It’s the rare independent restaurateurs who reach the four-decade mark. Yet Alex and Gayle Dierkhising, owners of Calistoga’s All Seasons Bistro, have made it.
Now in their 42nd year of owning and operating eateries in the Napa Valley, the couple says they are not done yet. In a move aimed at bringing the eatery back to its former glory, they have rehired a popular chef they first hired in the late 1990s, Kevin Kathman, and together with him they are changing the menu, updating the wine list and working to improve service.
Restaurants in the blood
Gayle and Alex met in St. Joseph, Minnesota, when they were college students working at the Dierkhising restaurant, “La Playette” — Alex as sommelier and Gayle as a bartender. Opened in the late 1950s, the eatery had historically served fried chicken, barbecue and simple salads. But by the time the two met it was being transformed into a fine-dining establishment.
Although he’d served simple fare at the restaurant, during World War II Alex’s father had been stationed in Egypt, where he’d learned about what were exotic items at the time, such as artichokes, olive oil, avocados and spices.
“Growing up, good food and hospitality were always central to our lives,” Alex said. “And after I’d served in Vietnam for two years I came back home to finish college, but I also really wanted to work at the restaurant — it was something I’d missed.”
Returning from the war, Alex joined his other brothers to recast La Playette in a new light. His oldest brother, Eric, had taken over as chef in 1969, and the two, alongside their other brothers and sisters, set to work transforming their parents’ eatery into what they hoped would eventually become the finest French restaurant in the region.
A menu from that earlier time now adorns the bathroom wall at All Seasons, where it proudly proclaims:
“We aspire to create a gastronomique event within the character of epicurean brotherhood. As our guests we wish to serve you in the most delightful manner: tastefully, artistically, comfortably and correctly. We feel in the preparation of Haute Cuisine Table, time is of no consequence.”
The menu reads like a Julia Child cookbook, full of classics like steak Diane flambé, crepes Suzettes and coq au vin rouge, all at prices that seem shockingly low by today’s standards. It’s likely the inclusion of soufflé au Grand Marnier led to the comment about time having no consequence since it took nearly an hour to make, according to Alex.
From there, nearly the entire family of Dierkhisings became aspiring culinarians and eventually dispersed from Minnesota, many ending up in California. But it was Gayle and Alex who made the first move to the Napa Valley, driven in part by Gayle’s vacation to San Francisco and a chance visit between Alex and a wine salesman.
When Napa Valley wines were unknown
Alex’s father’s restaurants had always included a space dedicated to selling wines. However, at that time most of the wine sold was of the Ripple, Bali Hai and Boone’s Farm variety, according to Dierkhising. But in 1971 a wine salesman from Phillips and Co. with a penchant for California producers convinced him to purchase what were at that time unheard-of wines from Robert Mondavi, Louis Martini and Buena Vista. After tasting the wine Alex was changed forever, and he started traveling to northern California in search of special wines.
“Alex drove out to Napa Valley and then returned with his car full of California wines for La Playette,” Gayle said. “He had a real pull to this place, and he wanted to get into the wine side of things. I think he thought, ‘I can’t do that from here, I have to be there.’”
Eventually the couple left Minnesota and moved to San Francisco, where Alex became a wine salesman for the newly launched Sterling Winery and Gayle worked as a manager for a Soviet shipping company. They traveled to the Napa Valley on weekends, and in 1974 they moved to Calistoga. Alex left Sterling and started work at Freemark Abbey’s Wine Garden, while Gayle grafted grapevine scions at Duckhorn Vineyards.
Opening their first Napa Valley eatery — Silverado Restaurant and Tavern
“When we saw the ‘for lease’ sign in the window we just knew it was right,” Alex said.
The year was 1976, and at that time there were nearly no higher-end restaurants in the Napa Valley: Étoile, the Restaurant at Domaine Chandon, would open in Yountville in 1977 and the French Laundry (original owners Don and Sally Schmitt) in 1978.
“We called my brother Mark, who was in the first graduating class of the CIA (Culinary Institute of American, Hyde Park, New York),” Alex said. “After he said yes to becoming the chef, we then called Gayle’s mom and my parents for help with the $10,000 deposit.”
Eventually they’d own three restaurants in Calistoga (Silverado, Hydro, All Seasons), while Alex’s younger brother, Drake, would open Café Sarafornia down the street and Mark would move on to open three Dierk’s Parkside Cafés throughout northern California.
