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Chef Douglas Keane envisions Cyrus 2.0

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Doug Keane drove his gray Ford pickup truck on a dirt road through a vineyard to the spot intended for the new Cyrus restaurant.

“I want people to show up with a little dust on their shoes or their cars,” Keane said with a smile. “Whether it’s a Ford pickup or a Maserati, I want them to experience the dirt, the earth.”

Two years after shuttering his Michelin-starred restaurant in Healdsburg, the 43-year-old chef wants to re-open it off Highway 128 in the Alexander Valley, on a parcel owned by Jackson Family Wines. But the plan already has met with resistance from some residents concerned with the precedent it could set for the agricultural area.

“Cyrus is 100 percent going to happen,” Keane said. “I just hope in Sonoma County.”

Born in Dearborn, Mich., Keane lived in New York City and San Francisco before settling in Sonoma County in 2002.

“I’ve traveled all over the country,” he said, “but when I lived on the T-Bar-T Vineyard in Geyserville, I felt like I found home again.”

Keane doesn’t want to talk odds. He isn’t swayed by the detractors or the hurdle of building permits. On the contrary, he’s optimistic Cyrus will open sometime in 2016. He climbed into the back of his pickup, preferring to take in the sweeping view he imagines his diners will have.

“There’s not really a restaurant in California wine country that’s located in the middle of a vineyard,” he said.

Keane, 5-foot-10 and stout, was clad in a gray cotton shirt, black chef’s pants and dusty black Teva shoes. He was talking swiftly, his words a staccato beat, attempting to keep pace with his fast-flowing ideas. One of his most fanciful involves a decadent “chocolate room” for diners when they finish their meal.

“If Willy Wonka and the Michelin man had a child, this would be the offspring — the experience of the room,” Keane said with a laugh. “I won’t have a chocolate river because that wouldn’t be health-code viable, but it will be just as magical.”

Barbara Banke, proprietor and chairman of Jackson Family Wines, is a fan of Keane’s magic. She has offered to lease the land to accommodate the restaurant.

“Chef Doug Keane is a culinary pioneer of fine-dining experiences in Sonoma County,” Banke said via email. “My family is proud of all that he has accomplished, and we adore his innovative menu creations. ... It’s in the community’s interest to ensure that Doug stays in the region. We’re thrilled to watch Doug’s new dining destination come to life and keep him at home in Sonoma County.”

Keane said he realized high-end dining is his forte after his D.K. Wings eatery at the Graton Resort & Casino closed in January, barely two months after opening.

”It was a wrong fit,” Keane explained. “It ended up being a different reality, so it was just easier to walk away.”

He also tried to make a go of Shimo Modern Steak in Healdsburg, a steakhouse with touches of Japanese. He opened it in December of 2010, but he closed it in November of 2011. A high-priced steakhouse just didn’t go over well, Keane said, shrugging his shoulders.

The chef’s mainstay, since 2007, has been Healdsburg Bar & Grill, where he serves as co-owner and manager, but no longer cooks there.

Keane reserves his culinary talents for exploring dishes for the new Cyrus, tinkering in his Healdsburg test kitchen. With 36 potential covers rather than 85 in the former Cyrus, the chef is convinced he’ll be able to invest more money into Sonoma County produce that’s made in smaller quantities.

Co-chef Drew Glassell, working alongside Keane in the test kitchen, said what he appreciates most about him is his quest for perfection.

“It’s his attention to detail,” Glassell explained. “Whether it’s with tomatoes or with a piece of equipment, he’ll make sure we have the perfect thing for whatever we’re doing.”

What sets Keane apart from other chefs is his humility, according to chef Duskie Estes of Zazu Kitchen and Farm in Sebastopol.

“At Cyrus, his chef coats did not have his name or the restaurant’s name on them,” Estes said. “You were there to experience the restaurant, not just his cooking. He has an incredible sense for ingredients and technique, but his mannerisms are more of the past, when a chef was in the kitchen, not strutting around the dining room like a peacock, looking for compliments.”

Nick Peyton has been Keane’s business partner in many ventures, most notably with Healdsburg Bar & Grill and Cyrus.

“I’ve been blessed to work with some very talented, hard-working, exceptional chefs in my career,” Peyton said. “Usually with success, ego grows, sometimes to the edges of megalomania. Doug has not changed his personality from when I first met him at the very beginning of his time in kitchens, doing a stage at the Ritz in San Francisco, to today as a celebrated, multi-award-winning chef. ... What sets him apart is his ability to lead and manage a team, inspiring them to strive for the goals and the needs of the enterprise as something larger than that of the individual.”

Keane has won many accolades over the years, including a James Beard Award for Best Chef Pacific.

In 2013, Keane was a contestant on Bravo’s “Top Chef Masters” TV show. He won $120,000 for his charity, Green Dog Rescue Project in Sonoma County, a nonprofit he co-founded in 2010 that helps rescue and other dogs assimilate so they can be adopted.

“The genius of the show is that they take a bunch of control-freak perfectionists, which by definition is what good chefs should be, and they take all the control away from them with the daily schedule and with cooking,” he said.

But the dog-lover was motivated to win for his foundation.

“Dogs need a voice,” Keane said. “I’ve always been sensitive to animals. I feel I need to stand up for them.”

The chef said he’s convinced he won because he ultimately learned to let go and enjoy the process.

Keane tries to strike a balance between carefree and determined in his daily life. He lives in Healdsburg with his wife, Lael Newman Keane, and their three dogs. While Wine Country is idyllic, you won’t find this chef lollygagging.

The Midwestern native said his work ethic comes from his entrepreneurial parents, Kathryn Douglas and Noel P. Keane. In Dearborn, his mother ran the business side of a beauty salon, while his father was a controversial celebrity lawyer.

“My father was interviewed by ‘60 Minutes’ several times,” Keane said. “He pioneered the practice of surrogate parenting beginning in the late 1970s. By the time he died in 1996, he had helped over 600 couples who couldn’t have biological children.”

The chef’s older brother, Chris Keane, also became a lawyer. He lives in San Francisco and specializes in child advocacy. They both went to Dearborn Divine Child Elementary & High School outside of Detroit. Keane then went on to Cornell University’s Hotel School in Ithaca, N.Y.

“My parents gave us the spirit that if you work hard, that’s all you need,” Keane said. “They hammered it into our heads – ‘work hard, work hard, work hard.’ ”

It’s a mantra Keane says has served him well.

“I’m not necessarily the most talented or skilled chef out there,” he said, “but I think I was able to out-work a lot of people to open my places.”

Wine writer Peg Melnik can be reached at 521-5310 or peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com.

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