"You want to see the secret room?" says Miriam Donaldson, chef at the Blue Label Restaurant, leading me into a small, dark utility closet. "Close the door," she whispers.
She scurries up a precariously balanced ladder, heading straight through a pitch-black hole in the ceiling. Luckily, we're both bolstered by beer and shots from the 440 Club—her idea. A careful climb leads to a musty, pipe-strewn attic, and then to the belvedere cupola that gives the historic Belvedere House and the connecting bar its name. Donaldson smokes a cigarette in front one of the windows that look out onto bustling Mendocino Avenue and tells the story about how she ended up running the Blue Label kitchen—a story that begins with running out of gas in San Diego County and ends, for the time being, here.
Donaldson isn't the type of chef that meets over a glass of expensive wine in some high-class restaurant atop a skyscraper. No, the 30-year-old Kentucky-bred chef's territory is more laid-back, scrappier—think converted trailers, beer love and sailor's language. She describes everything from food to formative kitchen experiences as "bad-ass" and "awesome." She's had no formal training—unless you count art school and self-taught farming techniques—and she brags not about the last bigwig that she's served, but about how she and her husband lived in a house with no plumbing or electricity for three years.
Her first professional kitchen work began at a funky cafe in a San Diego beach town, where she ended up after running out of gas on her way to San Francisco. "I had a dollar in my pocket. A cute boy behind the counter at a cafe helped me out, and I ended up dating him for five years," Donaldson says, laughing. Unlike many of her peers, she never attended cooking school, choosing to go the art route. She still paints—surrealist canvases inspired by fables.
"I've always worked in restaurants," Donaldson says. "Food is really great because it's flexible and you get cash money and you can go buy art supplies and stuff."
Eventually, Donaldson went to work at the Parkhouse Eatery, a popular San Diego restaurant. Around that time, she met Sonoma County-bred musician Josh Norwitt. Norwitt's grandparents owned a 160-acre ranch in Petaluma—bought for cheap over 40 years ago because of its proximity to a former dump site—and the couple decided to move up to Northern California.
"We moved up here to learn how to farm," explains Donaldson. "I was worried the zombies were coming—still am a little," she says. They checked out books on organic farming from the library, lived in a converted roll-top trailer and both went to work at Della Fattoria, a bakery and cafe in Petaluma known for using farm-fresh ingredients.
Donaldson took on owners Lisa and Aaron Weber as mentors, in both ingredients and approach. "That was my first Northern California food experience," says Donaldson. "In San Diego, it's all about glitz on the plate. Half the time, it's pre-packaged stuff bought from Sysco. I'd never seen somebody say, 'Yeah, I grew this and now I'm going to cook it and sell it.' It was mind-boggling to me. It was a sea change."
Inspired by life on the ranch, she began keeping a journal, writing what the food grown on the land tasted like versus what she thought it would taste like. The transparency of the Della Fattoria kitchen fascinated her as well. "There's this whole mystic chef thing where people think the chef knows exactly what's going on at all times, that they don't reference anything. But they had such an inside-out kitchen," she says.
Donaldson took that inspiration and ran with it, opening Humble Pie in 2007, on sheer impulse, really, after she discovered that the previous manager of the small space next to her favorite bar, Penngrove's Black Cat, had retired.
"I went straight home and I was like, 'Dude, fuck our jobs, let's open something.' We opened the restaurant in two weeks; I lost about 20 pounds. We slept on the kitchen floor. There was just no time. That was kind of intense. Turns out it's like that all the time."
Known for the homemade quality of the food, Humble Pie gained a small but rabidly dedicated following. ("Best restaurant in Sonoma County" was a not-uncommon phrase.) In October of last year, however, when Donaldson was nine months pregnant, she and Norwitt closed the doors at Humble Pie.
Norwitt had planned to get a full-time job while Donaldson stayed at home to take care of the baby, paint and garden. But when the opening-day chef left Blue Label soon after New Year's Eve, Donaldson gathered up her recipes, along with her sous chefs Beau Churchill and Shahin Kalentari—"The heart and soul of the kitchen," she says—and returned to work.
Like Humble Pie, Blue Label focuses on the homemade. Hand-crafted root beer and ketchup made entirely from scratch complement a menu that encapsulates comfort food with a modern twist. "Suppers" include a hefty, flavorful meatloaf laden with carrots, served with a side of roasted garlicky Brussels sprouts and creamy mashed potatoes. Meat aficionados will dig the gargantuan whiskey pork chop, or the woodsman stew concocted of rabbit and potatoes. It's a hearty, lodge-esque menu, with a touch of home-cooked tradition.
"There's a lot to be said for food that we've seen cooked our entire lives, that has memories attached to it—it's so much richer," says Donaldson. "It becomes a two-way experience, and that's pretty bad-ass." As Donaldson's garden sprouts on her Petaluma farm, she plans to incorporate more fresh vegetables into the plates, bringing to fruition a full realization of the "farm food" label.
"I really see Mendocino Avenue as the Silk Road of agriculture," Donaldson says as we tour the lower floor, where a taxidermied buffalo head hangs in the foyer above a manual typewriter, an antique washing machine and a record player next to a stack of vinyl. "American food has this really bad reputation for being really crappy, but I look at it as farm food. And I see Santa Rosa as a farm city. It's totally unique like that."
In the kitchen, the sous chefs prep for the evening ahead (Donaldson points out the automatic dishwasher excitedly, since the dishes at Humble Pie were washed by hand). With our beer buzzes fading, Donaldson talks a bit about the future plans for Blue Label. With a larger space, possibilities include the opening of a cafe in the bright sunroom to the left, and an expanded, more creative menu with a little more finesse.
"Humble Pie was a really unique experience, because it was so small that you could do whatever you wanted," says Donaldson. "You develop this relationship with people, and you can bring it back to basics without having to put a lot of flash onto it, just really focus on the cookery and the flavor. It takes trust for the customers to think it's worthwhile without putting a lot of glitz and tits on it. That's what I'm trying to bring to Santa Rosa: food that is trusted enough that you don't have to put a lot of airs onto it."