Dustin Valette’s 231-Seat Healdsburg Restaurant Is ‘The Opportunity of a Lifetime’

With The Matheson, Healdsburg’s homegrown star chef is trading on his family’s deep roots, reclaiming a 110-year-old building once used as a bakery by his great-grandfather— and betting that Wine Country’s hottest food town has room for ‘the opportunity of a lifetime.’

Dustin Valette was smiling, cracking wise, smoothing things over with a contractor whom he’d asked to tear down a 9-foot section of wall that was 6 inches out of place. It was mid-March, and the two men were talking on the second floor of The Matheson, Valette’s soon-to-be finished restaurant facing Healdsburg’s storied downtown plaza. The two shared a laugh, although nobody was laughing a few days earlier when Valette caught the mistake.

So why the near perma-smile on Valette these days?

Having accomplished much in the pedigreed restaurant world of Healdsburg, this homegrown star chef is wading into a risky pool with his new venture: a trilevel, 231-seat restaurant with two bars, a mezzanine dining loft, and an outdoor patio with an airy view of downtown. It will open blocks from his namesake restaurant, Valette, the rustic eatery he has owned and operated with his brother Aaron Garzini since 2015.

And the past year has not been kind to restaurants, new or long established.

“We’ve never lost so much capital, to be honest,” said Valette of his existing eatery, hit hard — like restaurants everywhere — by on-again, off-again health orders meant to keep people safe. A loyal customer base, combined with a creative takeout menu and a variety of business loans helped keep the place afloat, avoiding furloughs for the majority of the 37-member staff.

Even as he scrambled to ensure the survival of his first restaurant, Valette was putting in 18-hour days preparing for the opening of his second, a self-described “crazy vision” designed to preserve and pump life into a historic building at the heart of the city his family has called home for five generations.

Valette is co-owner of The Matheson along with his business partner, longtime Silicon Valley executive Craig Ramsey. Their brainchild is a multistory mélange of two restaurants, anchored on the ground floor by a craft cocktail bar and primary dining room, with more casual rooftop dining, including a sushi bar, above. A third story, comprising two 1,900-square-foot condos, sits well back from the street. The complex will also feature two ground level retail stores: Plaza Gourmet and Copperfield’s Books. First scheduled to open in January of 2020, The Matheson’s eagerly awaited debut has been pushed back 15 months during the pandemic.

Yet there was Valette, grinning, upbeat, bordering on exuberant while giving a tour of the new place, which he regards, in a way, as the old place.

Valette is overseeing the renovations of his restaurant ahead of its debut on downtown Healdsburg’s food scene.

The 41-year-old Valette and his wife, Johanna, have two girls, 5 and 4. He is currently running on four hours of sleep, but not to worry: He just downed a double espresso. Also, operating on scant rest is something of an inherited trait, passed down from his father, Bob, a longtime Cal Fire pilot whose air tanker runs have for decades arced over local skies during wildfire season. One of those flights is depicted in a large mural, painted by San Francisco artist Jay Mercado, that will hang in the new restaurant. Another of Mercado’s paintings depicts a man baking bread in a woodfired furnace. This is Dustin’s great-grandfather, Honoré Valette, who a century ago owned a bakery in this very building.

Built in 1911, the structure has been subjected to countless alterations in the intervening decades. “Few if any characterdefining features remain,” noted an architect’s report prepared for city hall on The Matheson project. Still, it was vital to Valette that the structure be renovated, rather than demolished. Such is his personal connection to the building and the town.

But that work was nowhere near complete in mid-March, as men in hard hats bustled among sawhorses, ladders and stacks of plywood. The opening date had been pushed back yet again, this time until June, as the pandemic gave some ground but still clung stubbornly to the region, clouding the outlook for any new business in the vulnerable hospitality sector.

Asked if it felt as if he was walking on a tightrope with no net, Valette again laughed.

“Well, let’s see: I have one restaurant, and I’m trying to open a second restaurant during a pandemic. What kind of f—— question is that?”

It’s not just that there’s no net, he said. “There’s a pit down there with jagged rocks, and alligators. But this is what I want.”

“This” is the most ambitious thing Valette has taken on since venturing into the hyper-competitive Healdsburg dining scene. The Matheson project includes two distinct restaurant spaces. Downstairs is a more highbrow experience. Valette and Ken Tominaga, the sushi-whispering owner of Rohnert Park’s Hana Japanese Restaurant, will work their magic in an open kitchen. Guests can belly up to the bar or serve themselves at an 88-bottle self-serve wine wall.

