Having navigated the pandemic and resultant worker shortage, chef Eric Foster’s new Windsor restaurant Grata is approaching the end of a successful — if unusual — first year.
Foster, a longtime professional chef who made a name for himself in the Sonoma County restaurant world as a corporate chef for Starks Reality Restaurants, opened the Italian eatery perched on the side of Windsor River Road in downtown Windsor with his wife Christina Keeney in October 2020 — just weeks before the holiday pandemic lockdowns.
But while opening a restaurant during a global pandemic may seem unlikely, Foster credits the free time he and his wife had as a driving factor to finally pulling the trigger on their shared dream.
Foster and Keeney jumped on the opportunity to open their own kitchen last September, despite the business-adverse climate at the time.
“We didn’t know what to expect, but we were going to give it our shot because we always wanted to,” Foster said. “It just seemed so improbable. This area is so competitive. We talked about it and dreamed about it, but in the long run we didn’t know if it would happen.”
Foster works as head chef and Keeney manages the front-of-house. The pair have had to deal with uncertainty and frequent disruptions to operation at all due to the pandemic, including problems like staffing and supply shortages.
Foster and Keeney incorporated the times during which they opened Grata into its concept. Foster’s passion for food is based in its ability to bring people and families together to enjoy one another’s company. And while that wasn’t always possible during various stages of the pandemic, he adapted the menu to consist of foods that would travel well when operating on a to-go only basis.
Similarly, Grata’s menu is oriented toward comfort foods like baked ziti and chicken parmesan — foods that would make people feel happy and safe.
“We were bringing comfort food when people needed it the most. It’s not pretentious. It’s just good old fashioned cooking,” Foster said.
But comfort food doesn’t mean basic and predictable to Foster. His menu items, many of which were adapted from dishes he made at home with Keeney or for friends, include twists on traditional Italian cuisine. For instance, the spaghetti carbonara features smoked salmon rather than pancetta, something Foster said will challenge his diners to think a little.
He also recommends the sea bass and ricotta gnudi, the latter of which he incorporated into his menu after a positive reception from friends at a gathering he and Keeney hosted.
Keeney has Italian ancestry, and her grandfather, Mario Meola, who until recently owned and operated Meola Vineyards in Healdsburg, helped them get the restaurant off the ground. Foster said choosing to open an Italian restaurant was partly in honor of him, but also because of the Italian customs around food, such as celebrating friends and family by eating together.
When outdoor dining resumed in January, Foster worked with the Windsor Chamber of Commerce and the Town of Windsor to expand Grata’s patio — tripling the amount of outdoor seating.
"Business kept rolling in,” Foster said. “It was easy to work with the city. They’ve always been supportive”
Even with indoor dining, however, staffing problems in particular have required some pivoting. Noticing his small staff was stretched thin and overworked, Foster decided to close on Tuesdays and only run lunch service on Saturdays and Sundays, giving his employees — and himself — a break.
“Our goal is to create a good work environment for our staff,” Foster said.
In employees, Foster primarily looks for good work ethic and teamwork. He’s looking for employees to join Grata’s six-person kitchen crew and is willing to train people without experience provided they have the right attitude.
Foster said one of the main pulls to the restaurant industry as a young man was the camaraderie and team-oriented work he experienced in kitchens.
He started his kitchen career in Seattle, where, after working as a busboy in a steakhouse, he was asked to start washing dishes. He slowly worked his way up in the back-of-house, bolstered by the positive team experience he had there.
“You get through the rush and have a good time. I always enjoyed that about the restaurant industry — just the team morale, how everybody has to come together to make it work,” he said.
After working as a cook for some years in Seattle, Foster got his bachelor’s in culinary arts at the Culinary Institute of America in 2007. He returned to Seattle before moving to Sonoma County with his son and then-wife to open BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Coddingtown Mall in 2010. Stark’s Restaurants caught his eye, and Foster worked with Mark Stark on his catering business while completing his 18-month commitment with BJ’s, before becoming the sous chef at Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar in Healdsburg.
The next stop on the career ladder was opening Bird & The Bottle in Santa Rosa as chef du cuisine, before ascending to work as a head corporate chef, overseeing multiple Stark’s kitchens.
It was at Stark’s that Foster met Keeney, who worked as a front-of-house manager wit the restaurant group. They got married three years ago.
For Foster, opening his own restaurant is the culmination of years of effort working his way up — the realization of a lifelong dream shared with his partner. That’s one of the reasons he named his restaurant “grata,” Italian for “grateful.” The other was to provide the community an opportunity to experience something to be grateful for — like sharing a meal with loved ones — even during the hard times of the pandemic.
“I think it’s important to be grateful,” Foster said. “A lot of it was the hard times that everybody was going through. It was a concept that I think was significant to everybody and anybody. For me, I work a lot of hours. I put a lot of my life into what I do, so it’s important to remember to be grateful for the opportunities we have — everything life has to offer. Even difficult times can be learning experiences. Time is precious, and you have to be grateful for all experiences.”
As for opening a stressful business with his wife during stressful times, Foster said it has been something they’ve had to build into the rapport of their relationship — and he’s grateful he and Keeney have each other for support.
“There’s always that love and support, and it helps having that at work. You know you can count on your soulmate to have your back,” Foster said.