All Seasons Bistro — More influence than you might realize
Beyond their important role in helping define the region’s cuisine, the Dierkhisings have also often played a behind-the-scenes role in helping usher in the present-day era of Napa Valley wine.
In the early 1980s All Seasons was one of the first restaurants in the United States to receive the Wine Spectator’s prestigious “Grand Award.” They also had created an exclusive wine shop within the confines of their eatery, but more importantly they strove to create an environment that encouraged and supported aspiring winemakers and wine professionals.
“Through the years Alex and Gayle have welcomed and nurtured many just starting in the wine business,” said Dan Dawson, owner of Dan Dawson’s Wine Advisor and former owner of Backroom Wines in Napa.
Dawson worked at All Seasons as a server from ‘92 to ‘94 and then took over the restaurant’s wine store from ‘94 to ‘98. But before he could even start, he first needed to take a wine-knowledge test from Alex.
“He asked me what was the difference between Pinot Noir and Burgundy,” Dawson said. “Of course the answer is ‘nothing,’ but at the time I went blank. I only remember the question I got wrong on that test, but somehow I got the job. Their love of wine and cutting-edge wine program seemingly drew the next generation of wine professionals to All Seasons like a magnet. It has been a center of wine culture for Napa Valley that has helped launch many careers in the wine industry.”
Dawson was not the only soon-to-be successful Napa-Valley wine professional to be influenced by the Dierkhisings. There would be dozens, if not hundreds. The list of superstar wine experts who passed through the All Seasons doors includes: John Wetlaufer, Margaux Singleton, David Dennis, Thomas Rivers Brown, Tom Elliott, Charles Smith and many others. If you aren’t familiar with these names, just Google Charles Smith or Thomas Rivers Brown and you’ll see what I mean.
Kevin Kathman also grew up in Minnesota. After culinary school, he started his Napa Valley chef experience at the French Laundry in the mid-1990s, after which he staged in Europe before returning to America to become the executive chef at All Seasons from 1999 through 2002.
To be closer to extended family with his wife and two young children, Kathman moved from California to Arizona and then to Los Angeles, opening numerous restaurants before being lured back to Calistoga.
Having retaken over the position only a few months ago, Kathman is gradually “changing and evolving” the menu into his own. Items include a collection of well-executed dishes that blend the past with the present: modern influences with a touch of nostalgia.
The little gem salad with bacon and blue cheese ($14) is substantial and layered; the butternut squash ravioli with pecans, sage and brown butter ($15 appetizer or $25 entree) is a blend of comfort food and years of experienced techniques. The grilled Eagle’s Fjord salmon ($27) is sourced from Iceland and is priced well, sourced from one of the most sustainable fish farms in the world and served with an almost retrospective saffron-citrus sauce with lobster mushrooms and crunchy fresh peas. This dish in particular seems to highlight the entire ethos of the new team’s approach. Similarly, the roast quail with chanterelles, wild rice and foie gras stuffing ($28) comes off as a tender look back but with a distinct eye toward the future.
History provides context
At one point All Seasons was a must-go-to culinary destination in the Napa Valley. But time, trends and a ceaseless number of new options have diluted the attention of visitors. Calistoga itself has gone through moments that have felt like it was on the cusp of becoming the food center of the region, only to be thwarted by natural disaster or the departure of an innovative restaurant or chef.
However, for those looking to better understand the history and trajectory of food and wine in the Napa Valley and beyond, All Seasons, especially with Kathman’s return, represents an opportunity to revisit and reimagine what Wine Country has come to mean.
“When people come to the valley many of them are wondering, what does it mean?” Gayle said. “They’ve come here because they’ve been told it’s beautiful — which it is — and because great wine and food are made here — which is true. But because the world has changed and they can get these things in other places, too, many of them seem to wonder, ‘What am I supposed to do here in the Napa Valley?’”
To take Gayle’s insight one step further, what these questioning travelers might be wondering is: Why does the Napa Valley matter?
The answer lies in an understanding of context and history, the lives and stories that make up the present.
All Seasons’ success in the years to come will be as much a reflection of the values of the people who live or visit here as a commentary about a 42-year-old bistro in Calistoga. My recommendation is that you go there and have another look. While you are there, ask to have a glance at that old La Playette menu. If you’re like me, while reading it you might remember something important.
Originally published in the Napa Register, October 2018