At the start of spring, a gaggle of gays from San Francisco descend like fairies on the quaint countryside towns of Bodega Bay, Occidental, Sebastopol, Forestville, Duncan Mills, and…well, you get the point. We come for the innovative and fresh farm-to-table cuisine, for the cinematic landscapes of vineyard covered mountains, the warm sunny weather, and to pick up our spring wine shipments (you know us gays) from dog-friendly wineries that produce some of the best-value Pinot Noirs in the world. But of all the picturesque towns surrounded by redwood forest groves, bunches of grapes and roadside farm stands; there is one in particular that holds a special place in my heart, Guerneville. It’s a small town sandwiched between Santa Rosa and the coast, straddling the Russian River off the 116 freeway. And no, my love affair with this community has nothing to do with the fact that it’s the official host of the annual Lazy Bear Weekend, which (unfortunately) I’ve never been to. Instead, I find I’m drawn to Guerneville’s slow paced bohemian pulse that flows all year round like the river that runs through it.
In the heart of downtown Guerneville you’ll find artists studios, shops selling antique housewares, and some of the best restaurants in the region. Which is where we found Crista Luedtke, chef and owner of a bustling food and hospitality empire. We were fortunate enough to be renting a home in town for the Women’s Weekend and got to try most of the fruits of her labor. We ate dinner at her restaurant boon eat & drink, and the following morning we enjoyed her mother’s delicious buttermilk biscuits (one of each!) with some delicious iced coffees from big bottom market (yep, that’s what it’s called), her vintage retro hip wine shop and gourmet deli.
And since the sandwiches and side salads looked so good, we grabbed a little bit of everything to-go for a winery picnic a little later. Next time we’ll have to stay at boon hotel & spa, her boutique vacation getaway just a block off the main strip.
We had a chance to sit down with Crista Luedtke to pick her brain about where she’s going and where she’s been. And here’s what she had to say. We threw in some photos of our dinner, breakfast, and lunch for a little bit of color.
boon eat & drink in Guerneville, CA
Chilled tri-colored organic beet salad, redwood hill goat cheese, toasted hazelnuts, mint, citrus vinaigrette
EPJ: Where’s home and what was the food scene where you grew up?
CL: I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin called West Bend. It’s where they made crock-pots and popcorn poppers, etc. I was born into the food scene of a full service “supper club” that my parents bought from my dad’s folks. It was full on salad bar, steaks and prime rib, bands on the weekends, lots of Old Fashioneds and Manhattans being poured. I remember standing on milk crates behind the bar making drinks at an early age. It was quite the intro.
Flash fried brussel sprouts, chili, lemon, garlic and olive oil
EPJ: It’s hard to run a single business, let alone three! Then again, you’re living in one of the most chill communities in the country….so what (if anything) keeps you up at night?
CL: Yes, three is a lot! But my creative mind still has so many projects that I want to do and I think would be such a compliment to the area and to my brand. I am up at night planning, branding, strategizing on new concepts that I will either do someday or that I want to help someone else launch. I love the newness and creativity piece. It’s a total rush!
Roasted broccolini, toasted bread crumbs, olive oil and garlic
EPJ: Who are the culinary mentors or the epicurean professionals you respect and who inspire you?
Grilled Monterey calamari salad, arugula, butter beans, fennel, blood oranges citrus vinaigrette. This dish was garnished with rough-chopped Castelvetrano olives. Those are the bright green olives with a soft buttery taste and were the perfect compliment to the spicy arugula and brightness of the blood oranges. Highly recommend you get at least one order for the table.
EPJ: I know you like to travel the world and eat good food and drink delicious wines….so what’s your favorite destination and type of cuisine?
CL: I am in love with Italy! I love the simplicity of the food and the depth of flavors. The country and the people… amazing! I could also eat Mexican food every day!! Much of my youth was spent working in Mexican restaurants that my Mom was a partner in.
Liberty Farms duck breast over creamy mushrooms polenta, cherry mostarda. The duck was a perfectly pink medium rare with a salty fat cap. The richness of the fowl played off the sugary tartness of the cherry compote. But the real star of this dish was actually the creamy polenta. Sure it had a pound of butter and some salty cheese mixed in, but that’s not what made it amazing. I couldn’t get over the fact that the smooth starchy side had this subtle note of scrambled eggs…I know…that doesn’t sound special at all. But I guarantee it, each bite brought just a little more warmth and comfort to my soul.
