St. Helena's Cindy Pawlcyn, Sean Knight sell building, liquor license to Joel Gott

Award-winning chef and author Cindy Pawlcyn’s announcement that her St. Helena restaurant, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, was closing on July 7, raised all kinds of questions.

Pawlcyn and her business partner, Sean Knight, had sold the restaurant and the liquor license for an undisclosed amount, and, at the time, the new owner was unnamed as well. The news of a second iconic St. Helena restaurant to close abruptly within a few weeks of one another (the building next door housed Terra restaurant, which closed June 2) sent a wave of concern throughout the Napa Valley’s culinary world, with many fearing some sort of domino theory of eatery Armageddon. However, the timing of the closure appears to be more of a coincidence than a harbinger of doom.

“Sometimes things just come up out of the blue and you have to act,” Pawlcyn said. “A friend of mine with strong local ties and someone I respect approached me and made an offer that I couldn’t pass up — it’s bittersweet because I really love what we’ve built here, but I know the new owners will do something special with the space.”

It turns out that Joel Gott, a St. Helena winemaker and restaurateur, is the purchaser of both the CBK building and liquor license.

Pawlcyn will continue to operate Mustards Grill north of Yountville, and her team is planning to open a second Mustards Grill at the San Francisco International Airport later this summer.

“Owning anything that Cindy has touched is an amazing opportunity — she’s one of Napa Valley’s most important icons — and so I jumped at the chance,” Gott said. “For now we’ll be using the space as a commissary for our other restaurants and our soon to be opened convenience store in downtown St. Helena. Eventually we’ll likely open a new restaurant in that space, but for now we have our hands full.”

Gott explained they’ll be making items in the building’s kitchen such as “improved dessert options” for Gott’s Roadside and to-go items for their soon-to-open convenience store within the existing Napa Valley Petroleum gas station on the corner of Main and Spring Streets, which may open as early as September. Eventually they may open a “fast casual” type restaurant in what has been Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, but the flurry of recent rumors suggesting everything from Tacos and Tequila, to a juice-breakfast bar came as a surprise to even Gott himself.

“We’ve not yet decided, but it has been fun hearing all the ideas flying around,” Gott said.

Beyond the opportunity to increase the production space for his existing businesses, Gott has another more sentimental reason for purchasing the building.

“Grant Showley (St. Helena’s Montessori School culinary arts director and former owner of the building before Pawlcyn) is one of our son’s teachers and I worked for Cindy when I was 16 years old,” Gott said. “They’ve both taught me and my family so much over the years and so we wanted to keep the building in ‘the family.’”

Pawlcyn’s long culinary history

Pawlcyn was born in Minneapolis and grew up in the Minnesota town of Golden Valley. Her father, Stephen, had emigrated from Russia to the United States in 1918 and married her mother, Dorothy, who had German-Norwegian roots. Stephen started Lazy Sue Foods, a potato chip manufacturer, and had a keen interest in all things food that transferred to his daughter at an early age.

“Everything about my life has been about making food delicious,” she said. “Much of that drive comes from my father, who taught me both about how to run a business but also how to love food — from growing it to cooking it.”

According to Pawlcyn, her father was so driven by the desire to eat well that each year he grew much of the produce himself.

“He taught us that the fresher the food, the better,” she said. “So by the end of winter, our house had dozens of folding tables that were all covered with starts — tomatoes, vegetables — that we’d plant in the garden when the weather got warmer.”

Stephen was also nearly obsessed with how different foods responded to various cooking techniques, building both an outdoor and an indoor wood-fired barbecue pit in their living room so that the family might enjoy grilled items throughout the cold winter months.

“He had a fetish for cooking over wood and thought that certain things — ribs, chicken, sausage — had to be grilled even if it was snowing outside,” she said. “It’s probably why I also love the flavors of wood smoke on food.”

Pawlcyn’s father also taught his daughter how to run a business, explaining in detail how to “get paid, pay people and figure out the governmental requirements,” all elements of running a sound business.

“By the time I was 13, I was running my own small catering business, serving friends and family,” she said. “I’d started taking culinary classes while in junior high from Lois Lee, who had a local cookware store and who had started holding a few cooking classes.”

Lee, who is now 92 years old and has since sold her store, considers Pawlcyn a natural chef.

“Cindy had such drive, and even as a junior high student had real skill in the kitchen,” she said. “She’d put things together in a dish that you just couldn’t have imagined and they turned out wonderful.”

For years the two worked together, Lee as mentor and Pawlcyn as willing mentee.

After high school, there would be cooking trade school, culinary schools, a year of cooking at restaurants in Chicago and another year of cooking in San Francisco.

“I’d gone to the Napa Valley on a trip and I learned that they were hiring women chefs, which was not the case in Minnesota at the time,” Lee said. “I mentioned this to Cindy and I was glad when she headed out West.”

