What happens when you mix two of Napa Valley’s most beloved chefs together, place them in adjoining shared restaurants and then throw in a big handful of family? Diners of Cook and Cook Tavern in St. Helena are about to find out: Jude Wilmoth, the chef and owner of Cook, has partnered with Ryder Zetts, previously the chef at Archetype in St. Helena.
“Twelve and a half years ago we opened Cook and two years ago we expanded into our second space, Cook Tavern,” Wilmoth said. “Today we are making another change. “We’ve partnered with Ryder and will be sharing all aspects of the business, from the cooking to running the day to day.”
Wilmoth, a St. Helena native, was one of 11 children, and he learned to cook early.
“In our family you either did dishes or cooked,” he said. “So I learned to cook.”
He went on to work with celebrity chefs such as Michael Chiarello and Cat Cora, where he gained a deep appreciation for the cuisines of Northern Italy. “Growing up we ate family-style, serving food on big platters around a table — it’s when I feel most comfortable. It’s what I wanted to create at Cook. And with Ryder and his family joining our team, we will be continuing what we started.”
“I’ve been wanting a change for some time and was especially interested in becoming an owner,” Zetts said. “Jude and I have been talking about doing something together for the last year or so, and his style and vision just seemed like a natural fit.”
Prior to Archetype, Zetts was chef de cuisine at Calistoga Michelin-star-rated Solbar. Earlier he worked at the Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, and at Bouchon Bistro in Yountville.
Local customers anticipate good things to come.
“I just learned about this merger last night,” said Matthew Hileman, owner of St. Helena Optometry who also doubles as a local baseball coach. “I spend a lot of time at both of Jude’s places (too much time, my wife would tell you, especially when a game is on one of the Tavern’s TVs), and I think this will be a good thing — I really like both of these chefs’ approaches, and I look forward to what Ryder might add to the mix.”
When Zetts and his family moved out from Virginia to the Napa Valley in 2006 they met Bruce Peters, the owner/broker of Portofino Realty Advisors in Yountville, who recommended they try Cook.
“I’ve just always loved that Cook is a place where locals feel welcome, can get a good value for their dollar and where the food is consistently good,” Peters said. “These are two of the valley’s best chefs, and what I’ll be watching out for is if they can keep the good things while adding in new options that are just as wonderful. Given that I’ve known both Ryder and Jude for a long time, I bet these two can get the job done in spectacular fashion.”
No major changes to the food is expected.
“We don’t anticipate any major changes to the menu at Cook at the present time,” Wilmoth said. “Cook Tavern has a new pizza oven and we are always exploring new things on that menu, so I’d expect that to continue. That said, even though I am the older one here, I can still learn a lot from Ryder, and I am looking forward to that.”
“I know a lot of people like my Tater Tots, so we’ll be bringing those along, but other than that, I think we’ll just need to see how things evolve,” Zetts said. “For me, it is really exciting to be working with an owner chef, someone that really understands what it means to be in the trenches.”
Why are there not more joint ventures between two accomplished chefs?
“The problem with most joint restaurant ventures is that the chefs can have huge egos,” Zetts said. “But Jude is just a different kind of chef: easygoing and a real family guy. Also many chefs consider themselves artists and so they only work well in isolation, but I think we both consider ourselves craftsmen, and craftsmen just want to get the work done.”
Bringing two culinary families together with a shared vision.
“This is not just about bringing Ryder in as a partner, this is really more about bringing two families together,” Wilmoth said. “My wife, Meagan, and I knew that and so for the last year we’ve been getting together with Ryder and his family to make sure there was a good fit.”
“I think this will be a perfect fit because all of us have a lot of experience, we like one another and are all focused on creating an exceptional experience for our customers,” Meagan Rounds-Wilmoth said.
“We are really excited to be joining forces with them,” Michaella Zetts said, “After moving across the country from Virginia in a U-Haul, before we unpacked a single box we went to dinner at Cook — it was the first restaurant we went to in the valley. So this is full circle for us.”
“Part of the decision to partner was that both of us have young families and we all want to spend a little more time with them,” Wilmoth said. “Owning a restaurant is exhilarating but can be exhausting, too. In this model, which is a pretty unique model, we are going to maintain our high standards, have time for our families and have some fun, too.”
“The Cook establishments are truly a mom-and-pop place now with two moms and two pops and five kids,” Michaella said. “We all also have pretty extensive restaurant experience, with both me and Megan having worked at the French Laundry and myself at the Inn at Little Washington and Meadowood. By combining all of our experiences, along with folks that enjoy Ryder’s style along with Jude’s already establish clientele, we are all hoping this is a winning combination. Basically, we are all just very excited and couldn’t be any more driven to take this as far as we can.”
Originally published in the Napa Register, April 2017