February 2, 2022

A Farewell to Chef Steve Litke

Our first blog of 2022 and it’s going to be a long one and a bit of a teary one too. After almost 21 years of working together and achieving so much, we are, with mixed emotions, saying goodbye and best of luck to the best chef and friend ever, Chef Steve “Stevo” Litke, who, as of December 2021, has officially retired. Stevo has been part of our family for our entire 20+ years (longer even as you’ll read below). Over those years, we’ve traveled together, we’ve broken bread together, we’ve been through the good times and bad times together, and, quite simply, he has become part of the family.  He will always have a home here at Farmhouse and while we’ll miss seeing him every day, thankfully, he’s not leaving the area so there will be plenty of champagne and oyster get-togethers in our future, thank goodness!

Says Catherine: For almost twenty-one years I’ve been answering, over and over again, the question, “What made you and Joe buy this place?”  And I always answer “Stevo”.  And I stand behind that answer. Joe and I had spent years playing with the idea of doing “something” together. That “something” could have happened a million different ways or not at all. I was GM of a winery up in Healdsburg, having a great time traveling the country and spending someone else’s money. Joe was on the East Coast pursuing a career in structural engineering.

But, every day, we’d spend an hour on the phone talking about our dream of a business together.  Someday… That day came totally unexpectedly. I was enjoying a glass of wine, with a friend on his front porch up in Healdsburg.

This guy rode up on a bike, stops and says, “Well Bob, guess I’m looking for a job.  Farmhouse is for sale”. Didn’t know the
guy, didn’t really know what Farmhouse was, and didn’t really care…  And my friend Bob says, “Hey Cath, you should buy Farmhouse- no, really, think about, it could be perfect.”  And I’m thinking perfect for what? And I’m feeling vaguely insulted that he would suggest that. But he convinced me to go and look at the place.

Well, the guy on the bike was Stevo.  And once I tasted his food, I was hooked. I called my brother and said, “Joe, I think I found our thing…a rundown B&B down the road from our ranch”.  Yeah, he was vaguely insulted too. But I figured the food was the hardest part of the whole thing.  Great chefs are so incredibly hard to come by. And once we convinced Stevo to stick around, the rest was just me and Joe working together to realize the vision that we created day by day. We never once had to worry, or even think about the quality of the food.  We launched the Farmhouse on the back of Stevo’s food and what he helped us do in the restaurant.

14 years of Michelin stars, innumerable crazy good reviews, it’s amazing what he did from that little kitchen. Boy, will I miss him.  But everything Farmhouse, started with Stevo.

Says Joe: Our local newspaper ran a cover story on Chef’s retirement. The story’s length and the fact that it’s the cover story really shows what a legend Chef Litke has become in our local Sonoma community. We are so proud of him and all that he’s achieved.  They did such a great job telling his story (our story) that we want everyone to read it. From an article written by Carey Sweet for the Press Democrat that ran February 1, 2022:

Farmhouse Inn Chef Steve Litke retires and spills the beans about his successors.

When chef Steve Litke first joined The Farmhouse Inn back in 1999, the Forestville property wasn’t much to look at. The eight-room bed-and-breakfast built in 1873 was run down, flanked by eight dilapidated migrant workers’ cottages and a modest pub, serving what Litke called “a pretty simple menu of soup, salad and a few appetizer and entree options.”

As Farmhouse Inn co-owner Joe Bartolomei now recalls, less charitably, when he and his sister Catherine Bartolomei bought the place in 2001, “it was an absolute dump.” The pub featured burgers, served by housekeepers at card tables in the casual dining room.

That’s a very far cry from the posh resort that exists today. After multimillion-dollar renovations and additions, the inn consistently ranks high in international publications and has been designated one of the Best Hotels in the World, Best Boutique Hotels in the World and Top Hotels in the USA.

The Cal-Mediterranean restaurant is one of Sonoma County’s finest and was named among the World’s Best 36 Food Destinations, Best Restaurants in America, Top 100 Restaurants in America, Top 10 Culinary Country Inns and America’s Most Romantic Restaurants, as well as Sonoma County’s Most Romantic Restaurant.

So, this month, as Chef Litke enjoys the start of semiretirement, he reflected on a career that seems almost surreal. He left the Inn this winter, and by early summer, Farmhouse management will formally introduce new Chef Daniel Beal, a former sous chef of Chicago’s renowned Alinea and San Francisco’s Three Michelin star Atelier Crenn.

