Ode to Jan Birnbaum

A young cook worked for me at Orchard Kitchen for about two years, starting when he was a 17-year-old junior in high school. Last fall, when he had graduated and was ready to move on to cooking school, my sous chef got it in his mind to start writing “Thank You” letters to key member of our restaurant staff. I think that’s a pretty unnatural thing to ask of an eighteen year old, but whatever. His note to me had plenty of thanks for things he had learned; a nice attempt at telling me I had done my job as his first real chef. I told him that his thanks was all well and good, but the proof that I had succeeded as his chef would be if I had become the voice in his head. If I’d succeeded he would always hear me asking him “Did you taste that?” as he finished a dish, or upon failing to locate something he was looking for in the walk-in, he would hear me asking “Did you look for it like you expected to find it?”  

That last voice is not really my voice at all.  

I do say that all the time, as my staff can attest.  If you return empty handed from the walk-in, telling me that something I asked for is not there, you will surely hear those words coming out of my mouth. 

I repeat those words because Jan Birnbaum said them to me in about 1995, and they stuck.

Jan Birnbaum at Catahoula

Jan Birnbaum at Catahoula

At that time I was a server at Jan’s restaurant Catahoula in Calistoga, Napa Valley. He had sent me out to the store room to find some plates. The trip to the store room was an arduous one in the hot Calistoga sun. It required exiting the restaurant via the back door of the kitchen, walking about 40 yards down the alley to the street behind the hotel, turning down that street and walking another half a block to a different alley, and eventually arriving at a long, portable storage unit. I had done this, and after poking around in the store room for a couple of minutes, I had given up. I returned to Jan and told him that the plates were not there. Jan - who at the time was pushing 450 pounds and all of 5’ 6” tall - drew in close to me, and with a look that blended extreme disappointment in me, supreme confidence in what he was saying, and a firmness that let me know in no uncertain terms that I was not off the hook, said “They’re there.  Now I need you to go back there and look for them like you expect to find them.” Point made. His deep, raspy voice was successfully implanted in my brain, forever. And yes, the plates were there.

Jan died on Tuesday at age 61 of cancer. I’m not very happy about that.

I always felt like I had a strained relationship with Jan. As I mentioned, I was working at Catahoula as a server, not as a cook. I worked there part-time for about two years, but always in the front of the house. During the same period, I was working full time as the Chef at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. I always felt that in his mind, my working as a waiter was some sort of betrayal of the kitchen.  

I learned a lot about service there. I was a pretty horrible waiter, technically speaking. Waiting is a skill, I would come to learn. I had never waited tables before, and while I easily passed the food test that perspective wait staff were given, it did not follow that becoming a waiter was easy for me. How to use a POS system was a totally new to me. I was far from graceful on the floor, and at 6’ 3”, there was a lot of me floundering around being less than graceful. I remember Jan calling a meeting of the wait-staff specifically so he could tell all of us—and I assume me specifically—in his low growl of a voice “If you are walking quickly through the dining room, DO NOT STOP!” I remember him pausing for effect before he said that, and directing his most intense gaze directly at me. I had a habit of doing just that: walking full speed through the busy dining room, suddenly realizing that I had forgotten to enter something into the POS and stopping mid-stride, usually to the extreme detriment of the server half a pace behind me. Sigh.

I have to say that the way Catahoula was organized was a pain in the ass for waiters: Jan had three separate kitchens, identified as HOT, BRICK, and COLD. A fourth “kitchen” was added on busy nights, with some dishes coming out of the BAR kitchen, 40 yards across the lobby. Because of this, entering tickets into the POS was complicated. If you had to order first courses for a three-top, and they had ordered a Pizza, the Crispy Fishes and a Tomatoes salad, you needed to enter it into the system like this:

The infamous Brick Oven at Catahoula 

The infamous Brick Oven at Catahoula 

Pizza     (with Hot, with Cold)

Fishes     (with Brick, with Cold)

Tomatoes (with Brick, with Hot)

On a busy night, with a five-table section and four waiters clamoring to get their orders into the only two POS terminals in the place, complexity makes for a lot to have to get right… or wrong. Entering a six-top took a lot of concentration, especially when you were already in the weeds. A modern POS systems does this for you, but in 1994 if you didn’t do it manually, then the food would not come up at the same time and you would have wilted salads or cold pizza… and a very unhappy Jan.  

Jan really didn’t like me very much.  

That might be an understatement. Jan did, in my opinion, run hot and cold with people. He either loved you immediately and took you under his wing, or he didn’t and let you know it. I had a number of very close friends at Catahoula. Some he loved and others he didn’t. It was just like that and it was not very subtle most of the time. I, quite frankly, wasn’t used to not being liked. I was used to being the Golden Boy, thank you very much! I’d cooked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in France and had been the Golden Boy. I was the current Golden Boy at Stag’s Leap. It frustrated me that I couldn’t break the Jan code and get in his good graces.  

