The year was 1999, and the last time we checked in with Chef Kelly McCown he was riding the rising tide of the 90’s Seattle culinary scene. Fresh off a decade of learning, creating, and collecting accolades, he had taken a spontaneous detour to travel Costa Rica and around Central America for a couple months, because, why not? McCown arrived in the Napa Valley ready to work, but the work was not quite ready for him.
Excited for the next stage of his career, McCown expected to jump right into any number of prestigious kitchens. But the venerable and established restaurants of the Valley were relatively unimpressed with the resume of someone from the newer, and, to them, unproven Seattle culinary world. No one had heard of the places McCown had worked. No San Francisco, New York, or European kitchen experience? No, thank you!
The Napa Valley of 1999 was one where The French Laundry’s star was rising, and the old stalwarts like Tra Vigne, Mustards, Napa Valley Grill, Piatti and Bistro Don Giovanni, to name a few, were very competitive kitchens. The top kitchen management positions that McCown was qualified for proved hard to find. McCown was discouraged, but with his strong work ethic and a clear-eyed realism, he soon decided he was ready to take anything. That’s when fate intervened, and the highly revered Chef Todd Humphries offered him a position as a Chef de Partie on the rotisserie station at the restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone Culinary Academy. Although McCown felt that this was technically a step back in the kitchen hierarchy, he was ready to work and to see where the opportunity took him. He said, “Screw it!” and took the job.
Chef Todd Humphries was already an established and well-respected chef, having worked for the man who was arguably the most influential chef at the time in America, Gray Kunz, at the seminal NYC restaurant, L’Epinasse. As the second of Chef Kelly’s most influential mentors, (the first being Chef Scott Carsberg of Flying Fish in Seattle), Humphries was more the Yin to Carsberg’s Yang. Where Carsberg was fiery, Humphries was calm, where Carsberg was someone you didn’t want to anger, Humphries was someone you didn’t want to disappoint, says McCown. He was like the dad you didn’t want to let down. Methodical and directed, he taught Kelly how to build a team and inspire and bring people together. He was a “chef’s chef,” not a celebrity chef. He had an incredible work ethic and was usually seen with his head down in the kitchen, all traits Kelly admires and emulates as a Chef to this day.
At Greystone, McCown quickly worked his way from Chef de Partie to Chef de Cuisine, and he and Humphries led the cooking school’s restaurant to record-setting numbers. When Humphries was invited to the prestigious Pebble Beach Masters of Food and Wine, McCown naturally expected to accompany him. But Humphries turned McCown down, saying, “If you stay and run the restaurant while I’m away you can help me open a new project when I get back.”
McCown was disappointed not to be included in the prestigious event, but true to form, he put his head down and worked hard, resolving to turn disappointment into opportunity. