Cindy Pawlcyn, a pioneer in the development of wine country cuisine, is the owner of three of Napa Valley’s beloved restaurants: the legendary Mustards Grill, the eclectic Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. Since Mustards opened in 1983, Pawlcyn has been involved in the creation of over a dozen new restaurants in the Bay Area including, Fog City Diner, Bix, Roti, Betelnut, Buckeye Roadhouse and Tra Vigne. Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Pawlcyn grew up in an accomplished culinary family where fresh, seasonal ingredients were an integral part of every meal and supper-time was always family-time. “My parents raised me to appreciate good cooking,” she fondly says of her mother and her father.
At 13, Pawlcyn was working at a local cooking school and equipment store and helping in her mother’s kitchen. She ran a catering business through high school, and went on to earn a degree in hotel and restaurant management from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She further augmented her formal training by taking courses at Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne in Paris.
Pawlcyn began her career in the kitchen of the Pump Room in Chicago. She went on to cook in various other esteemed restaurants in both the windy city and Minneapolis before moving to California in 1980 to take a job at McArthur Park. Her first experience in a Northern Californian kitchen, Pawlcyn gained valuable insights into the region’s unique food culture.
Pawlcyn entered Napa Valley’s burgeoning restaurant culture as the opening chef at Meadowood in St. Helena and from there joined Bruce LeFavour at his acclaimed Rose et LeFavour. Armed with extensive kitchen leadership and regional culinary expertise, she successfully launched Mustards Grill in 1983, her now landmark and legendary restaurant.
With over 25 years of experience working and living in the Napa Valley, Pawlycn remains firmly involved in the kitchen operations of her flagship Mustards Grill which has its own organic gardens that supplement the other locally sourced produce used in her dishes. A visit to Pawlcyn’s own one and a half acre organic garden at her St. Helena home reveals the culinary spitfire’s solid commitment to seasonal inspiration and the use of the region’s bountiful harvests as the fresh ingredients for brilliantly delectable creations.
“My father had a good green thumb and he taught me a lot about fresh produce and instilled a love for those flavors,” she says. “Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve had a garden, whether it was a window box of herbs when I lived in Chicago or the large garden at my house. I feel it’s important for freshness and flavor and it brings people closer to their food.”
An avid book collector, Pawlcyn draws inspiration from her vast personal culinary library. Her collection of nearly 2,000 tomes fills three rooms in her home along with a separate tent bungalow for the literary overflow. Her collection includes international and regional cookbooks by subject (from cheesemaking and fish to rhubarb and bread) written by luminaries like M.F.K. Fisher as well as some rarities, including a cookbook written by surrealist artist Salvador Dali. When Pawlcyn creates internationally rooted dishes, she researches her vast collection to ensure the authenticity of technique and flavor combinations that consistently bring a distinct taste of cultural heritage and rich tradition to her diners.
Another aspect of Pawlcyn’s dedication to authenticity is her experiential research. Nourishing her insatiable thirst for culinary knowledge, Pawlcyn takes yearly trips to gastronomic capitols across the globe, trying new restaurants and cuisines while collecting ideas to further translate the authenticity to her own creations. She recently spent time in San Sebastian, Spain in search of traditional tapas and then to Oaxaca, Mexico to steep herself in the bold flavors of the region. A culinary exploration of Italy is her next planned excursion.
Pawlcyn’s passions and profession are deeply intertwined. When not in the restaurants, she is often found in her garden, cooking for friends and family, or in her ceramics studio, creating beautiful handmade dishes. An avid potter, Pawlcyn’s dishes are incorporated into décor of Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen, on display in the custom cupboards throughout the restaurant, and used as serving pieces both there and at Mustards Grill.
A pioneer in her field, Pawlcyn has a devoted local and national following and has been acknowledged by many top culinary organizations and magazines. An inductee of Who’s Who of Cooking in America, she has also been twice nominated for the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in California. She is the recipient of the Robert Mondavi Award for Culinary Excellence, in addition to the Fine Beverage and Food Federation’s Career Achievement Award. Pawlcyn most recently participated in Bravo TV's Top Chef Masters. She has authored four cookbooks: The James Beard Award winning Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook; Fog City Diner Cookbook; Big Small Plates; Cindy Pawlcyn's Appetizers; and her newest, Cindy's Supper Club.