ICE Alum Pursues Her Passion at SingleThread Farms
Despite the pandemic, Culinary Arts grad Gabriella Russo launched her career change at one of California's three-Michelin-starred restaurants.
After a final class toast and goodbyes in late February, Gabriella Russo (Culinary, ’20) headed for Healdsburg, California in Sonoma County to extern at the three-Michelin-starred SingleThread Farms, Chef Kyle and Katina Connaughton’s ryokan (Japanese bed and breakfast) comprising a farm, restaurant and inn. Like many students, Gabriella’s externship was to be the crescendo to her in-class studies. However, just a few weeks into her new role, the pandemic put the opportunity on an unexpected pause.
“The first three weeks were great,” she recalls. “I had an opportunity to spend a day on the farm and learn about where all of our amazing produce comes from and how it is grown.” She would not return to the kitchen she had anticipated working in until June, but during the three-month hiatus, Gabriella continued to connect people through food.
“What I’ve always loved about food, and specifically good food, is its ability to bring people together,” she says. “In many ways, I think it is how we understand each other. It defines culture, it defines history, and it is just plain fun.” That craving led her to launch a weekly online cooking class for friends, cheekily called “How the F*** Do I Make This?” or HTFDIMT for short.
“In a pandemic you are forced apart,” Gabriella says. “Every Saturday a group of 10 of us would get together and make whatever we had voted upon during the previous week.”
She guided the group through making everything from chile con carne to dim sum to gumbo.
“The reason I fell in love with food is because of how happy I am when I can provide it to the people that I love,” she says. “It’s my favorite gift of myself to give to people.”
Before attending ICE’s Los Angeles campus, Gabriella studied digital design at Otis College of Art and Design and then worked in advertising design, focusing mostly on motion graphics and eventually specializing in live design and concert content design. “I did content design for Bruno Mars’ 24 Karat Magic Tour, Miranda Lambert and Stevie Nicks,” along with a team of other people, she explains.
“Cooking captured me in a way that design never did,” Gabriella says, explaining that she would toil for months, or sometimes years, on a client project or fine art piece and prefers the fast pace of the restaurant world. “It has a relatively instant feedback loop, which I really enjoy.”
While she channeled her energy into HTFDIMT, SingleThread reopened, and Gabriella was invited back to complete her externship hours. As a commis, she is thrilled to pursue her original plan of working at the esteemed restaurant.
“SingleThread Farms is a restaurant that I find uniquely intriguing because of its three faces as a hotel, farm and a dining experience,” Gabriella says. “It is the intersection of all things hospitality, which I think is an integral part of the restaurant industry as a whole.”
She had several instructors at ICE who knew Chef Kyle personally, which helped put the restaurant higher on her list of possibilities. “Every single one of them had such a deep admiration for what [Chef Kyle] does and how he builds teams,” Gabriella says.
SingleThread Farms' owners spent time working for French chef Michel Bras in Hokkaido in northern Japan and fell in love with the culture and ryokans. “SingleThread is meant to emulate an ultra-high-end ryokan hospitality experience in which the host is trying to anticipate the guests’ needs prior to the guest even having them,” Gabriella explains. That art of Japanese hospitality, called omotenashi, is practiced at SingleThread in addition to kaizen, the notion that each day you work to do better than the day before. “It was impossible not to be interested and curious,” Gabriella says. “Japanese cuisine is one by which I am fascinated.”
Up until the closure, SingleThread served a much lauded 11-course kaiseki-inspired tasting menu. When COVID-19 hit, the team evolved the menu into a family-style takeout meal. They also prepared a donation concept, the Sonoma Family Meal, provided to various charities and distributed in the community.
In June, Gabriella returned to the restaurant, but soon after, indoor dining was once again canceled. SingleThread shifted gears to focus on the takeout component, and as of August, launched a pop-up at Kistler Vineyards. “We are building an outdoor kitchen on the property,” says Gabriella. “Half the coolers in the restaurant are gone!”
Gabriella currently begins her day prepping for the evening’s takeout menu. “Then I will assist in plating those meals as well as the donation meals,” she says, adding that she’s responsible for cleaning and throughout the day observes demos from the various station chefs. “They are really great about teaching moments. Chef Kyle was a teacher at one point himself, so it is a very strong mentoring kitchen.”
Though she’s only been at the restaurant a short time, she has already learned new skills. “I’ve helped clean live Santa Barbara spot prawns and learned about making tofu from scratch and quality of ingredients that go into our dashi,” she says. Perhaps the main lesson she has learned is adaptability. “Extraordinary change can present extraordinary opportunity for those who are willing to work for and look for it,” she says.
The concept of adaptability isn’t a new one for Gabriella. A college professor once gave her a piece of advice that she says “governed a lot of [her] life.” He shared not to marry yourself to one line: Even if a small section of what you create is perfect, it might not work with the piece as a whole, and you must get rid of it. Ultimately, it is a lesson in flexibility.
The same advice can be applied to life. She had to abandon her own wedding plans of a ceremony in October in New York City. “In life, “you’re not the only one drawing, there are external factors at play,” she says. “If anything is evident of that, this year is.” At this time, her plan is to get the most out of the opportunity at hand, just as she did at ICE.
“I loved my whole experience,” Gabriella says. “The ability to have a chance to work at various ICE events was great practical experience for going into my career. And I absolutely loved the final meal that we prepared because it was such a spectacular exercise in creativity and execution of all that I had learned. I genuinely felt cared about and it felt as though all of my teachers were invested in my success as a student and as a chef.”
Her new team at SingleThread has already impressed her with their resolve. “The team has faced opening and closing and reopening and closing and creating an entirely new dining experience outdoors and yet remain determined and optimistic as I’ve ever seen them,” she says.
Gabriella is focused on the present. “My aspiration is to learn and contribute as much as I possibly can to the team at SingleThread Farms,” she says. “I believe that the more you know, the better you can make decisions in the future. And one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned, even in the past month, is resiliency is invaluable.”
Make a career of bringing people together with food with a diploma from ICE Los Angeles.