If you’re not doing anything else Sunday, or even if you are, drop by taurant and wish the gang a happy birthday. It’s been 12 years since this “home grown and home made” bistro opened in Healdsburg, and neither the town nor the restaurant are the same today.
Jeff Mall is the executive chef, and a hands-on chef indeed; he’s also the chief gardener, supplying the kitchen with produce from his Eastside Road Farms year-round, and runs a busy catering business. His partner Scott Silva is in charge of “front of the house” – hosting, table service, the wine list, and the books. Between the two of them -- and the “amazing” staff, as Jeff was quick to point out earlier this week -- Zin has endured, and thrived.
I had caught up with Jeff and his wife Susan – herself a former chef, but that’s another story – at their office near the restaurant. They did a bit of quick calculating and agreed that opening night for Zin was May 22, 1999.
When Zin opened 12 years ago, said Mall, “I was trying to do lots of things. It took me awhile to realize that what I really loved and wanted to focus on was classic American flavors, especially those of the South.”
Though he had earlier cooked at a number of restaurants in Napa, the East Bay and San Francisco, Mall’s first job in Healdsburg was at the , which opened in1997. “I lasted just over a year,” he said. “I wanted to open my own business. I called my partner Scott and said I found this great spot” – exactly where Zin is today, at the southeast corner of Center and North – “why don’t we do it now?”
“I knew I wanted to do certain things,” he said. “I wanted to have things that were very American – fried chicken, pot roast… I don’t want to say ‘comfort food,” but very much American home cooking-esque type thing. And not be doing whatever was ultra trendy at the time.”
Silva and Mall found the name Zin to be perfect. At the time it was thought to be American’s only native wine grape, a supposition that has since been disproven. “But Healdsburg is zin central, we thought it was an American grape and we’re going to do an American restaurant, the wine itself can be casual or more refined. We thought there were a lot of parallels between the grape variety and the restaurant we wanted.”
The restaurant was popular from the get-go, helping establish Healdsburg as a restaurant destination as the new millennium dawned (and the opened). It even sparked copy-cat Zin Restaurants in Phoenix and Kansas City and Vancouver; when someone tried to open a Zin in Napa, they called in their lawyer.
Still, it took some time to reach the point where Mall could follow his passions and principles. He thought back to his first job at a notable restaurant -- while still a student at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, he worked as an ‘extern’ at Stars Café in Napa Valley in the 1980s. Jeremiah Tower was one of the pioneer celebrity chefs in the 80s, and this informal café was as an offshoot of his Stars Restaurant in San Francisco.
“To enter,” Mall remembered, “you had to walk through a garden. And that was the first time I saw something like that. Wow, they’re growing herbs, and they’re growing cherry tomatoes, and they’re growing squash for squash blossoms, right outside the back door of the kitchen.”
Thinking back to that garden helped reshape Zin the restaurant, and Mall the chef. “About 2002 we started growing a lot of our own ingredients,” he said. “That stemmed from me growing up in farming family, outside of Modesto, and realizing how ridiculous it was for me to buy produce when I could grow it.”
Soon, Zin Restaurant changed from a good informal American bistro into a one-of-a-kind local restaurant – locavore if you will – featuring food from the owner’s own garden.
“We’ve created a menu focused on our principles. We keep it very simple: we’re not trying to chase trends. We’ve been doing farming since ’02, and really bringing that into the restaurant has really showcasing our style, which is about home grown and home made.
“I’m sure we’ll have summer squash by mid-june,” said Mall when I asked what he grew. “Hopefully we will have some tomatoes as early as late July, but more likely August. Summer squash and winter squash, lots of peppers--- we do 28 variety of tomatoes, and 10 varieties of peppers, 12 different varieties of summer squash. We also have collard greens…”
At this point I finally realized it was a mistake to think of Jeff Mall as just another celebrity chef. He didn’t “run a restaurant in Healdsburg” so much as he “had a farm on Eastside Road.” It started to make sense: the evolution of Zin tracked the discovery of his priorities, the withdrawal from the international frenzy of haute cuisine, and growth into home grown and home made.
But “American home cooking-esque type thing”? Go ahead, Jeff, call it comfort food.