EPJ: “Try anything once” a philosophy you live by or no?
CL: Yeah why not! I’m a risk taker. I think you have to experiment with things in order to really dial in what works. You can always make changes. I just think it’s important to stick to your core philosophy.
Spring lamb stew, garamasala couscous with apricot and currants, preserved lemon, mint, and pistachio pesto. The flavors were spot-on, but the lamb meat was a little tough and we thought it would have been better if the dish were just vegetarian with large carrots, figs, dates, zucchini, and potatoes or something. That being said, I licked the bowl.
EPJ: Is there anything you won’t eat? If so, what is it and why?
CL: I’m not the biggest fan of weird meats. I will try anything once but I’m not keen on tripe. I just can’t get past it. I’ll keep trying though.
Seared halibut over fennel braised Iacopi Farms butter beans with a dollop of basil pistou.
EPJ: I know “Big Bottom” is the original name of the Guerneville community. Something about the large base of the redwoods or so I’ve been told. Do you think the name had anything to do with the town becoming an LGBT weekend getaway destination? I mean….Lazy Bear weekend…now we’re talking “big bottoms”!
CL: Well I couldn’t resist the double meaning I’m not gonna lie. The truth though is that I was hiking in the woods with my friend and biz partner at the market, Michael Volpatt, and we were inspired by how amazing this area is and that I wanted this market to really honor this town and the roots so I did an archive search on the Russian River and came across all this historic information that explained the evolution of the logging town and the names that followed and I was like, “that’s it! We gotta do this!” Michael, a PR exec, was like “no way” at first, and then we talked more and I convinced him that it was genius and it was! It’s been so good and it has been a PR dream.
And for dessert, we went with the classic boon brownie, e-guittard chocolate, balsamic-cabernet reduction (when in Rome!), sea salt with a side of fresh whipped cream. Delicious!
EPJ: You and your partner are working together on three business ventures: boon eat & drink (the restaurant), Big Bottom Market (shop, bakery, and quick serve eatery), and Boon Hotel & Spa….who would you say is more “front of the house” and who likes to stay behind the scenes in back?
CL: Actually to clear this up, I own both boon eat + drink and the hotel 100%. I only have business partners on the market venture. I partner with Michael Volpatt and Kate Larkin who are primarily a PR firm in NY and SF. They are mostly hands off from a day-to-day standpoint and they try to focus on leading the PR charge for the market and have done an amazing job. I do the front of the house stuff and merchandising, operations, etc. I have a secret weapon though, my Mom. She has been helping me with all my ventures since I opened and I couldn’t do it without her. She’s my right hand.
Big Bottom Market in Guerneville, CA
Curry chicken salad with mixed greens, chicken salad, spiced pepitas, & cotija with watermelon radishes.
EPJ: Where do you see yourself and your empire in five years?
CL: I’m not sure, but I do know that I want to spend more time with my love and my family, and more time enjoying life so it will take some delicate balancing of things. I am excited to keep it going and growing, and to keep being inspired by the people that work with me while inspiring others to create and take risks of their own. There’s a coffee table cookbook in the works and a few other hot ideas on the burner so we will see…
The Lumber Jack sandwich: roast beef, jack, arugula, shallot jam, and horseradish.
EPJ: People are saying Guerneville today is what Sonoma was 15 years ago….do you agree? If so, do you think Guerneville is on the verge of a boom and that it’s going to lose its small town charm? Or do you think it’s only gonna get better?
CL: I think its only gonna get better. And, the small town charm runs so deep it will always be here. It’s such a fun quirky town and that’s gonna be hard to lose, and besides, no one wants it to go. I love it here! It really has changed a lot in the last six years when I began the hotel. It’s been quite an evolution.
The Parson Jones sandwich: turkey, Havarti, arugula, aioli, and jalapeno jam.
EPJ: What did you do before becoming a restaurateur, hotel owner, and sandwich maker?
