This is the first article in a new section called “Pryme Spotlight”, in which we will feature remarkable women who have made a difference in the world.
For our Spotlight debut, we have chosen to feature Stephanie Rastetter, chef and proprietor of Water Street Bistro.
Although women have traditionally been celebrated for cooking in the home, men have been given more attention in the world of professional chefs. The hours are long and the work is physically demanding, and it is hard for many women to balance family and work. According to a post by Addie Broyles in The Feminist Kitchen, there are also the sociological differences between men and women which inform their choices:
“When men chefs achieved status, the natural next step was to start a culinary empire of multiple restaurants, cookbooks and media exposure. Yet, women are described as shying away from this type of success — they cook from the heart and are motivated by the caring act of feeding people, not personal ego or financial success.”
Stephanie Rastetter inspires us with more than 30 years dedication and continued success in a traditionally male-dominated profession, combined with her strong commitment to fostering community.
At Water Street Bistro, Stephanie is running a restaurant business, has raised a family, and is using her culinary expertise to turn out exquisite dishes every day.
The Making of an Exceptional Dining Experience: Stephanie Rastetter, Proprietor and Chef of Water Street Bistro
In the warm sunlight of a northern California autumn afternoon, with a light breeze coming off the river, I am sitting at a table at my favorite restaurant, Water Street Bistro, with my mother and my daughter. There is no place I would rather be at this moment. Lunch is served, a rainbow array: coq au vin and baby potatoes, a fresh crab salad with yellow and red beets, red piquillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, and a side of arugula salad with lemon dressing.
For Stephanie Rastetter, excellence is not a word, but a creed. She can make even the most ordinary dish extraordinary. Her philosophy: she prepares food not only for the love of cooking but for more generous goals of community and sharing. We have all experienced those moments, when with friends and family, in the afterglow of a delicious meal, we have felt a wonderful sense of goodwill and conviviality. Food is life-giving, and mealtime is a time to stop whatever you are doing and be nourished.
Stephanie was influenced early in life by her mother, a strong and adored figure, who believed in the unifying power of family gatherings around food. Everyone in her mother’s large entourage, (including 5 daughters, occasional relatives, and quite often her daughter’s friends) were required to be present for meals. They usually had a minimum of 10 people at the dinner table. Her mother‘s natural sense for how to combine foods and flavors always made their meals wholesome and delicious. And as each of her daughters grew older, they were assigned a job in the kitchen, whether it was baking, food prep, table setting, or washing dishes.
Stephanie became a chef because, as she says, “I love to cook and I love to feed people.”
Early in her career, Stephanie worked together with some of the top chefs in the country: Brad Ogden at Camden Place in Union Square, Regina Charbonneau at Regina’s, and Daniel Patterson at Babette’s. When Babette’s closed their Napa restaurant, Stephanie moved to Cafe La Haye in Sonoma.
She had worked there for six months, when a little coffee shop in Petaluma, where she used to go with her Dad, offered to sell her their business. It had a lovely location on a small side street by the river, close to the center of town. Stephanie described her longtime secret wish, “I had a dream of having my own place in the style of a great French bistro. French onion soup, nice wine, charcuterie. Where you feel the love in the food, the quality in the food (what else do you need?)… I wanted to have a place where you could be a foodie— and bring your Mom.”
The timing was perfect; with two small daughters, it seemed a great idea to open a family business close to home. As she puts it, “I didn’t choose it; it chose me”.
And so Water Street Bistro was born.
The feeling inside her restaurant is distinctly warm and casual, painted in yellows and reds with accents of turquoise blue. The furnishings are eclectic, with references to a bohemian Paris, and the walls are decorated with local artists’ original work. Outside is a patio ringed with potted flowers and small trees, and there are colorful umbrellas over the tables.
The view is of the turning basin of the Petaluma river, a wooden pedestrian bridge, yachts parked at the dock, where at the turn of the century, the riverboats used to stop to unload their wares. You may see kayakers out on an adventure, or long-legged waterbirds on the shore, or flocks of birds flying overhead in V-shape formation against a blue California sky.
Stephanie decides on her specials by the particular inspiration she feels each morning. She makes everything she serves fresh every day and she locally sources the highest quality ingredients. There is integrity in every step of her process and you taste that in every bite.
I have on several occasions, introduced friends to this restaurant, and I can attest to the many times I have heard “Best I’ve ever had!” “This is the best crab chowder I have ever had!” or “The best mushroom soup!” “This is the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten!” “This is the best braised chicken I’ve ever had!” or “…The best salmon I’ve ever tasted.”
That is because Stephanie Rastetter offers her best — her food, her space, her attention to detail; it’s a labor of love.
“How you receive people is an extension of you.” she explains. She believes people should set aside time for their meals, and “stop, converse, enjoy each other.”
She tells me how hard it is sometimes, “The work in a restaurant is relentless. It is everyday, and you are here when you are not here. I come in at 3:15 A.M. .and leave at 4:15 in the afternoon. But I am doing what I love. The experiences in life are worth more to me than the things in my life.”
“I love to go out to eat. I wish there were more places like this that were not mine!… I would rather save for a good meal once in a while, than to go out more often and be served food that is mediocre. It is hard when you go to a restaurant, spend your entire budget for the month, and you don’t feel anything. Then you leave with buyer’s remorse.”
Her advice to restaurants: “It doesn’t matter what is on the menu. Give me something you care about, choose great wine to go with the dish, take great care with the meal.”
That is why, once a month, Stephanie serves a prix-fixe dinner. You must reserve a spot well in advance, because it is always sold out. The menu is kept secret until you arrive. It usually consists of a several course meal, each course carefully paired with the correct wine, and a delicious dessert. On one such occasion, we were serenaded by a classical Flamenco guitarist, on another, an accordionist.
Now seventeen years later, the restaurant is sustained by her vision, to provide a place where her customers can have the experience of a 5-star restaurant at an affordable price. Needless to say, she has a very loyal following, and is always busy, open most days from early in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon.
“I love my customers, love my relationships with my customers. Every day someone says, ‘I want to thank you. That was such a great meal.’ Because we care that they enjoy it. We put ourselves into making it a great experience. And they appreciate getting a good meal at a price they can afford.”
It is her life’s gift to us: to offer an experience to remember, an event shared with a friend, partner, lover— or as Stephanie Rastetter describes it, “to have a moment.”