Hiro Sone & Lissa Doumani
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Hiro Sone & Lissa Doumani

Carolyn Jung - May 2014

Food Arts presents the May 2014 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, husband and wife chef/owners of Terra in St. Helena, Ame in San Francisco, and a soon-to-open restaurant in the city’s Mission District, who, for more than a quarter century, have been broadening the horizons of California cuisine. At their finely honed restaurants, pork trotter ramen is eagerly slurped alongside buttermilk fried quail with cheddar polenta and delicate lobster chawan mushi mingles on the menu with ricotta cavatelli, all in seeming defiance, yet somehow with complete coherence.

In a way, it’s much like their own relationship. Sone, born in Japan to a family that has grown premium rice for more than 18 generations, was raised with a reverence for fresh ingredients, particularly for what it takes to get them from field to table. Doumani, of Lebanese heritage, grew up in restaurants owned by her father, Carl, the former owner of Stags’ Leap Winery in Napa Valley. When their paths crossed at Spago in Los Angeles, Sone knew little English and Doumani no Japanese.

Spago proved to have a profound effect on their lives in more ways than one. Doumani, who never intended to be a pastry chef, nevertheless became one when she talked her way into a job in the kitchen, only to be shifted to the short-handed pastry department after one day. Sone trained there for only two months before he returned to Japan to open a Spago Tokyo (now closed). That would have been that, had it not been for Wolfgang Puck’s wile. Noticing the spark between his two employees, Puck went so far as to regularly call Spago Tokyo late at night before handing the phone to Doumani without telling her who was on the other end of the line. It wasn’t long before Doumani convinced Puck to offer Sone a job back in Los Angeles.

Doumani still remembers the first day she met Sone. “I was covered in chocolate. I think he thought I was the cleaning lady,” Doumani says. “He and I would talk. Nobody knows how we did it. We don’t even know how we did it then. But you communicate if you’re supposed to. And that’s what we did.”

When it came time to move on to open their own restaurant together in 1988, they chose a century-old stone building in St. Helena, naming it Terra, which means “earth,” to symbolize its global reach on the plate. Sone and Doumani served radicchio salad at a time when only Italians were familiar with that type of chicory. They served tripe at their white tablecloth restaurant, also unheard of at the time. And they created a signature dish of silky sake-marinated black cod with shrimp dumplings that continues to be their best seller even decades later. “At Spago, they never did ragù or stewed meat,” Sone says. “But I thought of Napa Valley as more like Europe, and immigrants from Europe ate those kinds of dishes. People helped spread the word. We didn’t do any advertising. We didn’t even have a sign on the restaurant. People would call from the Safeway parking lot, asking ‘Where are you?’”

Through it all, they have been each other’s greatest critic, supporter, and muse. As their longtime friend Nancy Silverton of Los Angeles’ Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, puts it: “In the kitchen, in the dining room, and in life, Hiro and Lissa complement each other like two great jazz musicians, playing off one another and taking all of those around them to a higher level of enjoyment.”