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.
Cindy had dreamed of a house (and a life) like this—"a place in the woods with a pool was always the fantasy," she says, taking me outside to the saltwater pool where she, John, and the dogs swim on warm mornings under Douglas firs. But the house and the setting weren't always so idyllic. Cindy bought the property in 1989 at a time when she was so consumed with the business of being a chef that the joy had gone out of her cooking. "I was working so many hours, I had no life," she says, but adds that she now understands the reason: "I was trying to escape my marriage."
Leading me along a curving path through her one-and-a-half-acre garden, passing baseball-size red onions, shimmering English peas, and the plumpest figs I've ever seen, Cindy admits her first decade in the house "was an absolute nightmare. My first husband was very antisocial, and a pack rat on top of it," she says, plucking a Meyer lemon from a tree for me to sniff. "When we bought the house, it was essentially a weekend home with one big room, and it remained like that for a long time. The closets were narrow, the lighting was horrendous, and the bathroom was so tiny she would "sit on the toilet and bump my knees against the shower." But the kitchen was the biggest disaster. "All we had were two electric burners and an electric griddle," Cindy says. "If I wanted to do any serious cooking, I'd have to go outside and fire up the barbecue—even in winter."
The makeover of the entire house that she commissioned in 2000 fixed all that. The kitchen, now larger than any other room in the house, is the centerpiece that exemplifies Cindy's plainspoken sophistication. Under high, angled ceilings of exposed timber, it's one of those spaces that invite you to participate. The countertops—in cherry, stainless steel, zinc, and Carrera marble— are set low to accommodate Cindy's small frame, and there's plenty of room for friends. "Parties tend to start and end in the kitchen," she says. "The trick is to put people to work as they walk in the door. Someone's sautéing olives, someone's taking bread out of the oven, someone's pouring wine. I get their hands busy, and the conversation flows from there."
Cindy's parties are all about the flow. "People start to fidget if they're stuck at a table all night," she says. She'll roll a wooden buffet cart onto the deck overlooking the pool to serve favorite appetizers. In spring, she might dress up grilled asparagus with soft-boiled eggs, oil-cured black olives, and shaved Vella dry Jack cheese . "The cheese is from right up the coast, and I'm very much about keeping food simple, local, and happy. Plus, when the asparagus is warm, the cheese melts and…mmm."
As dusk sets in, Cindy will call her guests into the living room, with its panoramic views of Mount Veeder and Mount St. John, across the valley. There's more food, of course: perhaps a terrine of Roaring 40s blue cheese alongside homemade walnut bread and honey-nut sauce ("It's like picnic food for cocktail hour," she says with a laugh), and local halibut with new potatoes, leeks, and spring garlic aioli . A fittingly seasonal coda might be a buttermilk pudding cake with fresh strawberry sauce.
Her living room, highlighted by a wide, hearthlike fireplace, mixes unfinished woods and brushed concrete to give the interior an air of understated chic. "You can spill a drink without it being a big deal," Cindy says. Her sister Mary, who sells Asian and African art, added exotic touches like Moroccan hanging lamps, Yoruban masks from Nigeria, Balinese shadow puppets, and, in a nook behind the dining table, an ornate Afghani camel saddle that's been reinvented as a storage unit.
Up a short flight of stairs is the couple's bedroom, a jewel box of a retreat with cherrywood floors, a modish black-metal fireplace, delicate Chinese furnishings, and windows behind and over the bed that look out onto the trees. "When it's windy, these massive pinecones drop down onto the skylight and scare the living heck out of me," Cindy says. A second bedroom was converted into a library for her extraordinary collection of cookbooks from around the world. She has close to 4,000 volumes—so many, they fill the library's built-in, floor-to-ceiling birchwood bookshelves and spill over into another tent cabin she uses as an office. Cindy, whose knowledge of culinary techniques, flavors, and history can best be described as encyclopedic, has developed her own system to keep track of titles. "It starts with French," she explains, pulling out Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, "then the shelves go to Spanish, Italian, Greek, Middle Eastern, and I basically work my way east around the planet."
Dingo and Cole wag their way in, signaling to Cindy that it's time for their afternoon walk—and time for her to think about getting back to work. These days, she puts in one shift a week at Mustards, one at Go Fish, and one at Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen. "Weekends I'll go wherever I'm most needed," she says, "and the rest of the time is for writing, pottery, and for John." It's a schedule she loves, though it does present its challenges. With the sun glinting through the trees and a golden glow spreading across her face, Cindy looks out to the valley she's served all these years. "The hardest part about this house ," she says, "is sometimes I actually have to leave it and go make a living."