Cindy Pawlcyn's Napa Valley deck
Photo: Melanie Acevedo
First she got the entire Napa Valley eating out of her hand. Then chef Cindy Pawlcyn seasoned her own life, house, and entertaining style to taste.
It's nice to live just up the hill from where I work," Cindy Pawlcyn says. The energetic, silver-haired chef and cookbook author is standing barefoot in her kitchen, looking out over the valley she helped make famous—the Napa Valley, that is. One of the first female chefs to champion fresh, local, seasonal food at her groundbreaking restaurant, Mustards Grill (and at many that would follow), Cindy was a pioneer who helped put the region on the epicurean map as much for its food as for its wine.

With French doors opening to her pool and gardens, copper pots gleaming on an industrial rack over the sleek kitchen island, and Cindy's roly-poly Labradors, Dingo and Cole, snoring in the sun, the vibe, like her renowned cooking style, is simple yet hip, elegant but unfussy—and very California. As Cindy, who's only 5'2" but grabs your attention with her deadpan Minnesota delivery, says, "If I didn't live here, I'd want to live in a place exactly like this."

Tour Cindy Pawlcyn's Napa Valley home

It's a nice place to be a guest, too. Cindy, 53, is so warm and genuinely gracious ("Can I get you a glass of wine? Beer? A cocktail?" she says, opening cherrywood cabinets. "Oh, and you have to try these walnuts") that it's easy to see why customers have been returning to her San Francisco Bay Area restaurants for 25 years.

Long before star chefs such as Thomas Keller discovered the culinary possibilities of wine country, Cindy was making confit of local goose and slicing heirloom tomatoes from the same backyard gardens she still uses to fuel her restaurant menus. Her authentic, seasonal, hyperlocal aesthetic—"We're talking Persian limes grown outside my bedroom window," she says—helped put the region's cuisine on par with whatever the Mondavis and others were uncorking down the road. "It was this idea that the food should be as good and local as the wine," she says of her original concept. "Nobody was really thinking that back then."

After a few too many childhood winters in suburban Minneapolis, Cindy, who trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, moved west and opened Mustards Grill in Napa in 1983. Among the region's very first serious restaurants, Mustards (think Cordon Bleu meets California farmers' market) was conceived as a place "where winemakers could come in wearing their boots and sit down with some table wine and get truly great food," Cindy says. She has since been involved in more than a dozen Bay Area restaurants, including Tra Vigne, Bix, and the famous Fog City Diner, where she paired cheeseburgers with Champagne. Her latest Napa establishments are Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen, an upscale home-cooking (with Latin flair) sort of place, and Go Fish, a bustling seafood restaurant, both in St. Helena. In her precious spare time, Cindy makes ceramic serving pieces for her restaurants in a shed behind her house and has written four cookbooks including, most recently, Cindy Pawlcyn's Appetizers .

"Fortunately, I have a home where I can pull back from it all and just relax with my husband or entertain friends," says Cindy, referring to John Watanabe, a human resources executive she married last May after meeting him a year earlier on eHarmony. It's the second marriage for both, but they still act like honeymooners. Cindy's eyes twinkle as she describes weekends spent camping in the canvas-walled guest cabin 500 feet from the main house. "We'll pack a suitcase and everything," she says. The tentlike bungalow has an outdoor shower and sink, wood floors painted with koi fish and dragons, and a cedar-plank deck, which Cindy festoons with candles when the couple kick back to watch the stars. "It's my Minnesota dock in the middle of the forest," she says.

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