In previous posts about “The Continuing Saga of nativenapkin” I recalled how I had finally made my move from Prep Cook to the Hot Line. I had transitioned from an almost invisible member of the crew to a bona fide member of the restaurant social elite. As a cook on the hot line, I partied with the Big Boys, got laid a lot, and could make waiters cower in fear. Granted these are not the best characteristics for a team player whose only interest should be providing fine food and service to our guests; but as a 20 year-old line cook my investment in guest satisfaction ended when the plates left the window. I could give a rat’s ass if the guy’s coffee or water was re-filled, or if the dining room was clean and comfortable. In my mind, the food was all-important; servers were just there as “plate porters,” a necessary evil because someone had to bring the food from kitchen to table. In my mind, these people would sit on over-turned boxes at picnic tables to eat the perfection that emanated from the Hot Line pick-up window. It wasn’t until years later that I would begin to see the Big Picture and back down from my mental pedestal.
After my somewhat unceremonious promotion to the Hot Line at Lyon’s of Napa (I know, I know. You’re saying, “You were a cook at Lyon’s, and thought you were just the shizit?”), I stayed on the schedule as a full timer for several months until an internal Kitchen Mutiny resulted in 6 of us quitting in unison over wage demands, thinking the place would go down in flames without us. (You can read more on this in my post “Are You…Experienced.” If you are so inclined.) Some of us, like me, went on to other jobs; some went back to prison for the parole violation of quitting a job without having something else lined up; some just disappeared.
I made my way up the local restaurant food chain, going from fry cook at some “hash houses” to nicer “Dinner Houses”. I was in the throes of “New Restaurant Fever” and every time a newer, more stylish place would swing its doors open, I would jump ship. It was partially an insatiable desire to learn new techniques and dishes and elevate myself to an eventual Executive Chef’s position; it was partially the lure of the shiny new stainless steel appliances in a new place; but ultimately it was just for a new gaggle of waitresses and hostesses to bone. Like I said, I was in my 20’s.
I worked at a couple of dinner houses. One was a glorified Steak and Potato joint opened by the second generation of a venerable San Francisco restaurant family; one, an Italian place run by a dysfunctional local family whose only real claim to fame was the patriarch’s hand rolled ravioli and malfatti, which were the stuff of legends at Knight’s of Columbus and Catholic Church fundraisers.
After the Judgement of Paris in 1976, Napa Valley wines were beginning to receive their due, so investors thought the time was ripe for a few restaurants that were on a par with the wines being produced. Some of my contemporaries had gone on to work at The Restaurant at Domaine Chandon when it made its splashy Napa Valley debut in 1978, propelling Napa Valley onto the Bay Area’s fine-dining radar. This was a real, world-class dining destination in an area where the Mom and Pop Shops had held sway over the dining scene for decades. The Miramonte in St. Helena, owned by the unceremoniously deposed opening Chef at Chandon, Udo Nechutny, made some headlines when it opened about a year later; as well as La Belle Helene, owned a raving madman of a Chef named Gregory Lyons. And a funky little place named Chez Panisse had opened in Berkeley. But the real buzz for the Napa Valley and the Bay Area began in earnest in 1980, when San Francisco restaurateur Claude Rouas lured Chef Masataka Kobayashi away from Le Plasir in New York’s Palace Hotel, and broke ground in Rutherford for The Auberge du Soleil.
As someone born and raised in the Napa Valley, to me the borders of civilization in those days ended at Trancas Street in the City of Napa, and didn’t start up again until you reached St. Helena. All that was in between were prune and walnut orchards, a few bars and the Veteran’s Home in Yountville, and some vineyards that supplied the several dozen “stinky wineries” we’d been subjected to as kids when out of town relatives came to visit. So when the Auberge opened and my former Restaurant Guru from Lyon’s, Brian Porterfield, reached out to me to apply, I was confused. Why would someone put a restaurant, and a fine dining restaurant at that, in Rutherford of all places? Rutherford was literally just a Post Office, a bar, and the La Luna Market (old timers may remember the sign that said La Luna Market, “The Handy Store,” on the old building that faced Highway 29 back then, before it moved down Rutherford Cross Road about a hundred yards). If you blinked while driving through, you missed it. But prohibitions on hillside building in The Valley weren’t yet even a twinkle in the eyes of the Board of Supervisors, and the Jaeger family had carved Rutherford Hill Road out of a rocky eastern hillside to access their aptly named, new Rutherford Hill Winery. Monsieur Rouas had jumped on the opportunity and grabbed a chunk of the valuable, newly accessible real estate overlooking the Valley.
I was working mostly day shifts at my current posting then, so I made my way up in the dark one night after work, about a week before the scheduled opening date. I was heading up to apply for work with Brian, who had gotten the job as the Sous Chef. I followed the unlit, pristine new single lane of blacktop upward, thinking it looked more like the road into a State Park than a restaurant site; and I followed the sharp curves toward the soft glow of light emanating from the new restaurant’s parking lot. When I arrived at the entrance, I was transported to a scene that was more like Disneyland than a State Park. The curved, terra-cotta colored walls of the building were lit by footlights, as were the mature olive trees from the original grove that covered most of the hill, and were now part of the new landscape design. It was a surreal setting, this brightly glowing island of light in the inky blackness. I parked and found my way to the delivery entrance off to the side, way too intimidated to just walk in the front door.
As I walked in the back door to the kitchen, I saw a huge Groen steam-jacketed kettle, the size of a Hot Tub, simmering slowly in the prep area, filled to the brim with Veal knuckle bones and Mire-Poix. (I had no idea at the time what Mire Poix was, or what it meant; or that the controlled slow cooking of this gigantic kettle was beginning to transform the mixture of bones, vegetables and water into Fond du Veau, the source of all goodness and light when it came to sauces.) There was a smaller, more conventional stockpot simmering on a stovetop. It was filled with Crayfish bodies, doing the same thing to them. I walked up and took a whiff of the steam rising from this second pot. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen or smelled before. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that moment was my first true “Food Epiphany,” a sudden opening of my eyes and mind to how new and different this experience was going to be for me.
Brian noticed me standing there, trying to take in food and equipment that were as foreign to me as a Martian landscape, and beckoned me over to the Chef’s office. He was sitting on the floor just inside the door, sipping a cold Coors, and chatting with a tiny little man who was sitting at the desk with an opened book and a yellow legal pad full of scribbling in front of him. The two of them had just finished up a 12-hour day of unpacking equipment and setting up the walk-ins and hot line. That tiny little man was Chef Masa; the book was Le Guide Culinaire by Auguste Escoffier; and I was about to enter a whole new culinary world.
Next Up: Pommes du Terre, a Wilkes-Bashford Fashion Show, and Opening Day.