Meet a young Bay Area transplant and learn how his new Penn Valley restaurant is setting his entire family on a whole new course.
By Thea Marie Rood
Photography by Laurie Sterner
For most of us, ages 16 to 23 are a blur of goofing off at the lake, listening to really loud music and working a series of meaningless minimum wage jobs. But for Zach Sterner, those years started with a high school cooking class and culminated in the sous-chef position at the Michelin-starred Solbar at Solage Calistoga.
“He won’t tell you this,” says Sterner’s father, Michael. “But he was considered a prodigy.” In fact, notable chefs in tony Marin and Sonoma counties all said pretty much the same thing when they worked alongside the teenaged Sterner: “I’ve never seen anything like this.” And it wasn’t just the food; it was also his attitude. His senior project was a four-course meal at Sonoma Mission Inn, where the actual chef there told Sterner’s dad, “I’m so stressed out by this event, I’m sweating bullets—and Zach is back here whistling.” Later that year, at an important outdoor fundraiser, with virtually no equipment besides a barbecue and a sink, a well-known caterer confided, “I can’t stop watching him work.”
But Sterner’s dad is right: He won’t tell you any of this. In fact, sitting at a table in his sleek and stylish dining room at Twelve 28 Kitchen, he is both modest and funny. “When I was 16, my dad said, ‘Just get a job,’—so I did,” he laughs. “I’m not one of those chefs who grew up under a table while a big Italian family rolled tortellini. My mom was always very good at cooking, but there were four kids—and she made ‘mom’ food, like Shake’N Bake. No seafood, no cultural dishes.” When he snagged his first restaurant gig in hometown Sonoma, at his father’s directive, he recalls eating a meal there and thinking, “Wow, this is what food can taste like.”
Sterner also attributes his early success not to some magic chef talent, but to having a work ethic and virtually no ego—qualities he looks for in his employees now and recommends to young aspiring chefs. “Come in early—if you’re 10 minutes early, you’re five minutes late,” he says. “Say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’ and put your head down and work. A lot of kids imagine themselves in kitchen whites, cooking filet mignon, but you need to learn the basics: clean lettuce, peel lots of onions. I’d rather have a kid that can cook 60 hamburgers perfectly than one who can make a Meyer lemon crab foam.”
Which is not to say his menus—that change frequently—are anything but crazily creative. For example, he makes an item called “Dirty Smashed Fries”: crispy, twice-cooked Yukon Gold potatoes, with Napa cabbage kimchi and house green sriracha aioli—and you can add crispy braised pork belly for $4. It’s no ordinary pork either, but Mangalitsa pork from Cosmic Roots Ranch in Grass Valley, which uses free-range, humane raising practices. “It’s super delicious,” he says.
In fact, he is quickly learning where to locally source his ingredients: lamb from The James Ranch (a neighbor in Penn Valley); big, rich reds from Szabo Vineyards in Nevada City and Gray Pine Winery (another Penn Valley neighbor); craft beer from Nevada City’s Ol’ Republic and Auburn’s Knee Deep and Moonraker breweries. “I’m here 14 hours a day—might as well have something on tap that I like to drink,” he says with a grin. Sterner also shops the farmers’ markets in Penn Valley every Thursday and Nevada City every Saturday, and is impressed with his choices—the Sacramento region is called the farm-to-fork capital for a reason. But he is also hoping, as he settles into the Nevada County culinary scene, to find local farmers who will grow specific items for him. “We’ve only been here 10 months—maybe next season,” he says.
Sterner supports his new community too: fundraisers for local schools (Roots & Wings), benefit events for the Nevada County Food Hub (Bounty of the County), and winemaker’s dinners (with that neighbor across the road, Gray Pine Winery).
But you have to ask: How did the Michelin prodigy from Napa end up in the foothills east of Sacramento, farm-to-fork capital though it may be? Sterner says it was a gradual decision, based on a number of unfolding factors. His parents moved to Penn Valley in 2015—mostly to escape the expense and daily irritants of life in the Bay Area. Left with a small inheritance from Sterner’s grandfather, they were also looking for an investment. And every time he saw them, their sole complaint about their new home was having “nowhere exciting to go out to eat”—a grievance they shared with a growing number of Bay Area ex-pats. Finally, there was his own restlessness. “I wanted to do something different,” admits Sterner. “I worked my ass off for other people for 16 years—the fact that I can work these long hours for myself now is great.”
It is also a family affair. Together, his parents and siblings and he scouted out locations, finally settling last fall on this large, bright space on the corner of Commercial Avenue, just off Pleasant Valley Road, which they dressed up in elegant neutrals and clever design features (such as the restaurant’s slogan, painted overhead in the dining room: Eat. Smile. Repeat.). Since opening, the only family member yet to be pulled in is Sterner’s brother in Portland: His mother bakes bread and does dessert, his sisters are servers (one in town, one coming up from the Bay Area on weekends), as is his niece, and his father does the books. This frees Sterner up to do what he does best: cook.
What can we look for this fall? Always soup made with seasonal ingredients—in fact, it is called “Best Damn Soup of the Day” on the menu. “OK, I have to tell a story now,” Sterner says. “I worked in a bakery for a while and every single day, this old woman would come in for the soup. I mean, you’d see her coming up the walk and could just dish up the soup. And every single day, she would eat the soup, then come into the kitchen and say, ‘Who made the soup today? That is the best damn soup.’”
Sterner in general likes to offer familiar dishes, but kicked up a notch: like chicken wings with garlic and gochujang chile; a New York strip steak with chimichurri sauce; or a half-pound cheeseburger that is twice ground and served with house-made pickles on a fresh-baked brioche bun. He also puts equal effort into vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options—“not just tofu on a plate,” he laughs, but dishes like seasonal squash with an olive tapenade and fresh-made sourdough croutons.
Then there are his mother’s desserts, which he describes as creamy and rich, rather than “super sweet.” An example is her nectarine galette or a version of his grandfather’s chocolate mousse. Although be forewarned: the desserts also change frequently. “People were very pissed off when we took off the bread pudding,” says Sterner.
He describes the restaurant’s atmosphere as changeable too—in the sense it can fit any occasion. “If you want to come in after work, in a dirty work shirt, sit at the bar and get a beer, that’s fine,” he says. “But if you only get to go out somewhere nice once a year, let us know—we’ll print your name on the menu and create a memorable experience.”
But OK, last thing: Where did the name Twelve 28 Kitchen come from? “It’s my birthday,” he says. “It was my mom’s idea. And as it turned out, our grand opening last year ended up being on that date—wasn’t really planned that way.” So his restaurant’s anniversary, its name and his birthday are all interwoven into a place his family opened with him and helps to run. What will he do this year on Dec. 28, when he turns all of 33 years old? “We’ll have a big party here, probably some music,” he says.