’s a very far cry from the posh resort that exists today. After multimillion-dollar renovations and additions, the inn consistently ranks high in international publications and has been designated one of the Best Hotels in the World, Best Boutique Hotels in the World and Top Hotels in the USA.

The Cal-Mediterranean restaurant is one of Sonoma County’s finest and was named among the World’s Best 36 Food Destinations, Best Restaurants in America, Top 100 Restaurants in America, Top 10 Culinary Country Inns and America’s Most Romantic Restaurants, as well as Sonoma County’s Most Romantic Restaurant.

So this month, as chef Litke enjoys the start of semiretirement, he reflected on a career that seems almost surreal. He left the Inn this winter, and by early summer, Farmhouse management will formally introduce new Chef Daniel Beal, a former sous chef of Chicago’s renowned Alinea and San Francisco’s three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn.

Joe Bartolomei was just 28 and Catherine was 33 when, “on a whim,” they bought the Russian River Valley property. Self-described as simply fifth-generation Sonoma farmers who enjoyed entertaining friends at their family’s Russian River ranch, they saw great potential for the inn, and in Litke.

By 2006, the chef proved them right. Farmhouse garnered a Michelin star in the first-ever Michelin Guide ranking of the Bay Area food scene, among only 28 other restaurants in the entire region.

No burgers anymore; under his kitchen leadership, the restaurant became famous for elegant farm-to-table signatures like Petaluma’s Ramini Italian water buffalo mozzarella with heirloom tomato, parmesan crisp, caperberry olive tapenade and bloomed basil seed; and European Vialone Nano risotto studded with black trumpet mushrooms, delicata squash, saffron and fennel.

From Day One, Litke had grand ideas.

“I had been working in downtown Healdsburg at (the former) Bistro Ralph’s, and I was ready for a change,” he said. “I had driven by this small B&B a number of times, but did not really know anything about it. When I came in to check it out, I saw a lot of potential in the small but very workable kitchen space, and felt like I could see myself creating something special there.”

The longtime Healdsburg resident already had strong relationships with local farmers and artisanal food producers and immediately started creating seasonal menus showcasing Sonoma County products.

“One of my favorite dishes that was on my menu since the very start was a simple salad with the absolute best greens in the county, grown by Bert and Mary Villemaire of La Bonne Terre farm,” he said. “They would pick and wash the lettuces for me fresh every day, and I would stop in on my way to work. I did this for 18-plus years until they retired.”

He also drew rave reviews for his signature dish -- Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit -- inspired by a rabbit appetizer dish at an Italian restaurant he worked at early in his career on the East Coast.

“It was always a hit that the diners considered unique,” he said. “I wanted to bring something similar here.”

He built valuable relationships with the heritage rabbit ranchers at Nicasio’s Devil’s Gulch and Valley Ford’s Oz Family Farms and created a platter of a petite roasted rack, loin wrapped in applewood-smoked bacon and rabbit leg braised in duck fat.

It helped that the Bartolomeis focused on the restaurant from the beginning and gave Litke free rein. “Food plays such an important role in Sonoma County, and we felt that if we could grow the reputation of the restaurant, we could bring everything else up to that level,” Joe said.

At one point, Litke offered a cheese cart as one of the luxury dining components. He brought on staff sommeliers to build an award-winning wine program and worked with the Bartolomeis to consistently upgrade the dining room and gardens into the sophisticated setting enjoyed now.

“We have maintained our Michelin star every year until I left,” Litke said. “Back in that time of the first star, I never though Michelin would be coming to Sonoma County. I was over the moon though when I got the news — it actually took me a few days to really believe it.”

After 22 years building and nourishing Farrmhouse into a glittering jewel, the chef — who coyly says he is “in (his) early 60s” — is finding his new life quieter, but equally satisfying.

“I spent a good chunk of time on the East Coast visiting my family and seeing the amazing fall colors,” he said. “I haven’t really been able to do that in years running a busy restaurant during peak harvest season in wine country.”

He’s keeping busy with catering, too, for small dinner parties through referrals from friends and local industry insiders.

“My ideal party size is around six to 15 people,” he said of his menus that start at $200 per person. “I love to create intimate private dining experiences — I am not really the guy to do big events.”

For the Farmhouse restaurant team, this coming year will bring more changes. Currently, Litke’s menu is still being offered (minus the Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit), while new Chef Beal creates his own relationships with local farmers and purveyors, builds his team and his own concept.

The formal dining room will close in the spring for renovations, with the new fine-dining destination reopening late spring or early summer.

“I was at Farmhouse for 22 years, and I loved every single one of them,” Litke said. “Now it’s time for the next adventure for me. I can’t wait to see what Farmhouse does next, too — I know it will be great.”

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