The upper level, named Roof 106, will offer a more relaxed vibe — along with a rooftop cocktail bar, outdoor patio and garden lounge with plaza views. The workhorse there will be the Mugnaini wood-fired pizza oven, custom-made at that company’s Healdsburg plant. “This to me is the holy grail,” says Valette, patting the 3,800-pound beast. “I’ve always wanted one but could never afford it.”

Valette comes from modest means and has turned that into a running joke: “I’ve got a lot of money,” he says, “it’s just all red, with a little minus sign next to it.” That became less of an issue when he partnered with the deep-pocketed Ramsey, a longtime employee of Oracle who founded the cloud software company Vlocity. A Healdsburg local and frequent diner at Valette, his conversations with Dustin led to a friendship, then a business partnership. Remarking on his good fortune, Valette describes himself as “the luckiest SOB in the world.”

But if the project’s upside is huge, so is the risk he’s taking. While Ramsey is writing the checks — neither partner would share the total cost of the renovation so far — there’s more at stake than money. From his days mastering Charlie Palmer’s “American Progressive” cuisine at Dry Creek Kitchen to his runaway success at Valette, Dustin has emerged, both in Healdsburg and the wider Wine Country food scene, as a gleaming success story. That aura could quickly evaporate, should The Matheson flop.

That scenario strikes Kyle Connaughton as unlikely. He is co-owner and head chef at the 5-year-old SingleThread, the county’s only three-star Michelin restaurant — but just one of Healdsburg’s top-notch eateries, an all-star cast that also includes Spoonbar, Chalkboard, Barndiva, and Bravas Bar de Tapas, to name a handful. Asked if he thought there was room, or the need, for a 231-seat restaurant – by far the biggest around the plaza – Connaughton answered with an emphatic yes, pushing back against the suggestion that the town’s restaurant scene had reached a point of saturation.

With the permanent closure of several Healdsburg restaurants during the pandemic, diners “are looking for more variety,” says Connaughton. He’s also a fan of The Matheson’s versatility – its appeal to both Healdsburg locals and those visiting. “You can sit downstairs and have more of Dustin’s cuisine” – a nice piece of halibut, for instance, done with olive oil snow, Niçoise olives, and sunchokes – or repair to the rooftop “and have a more casual experience,” Connaughton explains. Tominaga’s sushi counter has the feel, he adds, of “a restaurant within a restaurant.”

Dustin Valette tests a recipe for charred octopus with saffron rouille and smoked fennel, slated for the menu at The Matheson’s rooftop restaurant.

The Matheson is “an ambitious project” says Charlie Palmer, “but I think the town can absorb it.” In the two decades since Palmer opened Dry Creek Kitchen, he notes, Healdsburg has become a “world class” restaurant town. “I love that it’s grown from within, in a lot of ways,” Palmer says. “[Valette] worked here, and now [he’s] gonna do his own thing here. Not go off somewhere else and do it. It makes our restaurant and food community that much stronger.”

The Matheson made a big, if not entirely welcome, splash when the project was announced in 2018. The prospect of a large, modernist restaurant abutting Healdsburg’s beloved town square stoked anger and fear in a town that is perpetually grappling with questions about its evolving identity— and blowback over its devotion to high-dollar tourism. Healdsburg’s median home price, the highest in the county, soared amid the pandemic, reaching over $880,000.

The project faced stiff opposition from citizens who believed its sheer size would be out of scale with surrounding buildings. “It was like we were opening a Cheesecake Factory,” says Valette, recalling some of that incoming flak. Critics pointed to language in Healdsburg’s general plan, recommending that the city “promote uses that are harmonious with the special character of the Plaza, that are small-scale in nature.”

Over the course of several meetings with the Planning Commission, Valette and Ramsey agreed to shrink the number of seats, and to set back the rooftop trellis and condos, to ensure the building would not appear to loom over the plaza. When the Planning Commission approved the revised project in early 2019, former Healdsburg mayor Brigette Mansell promptly filed an appeal, signed by dozens of like-minded residents and business owners. “Dustin’s a good guy, and he knows I support his restaurant,” says Mansell, whose appeal was rejected by a unanimous City Council. “But we just didn’t think it was in line with the code [calling] for businesses to be small-scale.”

