Photograph by Cassandra Landry
Smokin' Car: Crowded 'round, clockwise from left, are Thaddeus Palmese, Erik Amavisca, Ted Van Doorn and Heather Van Doorn.
Next stop, the Starlight for Americana dishes with tons of local flavor
By Cassandra Landry
You see," chef Thaddeus Palmese says, indicating four stovetops and two ovens with a wave of his arm, "all this is brand-new." Palmese is standing in a skinny corridor of a kitchen, hanging off the end of the Starlight Wine Bar and Restaurant, the vintage train car perched in Sebastopol's Gravenstein Station. Backed up against a refrigerator full of bright yellow bell peppers and greener-than-green arugula, he is inches away from a piping hot stovetop and an oven full of the night's desserts, feeling the heat waft through his clothes.
Burly sous chef Erik Amavisca, playfully nicknamed "El Santo," stands behind Palmese, preparing dishes. Once owners Ted and Heather Van Doorn enter, the kitchen is pretty much packed to capacity. It's hard to imagine any typical hustle and bustle of a restaurant kitchen going on here safely, but the fact that it does only adds to the small-town magic that takes place at the Starlight, the little wine bar that could.
Duke Ellington and Count Basie play over the speakers, and Heather, dressed in black pedal pushers and a simple white top, complete with a red-and-white polka-dot scarf tied around her ponytail, crosses the leopard-print carpeting to where Ted is sitting at the bar. Ted's dressed like a greaser, or maybe a casual greaser on his day off, with a white T-shirt with black trim and black jeans, and one half expects him to whip out a comb à la John Travolta in Grease.
The Van Doorns met on the set of Titanic—he was a model maker, she was a camera assistant—and Ted, anticipating the next question, plops a photo album down on the table. There are pictures of Heather standing by cameras smiling, Ted posing next to scale models of ballrooms and ship hallways (minus Kate and Leo and the knee-high frigid water) and pages of on-set snapshots. But after spending time in Hollywood and settling down to start a family, they found the industry beginning to change. The arrival of digitized set models and CG action sequences pushed Ted, who prefers to work with his hands rather than computers, to consider another line of work.
"We were thinking of getting out of the film business after we had our first kid," Heather says as she and Ted sit down to a quick lunch of hot steak sandwiches straight from the kitchen that could make even a vegetarian's mouth water. "Ted was working on Spider-Man 2, but the pickings were getting pretty slim."
Ted says that he had always toyed with the idea of opening his own pub or restaurant, of sorts—a classy and casual place where neighbors could meet up for a beer or a bite to eat—and so the two set out to look for a brewpub in Los Angeles. But while L.A. might be the ideal locale for starry-eyed actors and directors, the Van Doorns found the SoCal restaurant business to be cutthroat and ugly, and the search for the perfect spot yielded no results. In a last-ditch attempt, Heather and Ted noticed a listing for a "train car restaurant" (formerly home to Appellations) located in Sebastopol. They had traveled through Sebastopol to visit family in the past, liked the area, and had nothing to lose. The opportunity smacked of fate.
"We really didn't know what we were doing, but we figured this was the chance we were looking for," Heather says. They put in their offer that weekend.
Two thousand three hundred miles away in New Orleans, Thaddeus Palmese was fast becoming burned-out. After working the restaurant business in the Big Easy for years, Palmese grew tired of the constant party atmosphere that revolved around his schedule. He left Louisiana one year before Hurricane Katrina ("After the hurricane, the restaurant I had been working at couldn't bounce back") and flew out to L.A. Once there, he met up with his long-lost cousin, Ted Van Doorn.
"Our parents weren't close, so we didn't see each other much," Ted says. "I thought he was dead! And then—poof! —he shows up, and whaddya know? He's a chef. And we're opening a restaurant. Perfect."
