Thursday, February 3, 2011
Suddenly, everybody’s getting fresh. Farm fresh this. Farm fresh that. Menus cite more sources than bibliographies. Heirloom everything is everywhere. The Food Channel named “Keeping it real” 2010’s top trend; even Wendy’s has slapped “real” in its latest tagline.
Forgive Cindy Pawlcyn if she takes a little ironic enjoyment in all the authenticity. The Napa Valley pillar and new Monterey Bay Aquarium culinary partner had a seat at the farm-to-table table before there was one.
“Now so many are talking ‘ingredient driven,’” says Sean Knight, head of her restaurant group. “She’s been doing that since forever.”
No trend here.
“Yeah, we’ve had a garden at Mustards [Grill] for 28 years,” Pawlcyn says. “But it’s really, really nice to see. It’s like being a parent and your kids grow up and actually graduate from college – ‘OK, we did it.’”
The real food comes from a real place: Pawlcyn herself.
“She knows who she is,” says Ginger Hopkins, the Aquarium’s culinary director and part of the team that brought in Pawlcyn. “There’s no pretense about her, and her food reflects that.”
Her menus peddle sweet wild mushroom corn tamales, grilled hangar steaks, bigeye tuna reubens, onion rings with housemade tomato-apple ketchup.
“It’s authentic, heartfelt stuff,” Hopkins says.
The real feeling deepens as you learn more about Pawlcyn. You taste it in the spicy wasabi greens in her 1.5-acre home garden and see it in her restaurant’s ever-expanding farm. You touch it in her backyard pottery barn, where she shapes and bakes serving pieces for her restaurants. You read it in the restaurant newsletters she stays up to write personally and see it in her run-in with “reality” television (the cooking constraints on Top Chef Masters were a little too artificial for her taste).
As the ocean – and our food systems – face very real and immediate danger, only a fraction of the population is concerned. For the remainder, it’s like the problems aren’t real. That’s where Pawlcyn comes in. With its food programs poised to move into the most ambitious phase of influence ever, real is precisely what the Aquarium needs.
Pawlcyn was working in a Minneapolis cooking school years before she had a driving permit, and conducting her own catering business before she left high school. She’s launched more than a dozen of the Bay Area’s most revered destinations, Fog City Diner, Bix, Roti, Betelnut and Tra Vigne among them. Mustards opened in 1983 and has since helped Pawlcyn earn multiple James Beard nominations for best chef in California’s hyper-competitive culinary context; a thick James Beard medal for her Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook hangs in its bar. She gave Napa its first sushi bar with Go Fish, and Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen joined the flavorful family in 2003. She’s so honed her Famous Mongolian Pork Chops, Mighty Meatloafs and Adult Grilled Cheeses, in fact, that when you type “Cindy” into Google, hers is the first name to surface.
In other words, saying Cindy Pawlcyn’s a capable cook is like saying Michael Phelps can do a decent doggie paddle. But Aquarium throngs are a different species than the self-selecting sophisticates who find their way to Napa for $1,000 dinners at French Laundry and $2,500 weekends at the Bardessono.
“It’s thousands of people versus hundreds,” Hopkins says. Aquarium doors can welcome upwards of 10,000 visitors a day; Martin Luther King Jr. Day saw 8,000. Special events are endless. The restaurant and cafe are open 364 days a year.
“It’s a very diverse demographic,” Knight says. “The intriguing challenge is the long term, building the ability to make some change to how people see food and how they eat. It’s harder than what we might have thought.”
And it’s not like Pawlcyn doesn’t have a lot going on already. She prioritizes having a presence at her restaurants, often visiting all three of her Napa temples in a day. She travels to study new foods each year and entertains in her high-ceiling kitchen constantly.
She says she’ll manage it as she always has: By doing her homework and empowering a talented team.
“She came in here, did a study of who we were,” Hopkins says, “She was really thoughtful – she thought about what our customers wanted, in a personal way.”
One chef’s estimate puts her home culinary library at 4,000. The inability to bone up was a reason she didn’t dig Top Chef Masters as much as she might have.
“I want to do my research, be on my mark,” she says. “I don’t want to do a four – to six-hour dish in two hours. It’s not a toy. Food’s a real thing.”
That research is ongoing – and applied.
“My dishes are never finished, you can always make it better,” she says. “You can make tomato soup, but tomatoes change. Food is living and breathing in that way. That’s why I like gardens so much.”
But the Aquarium isn’t just down the road from her Napa home. Pawlcyn shrugs off that side of the situation.
“I’m able to do it because I have such a great crew – I work with fun, committed people – and we do such fun projects that we’re all involved in, not just me, where we’re all in it together,” she says. “Otherwise they’re a cog. Even our line cooks make decisions – it keeps them alive, fresh, tasting stuff. They can taste it when it’s time to change a menu item.”
It was only appropriate that she was standing in her Mustards kitchen as she spoke. “For example, right now,” she says, “one of our sous chefs, one of our chefs and my managing partner are in the Portola Restaurant and I’m here.”
Hopkins says Pawlcyn’s collaborative approach was crucial to their evaluation. “Her Napa chefs are very loyal, very hard working,” Hopkins says. “She gives space so they’re part of creative process. It’s a partnership, not a dictatorship.”
