A Chat with Chef Cole Dickinson – Layla, One Year Later

A Chat with Chef Cole
A Chat with Chef Cole Dickinson

Layla, our Mediterranean farm kitchen helmed by Executive Chef Cole Dickinson, just celebrated the completion of a successful inaugural year. With this big milestone in the rearview mirror, we took a moment to reflect on the last year (with all of its peaks and valleys) and herald the upcoming year, via a chat with Chef Cole. Chef talks about the evolution of his cooking style, sustainable farm partnerships, upcoming culinary collaborations, the importance of local clientele, cool new gadgets in the kitchen and more. Read on to learn more about Chef Cole, and Layla.

One recent guest shared: “A friend and I went to lunch at Layla and were incredibly pleased! The service was great and the food was spectacular. The decor is fresh, airy and beautifully done. I loved the Hibiscus Rose drink (a tea of sorts), so the chef gave me the recipe! (That was a surprise because a lot of chefs keep their creations to themselves!) Everything we ordered was honestly exceptional. Layla is definitely my favorite restaurant in Sonoma!” – TripAdvisor

A Chat with Chef Cole

It’s been just over a year since you opened Layla, lovingly referred to as a “Mediterranean farm kitchen.” Have you evolved the restaurant’s culinary style or the signature menu items over the course of this inaugural year? If so, what has inspired the evolution?

Inspiration can come in many forms. I feel as though our chef team inspires one another with our varied backgrounds. We are also constantly on the hunt for new farms to work with and new ideas to fuse with more traditional ideas.

What new piece of kitchen equipment are you most excited about? A little birdie told us you have a new smoker…

We are very excited about the smoker. We’re having it handmade in Texas right now. It will use reverse flow technology. This will give us the opportunity to expand on our menu incorporating more regional American food into our Mediterranean cuisine.

You cook primarily Mediterranean cuisine by profession. What do you cook by personal preference — what’s your go-to culinary genre at home?

At home I cook mostly fresh, healthy food for myself and my family. We have a very large garden and I’m able to pull vegetables and greens from it every night I’m home and have the time to cook. Pair that with some quickly grilled grass-finished beef or slow-smoked sustainably raised pork, and we are set.

Over the past year, you’ve drawn a beloved and devoted local clientele, which is somewhat unusual and highly impressive for a hotel restaurant — especially one in a food and wine mecca. What’s your secret to appealing to Sonoma locals?

I hope our secret has been consistency. If we are consistent in offering delicious food in a timely manner with a friendly team of service professionals, I think that would appeal to almost anyone.  We like to carry ourselves in a professional and thoughtful manner while at the same time we like to think that everything we do is very approachable.

You’re an avid cyclist and long-time participant in Chefs Cycle benefitting No Kid Hungry. Are you participating again this year, and how do you find time to train?

I was getting ready for this year’s Chefs Cycle when it was canceled. You can bet I will be ready for next year. I am still riding 100+ miles a week. If you don’t think you have enough time in the day, you just have to wake up earlier! I try to be home from my rides when my kids wake up so I can spend an hour or so with them before I head to the kitchen.

You collaborated with Chef Teague Moriarty of Michelin-starred Sons & Daughters SF for a special “Layla & Friends” dinner last year. Which chef(s) would you like to cook with next?

The next chef that we are going to have as our special guest is Michael Voltaggio. I consider him to be my professional mentor and someone that I really enjoy cooking with.

What’s your favorite new item on the Layla menu?

Our watermelon salad is most definitely my favorite new dish. It is served with a whipped feta and toasted shallot, coriander and sesame seed. The watermelon is first marinated with basil. I have separation anxiety just thinking about melon season ending.

Working with local farms was a big discussion at the beginning, has that continued?  What farms are you working with for which products?

We are still working with some of the same farms like Flatbed Farm in Glen Ellen, and we have added a couple new farms as well. We are currently working on an exchange program with Lola farm here in Sonoma, where we provide them with our vegetable trim that they feed their pigs with. We then buy that pork for our dishes at Layla. We’ve also partnered with Kicking Bull Farm — an organic and biodynamic farm located just 10 minutes away in the Carneros wine region.

You helm three different culinary outlets at MacArthur Place — four if you include poolside dining. These offerings range from casual grab-and-go (The Porch) to upscale comfort food (The Bar) to fine dining (Layla). Which is your true niche? Where are you most comfortable cooking, or do you enjoy playing at all settings?

I’d say fine dining (Layla) is probably my most comfortable niche considering that has been a majority of my background.

You provided great tips this spring on foraging 10 edible “weeds” local to northern California. Can you recommend any wild foods that can be foraged during the summer? Do any of these items make a cameo in your current Layla menu?

Currently, wild plums are going crazy. We have actually foraged over 20 gallons of wild plums that we are utilizing for multiple applications such as wild plum jam for the loukamades dessert. Near the Russian River there are also a myriad of blackberry bushes that can be foraged. And as most Californians are familiar, wild fennel can be seen sprouting everywhere as well as wild figs in the Napa hills.

Once guests have experienced Layla, where do you suggest they try next while visiting Sonoma?

Assuming that most of our guests will be visiting Sonoma Square at some point in their visit, I highly recommend Taub Outpost. The chef team is executing thoughtful and delicious food adjacent to Layla. Another honorable mention would be Oso for deliciously comforting meals and Sonoma standards such as fresh oysters on the half shell.

We invite you to join us at Layla with our summer menus served on the patio with seasonal flavors in both the food and drinks.

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