Having initially failed to master the skills of a waiter, I got my first review at Catahoula and was told in no uncertain terms that I was failing; I was almost shown the door. I remember protesting to the Front of House manager Jessica, because she really had not given me any real training, as she had told me she would when I was hired. It was Jessica who convinced Jan to give me another shot. I would spend a three-month stint as an expeditor—a demotion from waiter to be sure—so that I could assimilate the necessary appreciation for how the front and the back of the house work together in harmony. It would have been easier for me to have walked away from Catahoula at that point.  But I put up with this rather embarrassing demotion—and a raft of accrued karma from the kitchen staff—because I loved Catahoula, it’s people, and quite frankly because I wanted to show Jan I could do it.

The time I spent at Catahoula was a period that meant a lot to me.  

I had a great deal of fun as part of a group of 20-somethings, living the food and wine dream in Napa Valley, working in a hot, new restaurant. There was always far too much wine and food, and plenty of comradery, too. It was full of coming-of-age and coming out moments for many staff members, and lots of romantic connections among the staff. It was a formative period for many of us and I made friends there that I still have to this day.

Vincent as a "20-something"

Vincent as a "20-something"

I learned a lot about food. I also learned, among other things, that it is not a good idea to go to the bar across the street with your fellow waiters in between shifts and drink a couple of double margaritas. Bad idea.

I returned to my dinner shift that night and promptly dropped not one but two full trays of glasses on Catahoula’s concrete floor. The second tray I literally dropped right at Jan’s feet. I wanted to die. Jan, having some idea that I might be drunk, sidled all of his girth up right next to me, closer than he ever would normally, and asked me some question or other. I’m certain he was trying to smell my breath to prove his suspicion that I couldn’t be that clumsy if I weren’t drunk. Fortunately I was tall enough to remain undetected. That was over 20 years ago and my cheeks are red right now writing this. I still feel like such an ass just relating that story today.

I was able to stay as long as I did, I believe, because I had one rather valuable skill: I could sell the shit out of his food. And I knew wine, too, so I could sell the shit out of that as well. A server who can up-sell creates revenue for the establishment. It was probably my only saving grace, and I made a pretty nice chunk of change doing it. That too was probably a reason for Jan to resent me; in the early days I probably made more money on a Saturday night than he did as the owner. (I would later come to understand that feeling years later, when I first owned my own restaurant.) At any rate, I always had the highest check average of any waiter - even ones who were just plain better waiters—and my tip percentage was always well over 20%, even when calculated on the full bill with tax. I could schmooze and I could talk about Jan’s food in loving, dulcet tones. I would always sell the specials or anything else the kitchen wanted me to sell.

I took pride in my abilities to make the diners feel that they were very lucky to be at Catahoula. That really was not as much of a skill as it was a reflection of the fact that I loved Catahoula and I loved that man’s food.

Jan with Lissa & Hiro Sone, Michael Chiarlo in the background 

Jan with Lissa & Hiro Sone, Michael Chiarlo in the background 

His food was fucking amazing, with a depth, concentration and complexity of flavor. I had not often experience that before and he seemed to do it with ease. Jan was the first chef I knew who had such a clear way of articulating what his food was: it was Cajun Inspired Modern American Cuisine, he’d say.  Well, yes it was. Of course. He was also the first chef I had met who had a clear way of articulating what his plating style was: he wanted his food to look as if it had just fallen on the plate, in a very natural way.  And it did look like that, and I knew as a cook just how hard it was to achieve that “look” of simplicity.

After Catahoula, Jan slimmed down to a shadow of his former weight, but his incredibly distinctive, gravely drawl would always remain. It was sure weird at first to hear that voice emanating from this little person. I didn’t see him often.

Jan birnbaum3.jpg

Later I would meet my wife, Tyla, through a friend I had met at Catahoula (one of the same ones I was drinking margaritas with, in fact).  Long after I had left, Tyla would go on to work for Jan at Catahoula, too. Jan liked Tyla immediately, but what’s not to like? I even heard later that when he found out that Tyla and I were engaged, he’d said that fact had improved his opinion of me. That made me happy.

I got to host Jan at Meadowood when Jacques Pepin had his 70th birthday. Jan and many other famous chefs were in my kitchen to prepare a feast for Jacques. This was the first time I was in any kitchen with Jan as chef. A few months later Jan called to invite me to be one of the guest chefs at an event he was doing in Oregon. I was so surprised and so flattered to have him ask me to be one of the chefs for an event he was putting together. He told me that unlike a lot for these events, this was a real chef’s event and was sure to be a lot of fun. I had just done another event out-of-state not long before and I had important events at Meadowood that overlapped with Jan’s event. And so I said no to Jan. That is probably my biggest regret in my life.

Jan was never my chef; I was just a waiter at Catahoula, not one of his cadre of cooks. But his influence on me was great and, more importantly, he is still one of the most important voices in my head.  

I miss you Jan. You will always be with me, and to the best of my ability, I will pass on what you shared with me. Thank you, Chef.