French Blue is a new restaurant slated to open next month in the former Vanderbilt’s store space in downtown St. Helena. The team behind this new restaurant includes chef Philip Wang (Fog City Diner, Mason’s, Carneros Inn), noted wine country architect Howard Backen (Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle, Press, Kokkari, Evvia, Il Fornaio, Meadowood) and his interior designer wife Lori Backen, entrepreneur Leslie Rudd (Dean & DeLuca, Press), and Stanley Morris (Teatro ZinZanni, Il Fornaio, Prego and Stars). The Backens and Rudd bought the Vanderbilt building and the restaurant is named after the blue doors that graced that store for five decades. Howard Backen decided to put his offices in the back of the building, which sounds like it will make it easy for him to check on the breakfast, lunch and dinner service at the restaurant.
A friendship dating back to 1987 with the Backens is what helped bring Stanley Morris, 56, to the project. Morris worked with Howard Backen when they morphed Il Fornaio from a baking company into a restaurant company. Morris was Managing Partner at the Hapuku Lodge & Tree Houses in Kaikoura, New Zealand until last year, when he returned to the Bay Area to manage what is said to be a temporary closure of the Teatro ZinZanni food and retail operation in San Francisco.
Morris said that the Backens are “pretty fantastic. We ran into each other after I was away, working for four years. It was clear that they needed someone who knew how to run a restaurant for French Blue, and I tossed my hat in the ring.”
French Blue will be the twelfth restaurant opening for Morris, who has three decades of hospitality experience. Morris said, “I know what it takes to make a restaurant great: a lot of love and attention.” Morris lives three blocks from the restaurant, because his goal was to “leave the car in the driveway and walk to work. French Blue is a very intimate project and business to be involved in. I wanted to live the St. Helena, Napa lifestyle.” Bay Area Bites caught up with Morris, who has considered San Francisco his home base since 1981.
Who is your mentor? Larry Mindel, without a doubt. I worked with him for twelve years and will be eternally grateful for everything he taught me personally and professionally. He is an extraordinary man. I was 25 when I first met him and very young. I learned from him a lot about values, ethics, integrity, consistency and authenticity.
Your professional life has been exclusively around hospitality. How did that happen? I grew up in the Sierra foothills around food and farming. My grandparents were fruit ranchers. I was a classic child of the fifties: fresh food and then have a Swanson’s TV dinner from my mom at the drop of a hat. In my family, we’d be planning our next meal as we were eating. My first job was at Baskin Robbins at age sixteen.
In college, I travelled around the world for a semester. I realized I had spent my money on food instead of on things or trinkets. I was smitten. When I headed to Eugene, for the University of Oregon, I got a job at the Excelsior Café. Both Doug Biederbeck and I got our start there. I waited tables when I was 21, and was a manager before I graduated college.
Teatro ZinZanni in San Francisco had to close and move due to the America’s Cup. What’s going on these days? We will reopen at some future date, but it’s up in the air. The city has identified a site on the Embarcadero for us, and it will be a permanent building for us. Hopefully, it’ll happen by the end of the year. It’s a big effort. Everyone’s working on it and I’m hopeful that it will happen.
Where do you get your inspiration? Two things: travel and the Bay Area. I’ve been really lucky to travel the world for business and pleasure. I’ve been to Italy, Kyoto, Southeast Asia, Singapore and other international spots. Experiencing new food in other countries keeps me inspired.
The Bay Area is a confluence of land, politics and social awareness. I like to tell the story of when Larry Mindel and I opened Prego in 1981. We got radicchio from Treviso in Italy in a Styrofoam box. I think Chow and Prego were the only restaurants using radicchio back then. All of the sudden, there was this incredible germination and the farm to table movement kicked in. My mother in Oregon soon had radicchio on the shelf at her grocery store.
What are your favorite food spots? A stellar example to what I aspire to in my work is Nopa. It’s an exceptional restaurant on all levels. The hospitality is sincere and genuine and quite effusive. The quality of food and style of cooing is easy on the pocketbook and body. They’re tied to the farming community. I always take people to Nopa to talk about it, look at it, chew it up, and eat.
Nopa has one of the best cocktail bars in northern California. There’s an extraordinary bartender there, Kitty. I fell in love with her. She knows I drink bourbon, and like it up. I started exploring rye and odd Kentucky bourbons I’d never heard of because of Kitty. I go there for a new drink with Kitty.
They have probably the best burger in the bay area (laughs). Being in the restaurant business, I’d be up and done and wired at 11pm at night after Teatro ZinZanni every night. When Nopa opened, I could go somewhere that is still happening and have a great meal and wind down. The restaurant industry folks could walk there at 11:30pm at night.
When I lived across the way from the Ferry Building, I’d shop there every day for eight months. It was one of the greatest luxuries of my life. I feel blessed to have been a consumer and neighbor there. It was really exciting, and put me in touch with produce and products.
The Chez Panisse Cafe is a benchmark for great cooking. After all these years I never tire of it because it’s the kind of food I like to eat every day. People make fun of it, but getting a plate of the most perfect seasonal dates, almonds, cheese or beautiful Mandarin oranges rocks my world. That’s what I want to have after dinner. I love that there’s always something to enjoy in that vein without enjoying a piece of pie.
Do you have a significant other? How long have you been together? I’m married to Charles Trapolin, and we’ve been together for thirteen years. He’s a fine artist-sculptor-painter from a big family in New Orleans, where they’ve lived for six generations. We had a wedding with no government involved. Then when Gavin Newsom started issuing marriage licenses, we went online and got an appointment. We got married at the top of the rotunda stairs by a judge in her late sixties. We were the first couple she married that day, and she said she’d waited thirty years to do it. Then the state annulled us. Later, we got married again.
What is your favorite meal to have with your family? Charles and I make roast chicken.
Slow cooked red beans and rice with ham hocks is another favorite because Charles’s heritage is in New Orleans. He taught me how to make red beans and rice. It took a long time for me to get the green light from him to do it.
I make homemade tomato sauce when tomatoes are in season. I do the tomato sauce by hand: peel the tomatoes, and seed them. It’s in the Italian style, with diced carrot, onion and celery as the base.
What is your guiltiest food pleasure? No, I never feel guilty when I’m eating. That’s not true! I went off donuts because I had a real serious problem with donuts in the eighties. Recently I’ve been eating donuts because there’s this really great donut shop in downtown Napa. I’m an old fashioned cake donut guy.
Any other news? I am completely and utterly glued to St. Helena. Enough said.