Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine Business Review November 2007.
By Craig Smith
Sandy Lawrence doesn’t refer to her restaurant, Ubuntu, as a vegetarian restaurant. Like most characterizations, she thinks the term limiting. “Ubuntu is a celebration of vegetable inspired cuisine,” she said. Smiling, she adds, “Our food is well received by omnivores and herbivores alike.” Any characterization of Ubuntu as a restaurant is also going to fall short of the mark because it is also a world-class yoga center. Ubuntu offers over 50 classes a week to beginners and life long practioners alike. The roster of instructors includes both well-known local and international names. (In 2008, Sri Dharma Mittra, and Sharon Gannon & David Life, whose students include rock musician Sting, will be offering several workshops.)
Call Ubuntu what you will, but food critics have raved. Michael Bauer from the SF Chronicle said, “Not since Greens opened in 1979 has a restaurant like this held so much promise. Everything Fox produces has perfect pitch. Yet, what Fox is creating at Ubuntu is truly extraordinary. He’s taking vegetable-based cuisine to a new level.” And, Wine Spectator Online said, “… just one bite of Ubuntu’s vandouvan-spice cauliflower in a cast-iron pot might inspire you to get up and stand in warrior two pose. It’s that good.”
Food for Ubuntu is grown in their own organic, biodynamic gardens, under the direction of curator Jeff Dawson (formerly of COPIA.) Executive Chef Jeremy Fox (Rubicon and Manresa) and his team begin each morning walking through the gardens to choose the day’s fare. Ed Puccio (Plumpjack’s) is responsible for the great wine selection. Pastry chef Deanie Fox (Jeremy’s wife) finishes the perfect meal with the perfect dessert (including a chocolate offering that any serious chocoholic will recognize as to-die-for good.) A meal at Ubuntu should not be considered optional – it’s a must do.
Lawrence is a Miami native who moved to Napa in 1995. In her previous life, she developed conferences to educate investors where to do business in the world. Over a twelve-year period, she hosted 121 large seminars, attracting 2,000 to 6,000 attendees and 100 speakers at each event. The seminars were designed to show attendees the best places on the planet to work in the area of natural resources, and her clients were a virtual Who’s Who in the business world. It was challenging, fun, and required extremely long hours. Her yoga practiced allowed here to balance the travel and work schedule and improve the quality of her life. She sold her business in 2005 and completed her contract with the new owners in 2006.
In recent years, Lawrence invited friends over for what became a regular Thursday night potluck dinner and yoga practice. This Thursday night group was outgrowing her home studio when she and a group of visiting yogis walked down Main Street last summer and saw a For Lease sign in a window. Lawrence looked inside at the beautiful stone structure, and knew immediately she had found the place. She began an ambitious program to bring together a team of talented and experienced restaurant and yoga studio professionals to open Ubuntu.
Lawrence’s vision for Ubuntu is of a world-class destination for food and yoga. She has created a space that holds good energy, and people seem to enjoy just being there. “I love it when one of the staff says this is the best place they’ve ever worked,” said Lawrence. She has indeed created a gem.