Two years out of culinary school and in her early 20s, Pawlcyn was offered the job as first chef of St. Helena’s Meadowood. After a couple of years there, she worked at another St. Helena restaurant, Rose et LeFavour, before eventually opening her first restaurant, Mustards Grill, in 1983. Her extensive local culinary resume would go on to include owning or being a chef at some of the area’s most recognizable restaurants — Fog City Diner, Brix, Tra Vigne, Roti, Betelnut, Go Fish and Buckeye Roadhouse.

“She’s always had the instinct of a chef and a business person — Cindy is dependable, creative, has an excellent palate and training but is also someone who is just fun to be around,” Lee said. “When she cooks, she has fun and it comes out in her menus. And the combination of her skill and her love for what she does are why she’s been so successful.”

What’s in a name?

When Pawlcyn opened what would eventually become Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, it was initially called Miramonte in homage to an earlier restaurant that had existed in the building. The menu and concept was to showcase foods from around the world, including such things as Panamanian meatloaf.

“I love the expression of different cultures through their foods, and I wanted to show how well they could work with wine,” Pawlcyn said. “The rooms and outfits for the servers were bright and colorful — I wanted something new and exciting.”

Each dish on the first menu highlighted where their cultural inspiration had come from. The problem was that the concept just didn’t seem to work with the locals. About a year into the project, two vintners asked to meet with Cindy privately — they had some thoughts they wanted to share.

“Robert Mondavi and Ernie Van Asperen [Round Hill winery] came in and sat me down,” Pawlcyn said. “They’d often come in with their wives for dinner, but that day it was just the two of them. They recommended that I change the name to something more homey and make the menu read better to the locals.”

Pawlcyn took the two vintners’ advice, and after adding $8,000 to her credit card she had repainted everything to soft earth tones, changed the staff’s uniforms, added in some country-style chairs and simplified the menu, often only changing the name but keeping the dish and recipe exactly the same.

“It was like, ‘Bingo!’” Pawlcyn said. “People who had told me that they’d not liked the meatloaf before might come in and tell me how great the new version of the meatloaf was, but it was actually the same as it had been before. Business picked up immediately. That really reinforced for me that you must respect and understand your customers — not just make great-tasting food but also come to them where they are, not the other way around.”

Southern migration

Back when CBK opened, St. Helena was arguably Napa Valley’s culinary center. That distinction has gradually spread south over the years, first moving to Yountville and now to Napa. The migration is partially due to the success of Thomas Keller (Yountville) but is now seemingly being driven by costs and access to labor and tourists, with the city of Napa holding a distinct advantage in these regards when compared with more northerly towns. Pawlcyn insists that St. Helena remains a vibrant restaurant town and that the sale was due solely to an unexpected and attractive offer, but the fact remains that owning a restaurant in St. Helena has become increasingly challenging.

“There has been a recent increase in the number of restaurants here — 640 more seats. At the same time, there are fewer people living here full time,” she said. “We’re also seeing the price for labor increase and the local cost of living beyond the reach of many, even though we are often now paying $18 to $20 an hour for dishwashers. One problem is that most diners have a perceived value in their minds for menu items like chicken, for example, so it’s hard for them to understand all the costs that actually go into a dish.”

Leaving St. Helena bittersweet for Pawlcyn

“My first chef job in the valley was here in this beautiful little town and I still live here,” she said. “And although I have no plans to ever sell Mustards, it will be hard not to be working here in St. Helena daily.”

For CBK’s, many customers the feeling is mutual.

“I’ve known Cindy since she was the chef at Meadowood in the late 1970s,” said Robin Lail, owner of Lail Vineyards. “I’m conflicted because I am happy for her but I am also, like, shoot — where am I going to go to get my pollo loco! I am also sad that St. Helena is losing such a treasure — Cindy and her entire crew have become like family, and her tenacity, creativity and kindness have been nothing less than inspiring.”

As we talked, Pawlcyn had taken me on a short tour of the secluded Napa Valley home she shares with her husband, John Watanabe. Accompanied by the couple’s dog, Hiro, a bouncy 2-year-old straw-colored Labrador Retriever, she had pointed out her extensive collection of more than 4,000 cookbooks that cover the entire walls of two rooms. The dog had followed dutifully along, seemingly eager to share each new space with this new visitor until he paused outside the door of Pawlcyn’s workshop. Peering inside I could see why he was reluctant to enter: This was where Pawlcyn makes her pottery, with shelves full of various styles of potentially breakable plates and cups, some of which are now being used at Mustards Grill.

“I’m blown away, flattered and at the same time grateful when people stop me in the street and say, ‘I am really happy for you, but now where am I going to get my rabbit tostadas?” Pawlcyn said and then laughed as she picked up one of her earthen-colored serving dishes. “I tell them that we’ll be running many of those items as occasional specials at Mustards.”

Still at the doorway, Hiro sat, his long tail wagging wildly.

“I’ll never retire from cooking, but I am also enjoying having a bit more time to do a few other things, ” she said and then looked at her dog, smiling. “Now, if I can only get my business partner to buy more of my pottery.”

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Originally published in the Napa Register, July 2018