Joe Bartolomei was just 28 and Catherine was 33 when, “on a whim,” they bought the Russian River Valley property. Self-described as simply fifth-generation Sonoma farmers who enjoyed entertaining friends at their family’s Russian River ranch, they saw great potential for the inn, and in Litke.

By 2006, the chef proved them right. Farmhouse garnered a Michelin star in the first-ever Michelin Guide ranking of the Bay Area food scene, among only 28 other restaurants in the entire region. No burgers anymore; under his kitchen leadership, the restaurant became famous for elegant farm-to-table signatures like Petaluma’s Ramini Italian water buffalo mozzarella with heirloom tomato, parmesan crisp, caperberry olive tapenade and bloomed basil seed; and European Vialone Nano risotto studded with black trumpet mushrooms, delicata squash, saffron and fennel.

From Day One, Litke had grand ideas.  “I had been working in downtown Healdsburg at (the former) Bistro Ralph’s, and I was ready for a change,” he said. “I had driven by this small B&B a number of times but did not really know anything about it. When I came in to check it out, I saw a lot of potential in the small but very workable kitchen space and felt like I could see myself creating something special there.”

The longtime Healdsburg resident already had strong relationships with local farmers and artisanal food producers and immediately started creating seasonal menus showcasing Sonoma County products.

“One of my favorite dishes that was on my menu since the very start was a simple salad with the absolute best greens in the county, grown by Bert and Mary Villemaire of La Bonne Terre farm,” he said. “They would pick and wash the lettuces for me fresh every day, and I would stop in on my way to work. I did this for 18-plus years until they retired.”

He also drew rave reviews for his signature Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit dish, inspired by a rabbit appetizer dish at an Italian restaurant he worked at early in his career on the East Coast.  “It was always a hit that the diners considered unique,” he said. “I wanted to bring something similar here.” He built valuable relationships with the heritage rabbit ranchers at Nicasio’s Devil’s Gulch and Valley Ford’s Oz Family Farms and created a platter of a petite roasted rack, loin wrapped in
applewood-smoked bacon and rabbit leg braised in duck fat.

It helped that the Bartolomeis focused on the restaurant from the beginning and gave Litke free reign. “Food plays such an important role in Sonoma County, and we felt that if we could grow the reputation of the restaurant, we could bring everything else up to that level,” Joe said. At one point, Litke offered a cheese cart as one of the luxury dining components. He brought on staff sommeliers to build an award-winning wine program and worked with the Bartolomeis to consistently upgrade the dining room and gardens into the sophisticated setting enjoyed now. “We have maintained our Michelin star every year until I left,” Litke said. “Back in that time of the first star, I never though Michelin would be coming to Sonoma County. I was over the moon though when I got the news — it actually took me a few days to really believe it.”

After 22 years building and nourishing Farmhouse into a glittering jewel, the chef — who coyly says he is “in (his) early 60s” — is finding his new life quieter, but equally satisfying.  “I spent a good chunk of time on the East Coast visiting my family and seeing the amazing fall colors,” he said. “I haven’t really been able to do that in years running a busy restaurant during peak harvest season in wine country.”

He’s keeping busy with catering, too, for small dinner parties through referrals from friends and local industry insiders.  “My ideal party size is around six to 15 people,” he said of his menus that start at $200 per person. “I love to create intimate private dining experiences — I am not really the guy to do big events.”

For the Farmhouse restaurant team, this coming year will bring more changes. Currently, Litke’s menu is still being offered (minus the Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit), while new Chef Beal creates his own relationships with local farmers and purveyors, builds his team and his own concept. The formal dining room will close in the spring for renovations, with the new fine-dining destination reopening late spring or early summer.

“I was at Farmhouse for 22 years, and I loved every single one of them,” Litke said. “Now it’s time for the next adventure for me. I can’t wait to see what Farmhouse does next, too — I know it will be great.”

And so, what’s next?  We’re so excited to announce that Chef Jackson Clark is returning to the Farmhouse family as our new Fine Dining Chef. He worked closely with Chef Stevo and looks forward to putting his on twist to the newly re-imagined menu. We’re so excited and while there are no details yet to share regarding our new fine-dining final concept we promise to share update as they develop.

Thank you, Chef Stevo, for all that you’ve done and all that you’ve achieved during your 20 years with us. Above you said it so beautifully, you were at Farmhouse for 22 years, and you “loved every single one of them.” And we did too. We love you chef and thank you for believing in 2 crazy kids from Forestville who sold you on a big dream! We did a lot of great things together. Now go travel the world in search of best the food everywhere.  We’ll miss you chef.

Catherine and Joe Signature

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