Cindy Pawlcyn
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Grilled In a Minute: Cindy Pawlcyn

Julie Mautner / July 15th, 2013

When she opened Mustards Grill in Napa Valley in June 1983, Cindy Pawlcyn visualized a place “where winemakers lunch with truckers, and chefs come to dine on their night off.” She named it for the wild mustard flowers that bloom in the vineyards every spring. This year, her flagship restaurant—“the fancy rib joint with way too many wines”—celebrates 30 years of seasonal, farm-to-table, Wine Country comfort cuisine.

Pawlcyn actually owns three of Napa Valley’s most beloved restaurants: Mustards Grill (Yountville, where her organic gardens yield produce for several of her restaurants), Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, and Cindy Pawlcyn's Wood Grill & Wine Bar (often called CP's, both in St. Helena). Cindy Pawlcyn Napa Valley Catering, meanwhile, offers cuisine from all three restaurants.

This spring, Pawlcyn and her team opened Cindy’s Waterfront at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. As the aquarium’s culinary partner, she also oversees catering events.

Born in Minneapolis to what she calls “a down-home culinary family,” Pawlcyn says one of her earliest memories is of sitting in the garden with a salt shaker while her dad picked ripe tomatoes. “I can still taste the fresh, warm tomato seasoned with a dash of salt,” she remembers. Dad was in the potato chip business, and he encouraged his youngest daughter to cook for the family from a very young age. By the time she hit her teens, she was already catering neighborhood parties with her mom.

Pawlcyn went on to earn a degree in hospitality management from the University of Wisconsin-Stout, then trained at Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne in Paris. After gaining experience in top Midwestern kitchens such as the Pump Room in Chicago, she moved to San Francisco in 1979 and was hired as the inaugural chef at Napa Valley’s Meadowood Resort. Since then, she has partnered in the creation of over a dozen iconic Bay Area eateries, including Fog City Diner, Roti, and Tra Vigne.

Pawlcyn is the author of five cookbooks: the James Beard Award-winning Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook, Fog City Diner Cookbook, Big Small Plates, Cindy Pawlcyn’s Appetizers, and the most recent, Cindy’s Supper Club, published in May 2012.

To celebrate Mustards’ 30th anniversary, she’s currently penning a cake cookbook, which she plans to self-publish. A pioneer in the local food movement, Pawlycn has lately become an advocate for sustainable fish and the Seafood Watch program, as evidenced on all her restaurant menus, most significantly at the new Cindy’s Waterfront.

She is married to John Watanabe, and the couple lives in St. Helena, where, when not at work, she makes pottery and works in her own home garden.

Mustards Grill turns 30 this year. Bravo! What are some of the keys to its longevity? How have you kept it innovative and inviting all these years?
We’re consistent in the quality and freshness of our dishes and our high level of service. We change the menu with the seasons, but keep customer favorites. We listen to our customers and educate ourselves through travel, reading, and eating in other restaurants. The kitchen and front-of-the-house staff work as a team; we listen and talk to each other to stay in sync and on track. Mustards Grill is a fun place to work and a lively, upbeat, roadside fine dining joint. Who can resist?

Looking back, can you tell us three dishes that have been the most popular/the biggest sellers over the years?
Onion rings, tuna crackers, and our famous Mongolian pork chop (over one million served!) The key to our pork chops is in the spicy sweet marinade with hoisin and black bean chile sauce.

How has Mustards changed in 30 years? How has it stayed the same?
The garden at Mustards Grill has been expanded significantly, bringing true meaning to “garden-to-table” dining and eating local, fresh, and sustainable produce. By popular demand, we still do the Mongolian pork chop after all these years. Guests tell me all the time the pork chop is the best thing they’ve ever eaten.

In what way is the restaurant business easier now than it was 30 years ago? In what ways is it harder?
In Napa Valley, more and more competition makes it harder. At the same time, TV food shows, food magazines, blogs, etc., increase exposure to a new segment of diners. And of course, computer technology has made tracking and reporting much easier. Even after 30 years, we’re getting better at what we do each day.

What’s one thing in your kitchen or restaurant you couldn't live without?
My amazingly talented staff!

You must be approached constantly to open restaurants. What about the deal at the Monterey Bay Aquarium attracted you and made you say yes?
We’re huge supporters of ocean sustainability and all the wonderful things the aquarium is accomplishing. Seafood Watch is a terrific program, and the guide is the perfect tool for responsible restaurateurs and home chefs alike. It’s a dream come true to have an oceanfront restaurant and an incredible honor to be the aquarium’s culinary partner.

You were recently in Japan; what drew you there? And what did you find/taste/do that you loved?
I loved everything. My husband and I have close friends living near Osaka. I’m interested in pottery (I even have a studio and kiln at my home), so I was fascinated when they took us to remote villages where the art of pottery is centuries old. We stayed in fabulous ryokans (inns) that served breakfast and dinner. We ate in restaurants that specialized in tofu and buckwheat. So interesting and memorable.

Will anything from your Japan trip (ingredients, dishes, presentations, ideas) find its way into your kitchen or onto your menus?
Since I make some of the small ceramic dishes used in my restaurants, Japanese pottery will influence my designs. I gave each of my chefs and sous chefs Japanese knives, which they use daily.

Most memorable moment of the Japan trip, culinary or otherwise?
Just being there with our dear friends, the Kojimas, and a multicourse dinner in a remote ryokan outside Kyoto. The rice was cooked in an antique clay vessel over a wood flame. It was truly the art of rice. My husband, John, had three bowls.

What’s the one thing you love most about your job/career?
People eating happily in my restaurants and cleaning their plates.

And the thing you like least?
Grease traps.

Of all the people you've met in your restaurants over the years, who left the greatest impression? Or, who were you most honored or thrilled to meet?
Julia Child, Rudolph Nureyev, and Tom Waits.

Best advice for someone who would love a career like yours?
Take good care of your feet.

Three adjectives, please, to describe yourself as a boss.
Determined, kind, responsible.

And three adjectives your employees would use to describe you as a boss?
Inspiring (that was a direct quote from a staff member, but he may be angling for a raise), consistent, trendsetting.

Last great meal in a restaurant not your own?
The Miyamasou Ryokan in the hills outside of Kyoto. The chef/owner is known for serving seasonal food in a spectacular setting. That plus the fact that ofuro (hot tub) is included in your overnight stay makes the experience simply ethereal.

For a chef or foodie visitor, please suggest three restaurants in Napa Valley that best illustrate the best of the food scene there today. Or, three great restaurants they should definitely experience.
Mustards Grill, Oenotri, Biscuits.

Best day of your career so far?
Every day. I love the work that I do. I’m thankful for my business partner, Sean Knight, and our staff. And then, of course, Sunday, June 16, because it was Mustards’ 30th anniversary!

Worst day of your career so far?
Four years ago, we had a kitchen fire at Mustards. It was devastating but, thankfully, it didn’t destroy the building. We rebuilt the kitchen and are going strong.

What do you know now that you wish you had learned earlier in your career? Or, if you were just starting out today, how would you do it differently?
I would learn people management skills right off the bat. Even though I have a food science business degree, people management is an art.

If not this, then what? What would you have done/been if you hadn't gone the chef/restaurateur route?
A veterinarian or a potter…

Read more about Pawlcyn in Food Arts' April 2010 Silver Spoon Award.