A retired teacher, Mansell expresses dismay at the rivers of “new money” flowing into Healdsburg. “We’re putting up huge buildings, big houses, creating so many changes,” she laments. “And it’s not really serving the very people that give Healdsburg its authenticity, its small-town charm.”

But part of reason he’s building a big eatery, Valette explains, is that a higher volume of customers enables him to charge less. Affordability is a key issue for many residents of Healdsburg, and often arose on the campaign trail last November, says attorney Ariel Kelley, who won a seat on the City Council. “One of the things I heard loud and clear, was that they felt our city restaurant options were not affordable to locals,” she says. Valette is determined to keep prices at the Matheson reasonable, “so I feel good about that,” says Kelley. The Matheson, with its mixed-use housing and retail stores, is far more likely to enliven and invigorate the plaza, Kelley adds, than to overcrowd and overwhelm it.

“The community bucked us at first,” Valette acknowledges. “But I never got upset. It drove me to work harder, to refine the vision even more.”

“You’ve gotta have a vision,” he adds, “something that’s bigger than yourself, that wakes you up in the morning, that makes you say, ‘God, I’m tired. But I need to get my ass out of bed and go work on this dream.’”

“I’d get up in the morning, and Dustin would already be in the kitchen, cooking,” recalls Bob Valette. “At 10 years old he was making breakfast for the family, and I’m not talking about a bowl of cereal. Breakfast was eggs, bacon, wild pork sausage, potatoes, onions, you name it. He wasn’t much on cleanup, but he sure did the meal right.”

Dustin’s parents were both professional pilots. His mother, Carol Toney, flew an air ambulance. Bob flies for Cal Fire, piloting a specialized S-2 tanker that carries up to 1,200 gallons of retardant. One of the homes the family lived in was an old hunting cabin on the grounds of what is now the Hawkeye Ranch, near the top of Geysers Road as it winds up the Mayacamas Mountains overlooking Healdsburg Bob had graded an airstrip behind the house. When it was time for the Valette kids to go to school, “I’d throw ‘em all in the airplane” — a small Cessna — “zip out of there and drop ‘em off at my cousin’s in Alexander Valley, right on Highway 128.” From there, they would catch a bus to school.

Some mornings, “if the cop wasn’t there,” says Bob, “I’d turn the plane around right there on Highway 128.”

Growing up, Dustin always heard stories about his paternal great-grandfather, a baker from the town of Decazeville in southern France. Honoré Valette and his wife immigrated to America in the early 1900s. After being processed at Ellis Island, they came by train to San Francisco, where he opened a bakery. The 1906 earthquake “knocked everything down and burned everything up,” says Bob, whose grandfather eventually made his way to Healdsburg.

At some point Honoré lived outside of town, off Mill Creek, where a road was named after him. His “Home Bakery” was located on the site now occupied by Valette. And his “Snowflake Bakery” stood within the footprint of what’s now The Matheson.

A circa 1920 view of Healdsburg Plaza showing Honoré Valette’s Snowflake Bakery and the A.W. Garrett hardware store, now the site of Dustin Valette’s The Matheson. (Courtesy of Valette)

In Valette’s understanding of his family’s local roots, Honoré looms large. “I always heard the stories about this guy who left the old country with nothing in his pocket, to pursue the American dream,” he says.

While he never wanted for essentials, Valette’s family was not well off. Through high school, Valette often worked 40 hours a week. If he wanted new shoes, it was on him to earn the money to buy them. The family also seldom took vacations, so travel was a novelty when Valette embarked on his career as a chef. His job gave him a ticket to walk into a restaurant in any given city and announce: “I’m here, what can I do?”

Valette’s dedication also has roots in a more deep-seated longing. “Around 10 or 11,” he says, “my mom and dad split up.”

One of things he says he missed was sitting around the table as a family. “I liked cooking, I liked food, but I was always, from a young age, missing those days when we would sit together, breaking bread, enjoying each other’s company.

“I think that’s what got me into this industry, because now I’m able to share the thing I loved so much.”

After five years at Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, Valette gave his one-year notice. It was time, he told Palmer, “to do my own thing.” Lacking the capital to buy a place himself, he had to line up investors. Three times, with three different buildings, his plans fell through.