CL: Ha! Well, lots and I still do other things believe it or not. I was a regional sales manger in biotech for nine years covering the entire western US. I left that career in 2006 and became a mortgage broker so that I could have the time and resources to execute my dream of the hotel and restaurant. I still actually have a very active mortgage business believe it or not. I do it during the early part of the day and work from home mostly. Right now I am actually sitting in the window of the market dealing with issues for the businesses while handling mortgage questions. It’s a fun combo. Both are a break from the other so it doesn’t feel like too much and it uses all the parts of my brain. At some point I may turn over the mortgage business but I love my clients and I am 100% referral based so it works for me.
Roasted veggie sandwich: roasted squash, mushrooms, and fennel, herbed goat cheese, red pepper aioli and arugula.
EPJ: What’s it like making your own honey? Do you actually get in there and charm the bees?
CL: We don’t, and I wish we did! We actually private label with great local producers who know it well. We leave that up to the experts but it’s been so fun learning about the process and how different flavor profiles can be.
Cauliflower and kale salad and Israeli couscous with dried fruits.
Blackberry buttermilk biscuits.
EPJ: What single item that you produce or serve across your various outfits are you most excited and proud of?
CL: I think the Brussels sprouts. People talk about them and crave them and get so mad when we don’t have them when they’re out of season. They smell up the whole restaurant as we walk through with them. They are like crack! So good! They will be in the cookbook for sure but they really aren’t the same unless you have them at boon.
Strawberry rhubarb biscuits.
EPJ: What does it mean to you to be a sustainable foodie?
CL: I like knowing where food comes from and I like growing it on site too to learn more about the nuances of it. I also want to partner with local growers and producers to keep it close and support my neighbors. We love to barter too and do it often. It’s like the old days.
Savory buttermilk biscuits with cheese and thyme. These were my favorite!
EPJ: What’s your favorite restaurant in the world and why?
CL: Ohhh that’s a tough one. My favorite restaurant in the area to frequent often is Frances– Melissa rocks. Her food is so clean, simple and elevated at the same time. My most interesting meal was Arzak, a 3 Michelin star restaurant in Spain- smoke, foam, molecular gastronomy based. The most decadent and well paired, French Laundry; not a detail missed.
Peaches and ginger cream biscuits. What’s so great about their sweet biscuits is that they’re not too sweet if you can believe it. Just a hint of natural sugars coming from the fresh ingredients like the ripe fruit.
EPJ: Rumor has it you put your mom to work and she slaves away in the mornings and bakes your delicious savory and sweet biscuits….what’s it like working with your family?
CL: I have been working with my mom in the restaurant biz since I was a teenager working as a hostess for her. We fight sometimes, but its part of the fun. And at the end of the day, I’m the boss. LOL! But really, she’s amazing and she makes the best biscuits in the world!!! It is a blessing to have her here and we work well together. She totally gets me and she knows what I want when I say, “I need it to be like this or that.” It’s like she is inside my brain sometimes. It amazes me what she gets done in a day, she’s super human and I guess I know where I get my drive and work ethic. I have to figure out my exit strategy around her retirement. Just kidding.
Banana chocolate biscuits.
EPJ: Boon this and Boon that….is it true the name “Boon” comes from a dog you’ve rescued? If so, what’s the story there?
CL: Boon is a sweet little rescue pitbull-mix. My ex-wife and I got him 9.5 years ago in the Castro at an adoption clinic from Milo foundation. His paperwork said he was found in Boonville, Anderson Valley and rescued by animal control. I didn’t want a dog but she begged and begged and he was so stinking cute I couldn’t say no. We were trying to change his name from what they had given him, which was Oreo Cookie (so not fitting, not even close) and I said, “What if we name him Boon?” and she said, “look it up it means something good, but I cant remember.” So there it was in wiki: boon, n. a gift or blessing bestowed upon one in response to a request. That’s it!!! He was our Boon! We fell in love with him and the meaning and it naturally made so much sense to me to form a brand around it. The hotel would be a boon to those who come, a boon for the town that was struggling etc. It was perfect and from there the dream and the empire evolved. I even have the word boon tattooed on my forearm written in Thai spelling.
Big Bottom Market cheese case.
Mushroom and spinach and cheese savory bread pudding.