One vital new partner is Jeff Rogers, long the chef at Quail Lodge’s multi-restaurant property and Highlands Inn, where he directed Masters of Food & Wine traffic. He’s come on as the chef, steering things on site, in large part because he could immediately align Pawlcyn with local sources.
“I’m so excited to learn the local purveyors,” she says. “Jeff, bless his heart, has taught me a lot already.”
Rogers says he’s the one learning. He spent time in Mustards’ kitchen practicing the Aquarium’s new recipes, later retreating to Pawlcyn’s home to cook dinner, strategize and leaf through her library.
“Her knowledge is second to none but has this democratic, approachable tone,” he says. “She’s never off.”
Rogers describes his new post as a job he’s always wanted, but not one without its pressures, which help make the challenge ahead that much more real.
“We know what we want to do: good food for the masses that echoes the Aquarium mission. We have a chance to be a model for local economies.”
Pawlcyn’s “Really Good Pasta” ($18) is appropriately named. On a recent visit to the Aquarium’s Portola Restaurant, the rotating dish, which also appears on the Mustards menu, delivers saucer-sized butternut squash ravioli in a complex and balanced brown butter-sage sauce, crowned by little roasted cubes of squash, toasted hazelnuts and a dusting of artisan jack cheese. The “Oysters Bingo” ($3 each), borrowed from Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen lineup, are a fresh and rich spin on a Rockefeller arrangement, with garlic and spinach baked beneath a comforter of Parmesan cheese. The pan-seared arctic char ($24.95), though, is the tender and moist highlight of the day (and a perfect alternative to farmed salmon), accented by sugar snap peas, page tangerine segments and fennel root and watercress shavings.
Paired with a cantelope-lime agua fresca ($3.75) from the cafe and a sweeping Pacific viewscape, this qualifies as high midday heaven on a plate, with zero residual damnation, as each dish is composed of nothing less than the most sustainable ingredients available.
New cafe options are also alluring, from the handmade tamales ($11.95) to the spinach and curly endive mimosa salad ($10.50) to the North Beach muffuletta with local salumi, fontina cheese and Cindy’s relish ($11.25).
But even as Rogers and Pawlcyn introduce these and even more exciting menu items, the potential for the restaurant remains only partly realized. There might not be a more scenic restaurant between Bodega Bay and Big Sur, but it’s hard to find it tucked away past the small cafe bottleneck. Its kitchen closes at 3pm in winter. Same goes for what would otherwise be the best bar by the bay.
“We’re working on that,” Pawlcyn says.
There are many other delicious devices under consideration. They are scouting comparable destinations with upscale food like MoMA and DeYoung Museum in San Francisco to borrow from their best practices, and meeting constantly with ARAMARK, the Aquarium food service provider that specializes in scalability. As Rogers says, “There’s a ton of ‘blue-skying’ going on.”
He would love to see the restaurant open to the public without the entrance fee. Pawlcyn wants to incorporate sushi, particularly because there is such a dearth of sustainable options (“I’m astounded how many people would rather eat the last tuna,” she says.) They’re talking wine dinners and farmer dinners and unprecedented happy hours: “We’d love to do tapas and wine in summer, close at 9 instead of 6,” Rogers says.
A blockbuster restaurant-cafe renovation is scheduled for 2012.
“We are philosophically treating the food service as a special exhibit,” Aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson says.
The changes fit with the further foodie-fication of the Aquarium’s mission. Seafood Watch has only grown more ambitious after turning 10, helping seafood lovers avoid fish caught or farmed in ways that damage ecosystems; some 36 million guides have been distributed since its launch. The iPhone app – half a million unique downloads and counting – continues to evolve with the brand new addition of Project Fishmap, which deputizes diners to upload good eateries they discover. The first-ever Super Green Eating Guide debuted with Aquarium’s 25th anniversary in 2009.
May 20-22’s Cooking For Solutions, the first with Pawlcyn and Rogers on board, is blue-whale scale. The program pamphlet alone has grown into a 42-page book just to preview all the cooking demos, salon series and food and wine adventures, and to profile arriving chefs like Chris Cosentino, Carla Hall and Charles Phan. The influential headliners – Rick Moonen, Guy Fieri, Alton Brown, Lynne Rossetto Kasper, P. Allen Smith and Nathan Lyon – could fill several books with their accomplishments. They’ll also fill a huge tent debuting in the Aquarium parking lot for demos and discussions.
Meanwhile the event’s nerdier component, the Sustainable Foods Institute, which educates policy makers, chefs and journalists on systemic challenges ranging from aqua-farming to pesticide policy, opens still more avenues, annually corralling more tastemakers like award-winning New York Times food writer Kim Severson and attending chefs like Honolulu’s Sam Choy.
Pawlcyn will amplify that versatility: While her sturdy fare – the roasted lemon and garlic chicken, the half-slab of ribs with cheddar-jalapeño corn sticks – drip approachability, her Napa cred and star chef connections will pull in that many elite names. The ultimate goal of these connections, fittingly enough, is more connections – soils to seahorses, streams to sharks.
“Connecting the ocean and earth and watershed to our food,” Pawlcyn says, “is what I really want to teach.
“People love food,” she continues. “If you have to eat, you might as well eat delicious, healthy, good-for-you, good-for-the-planet food.”