The third time it happened “was rough,” recalls Valette.

That third deal went sideways on a Sunday. The next day, he walked past the restaurant Zin, on Center Street. Chatting with the owners, Jeff and Susan Mall, he mentioned the latest setback. They asked him to have coffee the next day, where they told him they’d decided to sell Zin, after a 15-year run. Was he interested in buying?

Valette was. “It took about 5 minutes to negotiate the purchase,” he says. Zin became Valette, the restaurant Dustin and Aaron, by then a highly regarded server and sommelier, had long dreamed of opening. The debut was a kind of homecoming: it stood on the site of Honoré Valette’s second Healdsburg bakery.

The brothers worked hard, and Valette prospered. Dustin started looking for “a way to expand this vision we had.”

“We wanted to stay in Healdsburg, but there wasn’t a lot of opportunity.”

By kismet or coincidence, another building that loomed large in his family’s past then emerged as, possibly, an even bigger part of his future.

The first Healdsburg bakery opened by Honoré around 1911 stood at 106 Matheson Street. Old-timers remember that address as home to Garrett Hardware, then Jacob Horner Restaurant, then Italian restaurant Felix & Louie’s. In 2017, amid rumors it would be torn down to make way for another large hotel project, the building was purchased by Ramsey, who had different plans.

Ramsey was a frequent diner at Valette. A bachelor at the time, he often sat solo at the bar, where he took his dinner. Nothing if not gregarious, Valette would often sidle over and chat him up.

“We developed a friendship,” says Ramsey.

“I liked him so much, and I liked his food so much, I started thinking it might be nice to do something with him.”

Before buying the Matheson Street building, Ramsey asked Valette if he’d be interested in a partnership, “and he said, ‘Absolutely,’” Ramsey recalls. It was only after that exchange that Valette explained his family’s connection to the property, “which to me was just great,” says Ramsey.

Craig Ramsey, left, longtime friend and recent investor enjoys a glass of wine with Valette, right.

He sees in Valette a creative chef and a man of “great energy” and work ethic, with no blind spot for marketing and sales.

“Everybody loves him,” Ramsey says. “You go into his restaurant, it feels like a family, and he’s your best friend.

“I trusted the man and believed in him. And I loved the idea of getting him into the building his great-grandfather was in.”

“My father saved four people’s lives,” says Dustin. “I cook steak.”

He and his father were recounting Bob’s heroics during a wildfire that menaced a family trapped by flames in the combustible fall of 2017, when much of Sonoma County and the surrounding region was ablaze. The fire was “north of Clear Lake, south of the Sacramento Valley,” Bob remembers. The driver of a car was trying to make his way down a dirt road, to safety, but the flames were too close.

“I don’t know how the hell they ever got in there,” says Bob, now 80, who from his cockpit on that flight could see the family — two parents, at least two children — waving and screaming for help.

Flying lower than usual — at greater risk to himself — he made six precisely targeted “little drops,” each batch of retardant making another hundred or so yards of the road passable. When he finished, the tanker was empty, but the driver was able to make his way down the dirt road to a larger, paved road, and to safety.

“Am I saving anyone’s life? No,” says Dustin, who points out in the next breath what he is doing: “Building something that will hopefully be there for my kids, and their kids; giving workers opportunities, and helping revitalize the square.”

It’s clear he sees this opportunity, to reinvigorate downtown Healdsburg while honoring his family name, as a kind of professional apotheosis — the most important work he’ll ever do.

With a crew from San Leandro installing the elevator, Valette bounds up the backstairs to Roof 106. Envisioned as an “escapist perch” over the plaza, the rooftop lounge will feature planters, fire-pits, and eclectic furniture — none of which are in sight on this March afternoon. Standing on a plywood floor — the large stone tiles have yet to be set down — he gazes out on the plaza, recalling his days at Dry Creek Kitchen. “I used to have Tuesdays off, and would sit on the grass and read a book or listen to music. And my ass would get wet.”

He’s long dreamed of giving folks the chance to experience the plaza from this vantage – without soaking their backsides.

After three and a half years of hard work, that vision is coming to life before his eyes. “To be this close,” he says, “it’s crazy, dude.” “Would I like to be getting more sleep right now? Yes. Do I miss my family? Yes.

But there are moments in life where you sit back and say, ‘This thing is bigger than me.’”

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