Bagels & Lox & Biscuits & Gravy:
An Ex-New Yorker Adapts to northern California
By Jonah Raskin
Samantha Ramey, 31, grew up and came of age with bagels, cream cheese and lox, though she also dined with her family at restaurants like Peter Luger, the famed Brooklyn steak house, and Le Cirque, the legendary Manhattan French restaurant. Her husband, Ryan, 34, grew up and came of age with country biscuits and gravy, though from the time he was a small boy he also baked cookies and made lunch for himself and his brother.
She’s an ex-New Yorker who calls herself “a secular Jew.” He’s a dyed-in the wool Californian who was raised, he says, “without any specific religion at all.” Together they own and operate the Estero Café in Valley Ford (population 126), that’s about as far away as one can get from Times Square—2, 921 miles give or take a mile or two—and still be within the boundaries of the continental U.S.
Valley Ford is a strange place for a New York Jew to live and work. But Jews have been in stranger places and have adapted to them.
Away from her parents, and not near a Jewish community, a N.Y.-style deli, or a rabbi of any kind, Samantha has reached inside and reinvented the Jewish mother, which means that she feeds people and loves to do so.
Indeed, she does to travelers and tourists who drift into the Estero Café on Highway 1 what restaurant owners and cooks did to her as a young girl who accompanied her father when he made his deliveries. Still, these days she’s more likely to serve tomato soup than chicken soup, and also more likely to use her husband’s homemade hot sauce than horseradish. She also loves the sour pickles from the Sonoma Brinery in Healdsburg that rival those from any N.Y. deli.
“They’re the best in the world,” she says.
Ryan designed the menu that offers hamburgers, fries and shakes (vanilla and chocolate) that could be on the menu of a café in New York. Samantha orders the uncommon meats, dairy products and vegetables, almost all of them local and organic, from places with names like Straus Home Ranch, Stemple Creek Ranch and Worker Bee Farm. The ingredients make the burgers, fries and shakes taste different than they would taste almost anywhere else. Call the terroir.
Ryan says that his wife is “a maven when it comes to purveyors.” Indeed, she finds the best and orders in bulk—a whole cow, for example, from Twisted Horn.
There are no bagels on the menu at the Estero Café and no lox and no cream cheese, either. Alas, until recently, there were no bagels and there was no lox in Sonoma County.
But the Estero Café offers biscuits made with flour, water and baking powder and there is gravy made with butter, cream, milk, bone broth and Devil’s Gulch pork sausages.
The short order cook, Benny Valdez, 45, can’t make enough biscuits or enough gravy to satisfy hungry customers, some of them farmers and ranchers who live near-by, and who sit at the counter, or at one of the tables, and have breakfast and lunch seven days a week.
“We often sell all the biscuits we make,” Ryan says.
That doesn’t bother Valdez who is as passionate about food as Ryan and Samantha.
“Cooking isn’t boring,” he says. “It’s a pleasure to make food for people.”
That was clear from eating a cup of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch one day, and then for breakfast on another occasion the huevos rancheros (eggs over easy) with homemade ranchero sauce. The huevos rancheros almost looked too good to eat, but I was ravenous and the eggs, beans, ranchero sauce and tortilla didn’t stand a chance. Still, I didn’t wolf down the food, but ate slowly and savored every single bite.
Samantha and Ryan both inherited the work ethic: she got it from her father, who owned a fleet of trucks and delivered meat to restaurants on Long Island; Ryan got it from his mother, a single parent who worked as a nurse, and who encouraged her son’s flair for cooking.
Samantha’s grandfather amassed the fleet of trucks and built the company in the twentieth-century. Not surprisingly, he only transported kosher products. Samantha’s father gave up the kosher only, and sold cheeses and cuts of beef, though not much pork.
“I traveled with my dad,” Samantha says. “I really liked going into restaurants through the kitchen, not the front door. While he took care of business, I’d have a bowl of chicken soup and watch what was going on. Kitchens were exciting places to be. In New York they tend to be loud with lots of yelling; here less so.”
Ryan agrees that kitchens are culinary hot spots, in more ways than one, through he has spent a lot of time in pastures where he has raised pigs, and later slaughtered them. (Some of his neighbors prefer the word “harvested.”) There’s lots of pork on the Estero Cafe menu, including bacon and sausages from DG Langley Farms not far away.
Samantha has lived and worked in California since 2010, and, while she has grown to enjoy biscuits and gravy, she still likes the foods that she knew as a girl.
“When I go to New York now, one of the first things I do is go to Bagel Boss and buy a dozen bagels, along with cream cheese and lox and then take it home and eat there,” she said. “Here, in northern California, nobody really does that, and almost nobody buys a single slice of pizza, either, and walks away and eats it. If you do, they look at you funny.”
Ryan does not look at Samantha funny. A convert to some of her culinary ways, as she is a convert to some of his, he buys bagels by the dozen when he’s in New York and brings them home to California. Ryan would have to drive thirty-minutes or so from Valley Ford to find a bagel bakery, though even then they would not be baked the old-fashioned way, and certainly not with New York water, which, he insists, makes them chewy. That’s the way he likes them.
“It’s the pH that makes the difference,” he says.
Unlike his wife, who attended Nassau Community College and San Diego State University, Ryan didn’t go to college, though he studied cooking at the now defunct Santa Rosa Junior College Culinary Program.
“I’ve been a full-time cook since I was 15,” he says. “I learned Spanish and Asian cuisine by doing it, and, since the age of ten, I’ve grown my own herbs and vegetables.”
Ryan and Samantha met at a tapas restaurant in San Diego. He was the executive chef and the manager of the farm where much of the produce for the kitchen. She applied for a job; he interviewed her and fell in love with her. After they were married they moved to Sonoma County and started a catering business. Their four-month old baby, Ivy, is named after Samantha’s grandfather, Irwin.
The Rameys are in the right place and at the right time for local, organic produce, and for the latest foodie wave that has swept across northern California, even as the terrain has suffered from drought, floods and fires over the past six years.
“This place is a cornucopia for food,” Ryan says. Samantha agrees.
“There’s definitely an obsession with eating and cooking around here,” she says.
The Sonoma County chapter of Slow Food International recently awarded the Estero Café a “Snail or Approval” which means that it’s “good, fair and clean.”
Ryan doesn’t do as much cooking as he once did. He’s studying soils and aims to become a biological soil consultant. Still, he enjoys making “Breakfast Soup,” which has brought him fame in Valley Ford. The ingredients include: bone broth, bacon, potatoes, onion, kale and mushrooms. As long as customers order it he’ll keep on making it.
“These days, it often seems that Americans dream of starting a company, making it successful and then selling to a big corporation and retiring,” Ryan says. “That’s not what Samantha and I are all about.”
Samantha says that when she first arrived in California, she was running away from New York, but that “now, I’m bringing New York to Valley Ford a little bit at a time.” She adds, “Before long our Reuben sandwich will be back on the menu, after a break, and this March, Ryan and I will celebrate Passover together with Ivy.”
Jonah Raskin has written biographies of Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman. He’s also the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California.