The trio began collaborating on ideas, and Palmese offered to consult, using his experience to help the Van Doorns hire the right chef and get the eatery off the ground. When Ted and Heather found the train car, Palmese took a road trip up to take a look. It didn't take much to convince him they had found the right place.
"When I came up here, I just knew that this was it. The food here is phenomenal, but not only that, the people really appreciate it," he says. "It's a lot like New Orleans in that way. L.A. is all about who you might see. The food might as well not even be there."
Now all they needed was a talented chef to tie the whole endeavor together. Simple. Any Bay Area chef worth his or her salt would jump at the chance to run a kitchen and compose a menu. Right?
"The two chefs we interviewed took a look at the kitchen space we had and immediately turned it down," Ted says. "No questions asked. It was an impossible kitchen. So Thad agreed to start for us for a few months, and he never left."
Palmese adjusts his backwards pageboy cap, wipes his hands on his apron and shrugs his shoulders. "It was meant to be," he says with a smile.
However predestined the coming together of the Starlight may have been, it was not without its setbacks. The old "kitchen" at the Starlight barely warranted the name, and after a disastrous Valentine's Day the first year, the paltry two burners and one pizza oven failed to support the burgeoning business. The Van Doorns began installing a kitchen out of as much second-hand equipment as they could, eventually constructing the functional kitchen residing there today.
"Those tabletop burners are for shabu-shabu, you know?" Ted laughs, and Heather and Palmese shake their heads. "It was like trying to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people on a camp stove."
The second setback—cash flow—prompted the team to stumble upon the blossoming Slow Food movement, which is gaining popularity with restaurants all over the world.
"Honestly, we were first into the Slow Food movement because of our limitations," Heather says. "We had to make the most out of what we had, so we had to get the very best produce possible, and that was all local stuff."
Ted remembers finding a snail on his salad plate at a local restaurant. Instead of storming out and demanding a free meal, he asked the chef where he got his greens.
"It wasn't a bad thing! I think the chef was shocked that I wasn't outraged," Ted says. "You know, with local produce, every once in a while you might get a caterpillar in your salad. Wildlife in your greens, that's a good sign."
While Palmese doesn't wholly subscribe to the elements of the movement—sometimes he has to buy produce commercially, which isn't all bad, he says—he likes the ideas behind it.
"I've read Alice Waters' book, and I definitely appreciate the philosophy there—starting with something good, and not screwing it up," he says. "It's a very practical outlook. Simple, but flavorful."
"You don't need to 'gild the lily,' so to speak," Ted adds.
The benefits of going local are endless, but the Van Doorns and Palmese say it's the ties to the community—the farmers down the road, small-time vintners or a regular customer with an overachieving peach tree—rather than the organic critters that make the Slow Food movement a winning approach to running a restaurant.
"We get tons of stuff from our regulars. Lemons, pears, peaches, apples," Palmese says. He points to the small pies baking in the oven. "The apples in there are from our neighbors orchard. They're amazing."
By highlighting the vintage aspect of train travel, the Starlight allows diners to step back in time, to an era when luxury was found in the dining car, and feel-good food was a staple of the American diet. The original Starlight train, a daylight train run on a red-eye schedule, ran along the Southern border through cities like New Orleans that were producing taste explosions like nothing anyone had ever tried, giving the bland, commonplace meal of the nuclear family a shake. Gumbo, pot pies, chili cheese steaks and apple pies grace the menu, and with Palmese's Cajun-infused expertise spicing up everyday dishes, the train may as well be clipping through the South Pacific during the meal. No train ride would be complete without chatty neighbors, and the snug booths and tables that line the train car give customers exactly that, making for an undeniably small-town experience, Ted says.
"People come here and end up making friends over dinner," he says. "It really isn't weird to see strangers chatting the whole night."
Heather nods in agreement. "We'll see people who have never met sharing dishes! A plate will come out and everyone will crane his or her neck to check it out, and the person who ordered it will let everyone try a little bit. It's hilarious."
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