For thirty years, Lissa Doumani and Hiro Sone have opened the doors of Terra to locals and visitors, offering a skillful and warmly executed menu with influences from California, Japan, and Europe.
Now, despite years of earning a Michelin star and many other accolades, the married couple will close Terra’s doors, largely the result of staffing shortages in a region plagued by high prices and little housing inventory. After the Wine Country fires, it became even harder as displaced residents flooded the housing market — “rightfully so,” said Doumani. But, still, it became the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“It’s not something we’d been considering in any real way,” says Doumani. “It just kept getting harder and harder, and we are getting older and older.” The pair had recently renewed a ten year lease on Terra’s home, an historic building that also houses their smaller offshoot, Bar Terra.
“We know that we’re all going through it, we’re not having a harder time than anyone else is,” says Doumani of the Valley-wide struggle to find staff. Terrible traffic on the region’s two main roads make it hard for workers to commute from the outer reaches where affordable housing actually exists, and those who live in the neighborhood are hamstrung by rising rents.
Sone had been working several stations each night, with pastry chef Doumani filling in alongside. “You just keep doing it until you’re not having fun,” said Doumani. “And that’s pretty much part of what had happened; we still had fun in the restaurant with guests and cooking but the HR part was not fun.”
“30 years is good,” says Doumani. “Sometimes life gives you an end date.”
One part of Terra’s legacy that will live on: The many talented cooks who have passed through its kitchen, whom Doumani says are their “pride and joy.” Doumani and Sone, who met while working at Spago in Los Angeles, have also fostered many relationships between coworkers that have ended in marriage and babies, growing the Terra family along the way.
That includes chefs like Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton of Portland’s Ox, George Meza of SF’s Onsen, Greg Dunmore of Nojo and the Japanese Pantry, and many more.
Traci Matsumoto, currently chef of the Kebabery in Oakland (and previously a cook at Camino), is part of that group. She also spent some of her formative years at Terra, starting as a prep cook and meeting her now-husband in its kitchen.
“I worked with them for four years. I was 19 when I started there, while I was attending the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone nearby. I’d actually read about Terra in on my mom’s California guidebooks, in Japanese. I remember seeing Terra in it, and realized I’d moved into a house one block away! I did my externship there, and stayed on, working my way from prep to garde manger to grill and sauté, eventually ending up a a sous chef.
I absolutely loved working with them. They were kind of my second parents in a way, they were just very heartwarming people, including Hiro’s corny dad jokes. I learned so much from that restaurant. I think it’s heartbreaking for everyone but also bittersweet.”
Chef Curtis Di Fede, chef/owner of Miminashi in Napa, counts Terra as one of his most meaningful cooking experiences.
“When I left Bouchon, I didn’t want to cook anymore. It was such a hard place to work and it kind of breaks your spirit. Then, going to Terra — it’s such a soulful place that it made me inspired about cooking again. I owe that all to Hiro. He honestly was the first chef who taught me how to respect farmers and ingredients, and that’s something that’s really influenced me when opening Miminashi. Our menu changes constantly because it is ingredient-driven.
And, his way of looking at food is so amazing. What other restaurant could you have tripe stew on the menu, Hiro’s famous black cod dish and goat cheese quesadillas with huitlacoche? I think they’re the epitome of Napa Valley. They are the ones that started Wine Country cooking in my opinion and I don’t think they’re recognized for that enough.”
After Terra’s last dinner service on Saturday, June 2, Sone and Doumani will prepare the restaurant for sale, storing years of paperwork and boxes of wine, and ending relationships with vendors, like their longtime florist. “It’s these little relationships that are so bittersweet,” says Doumani.
The business that takes Terra’s place will have big shoes to fill. Meanwhile, Sone and Doumani say they aren’t done for good — there’s always the possibility of opening a small, mom-and-pop type restaurant like the ones they visit in Japan. “I’ve been saying this to Hiro for years,” says Doumani. “He very nicely tolerates the conversation.”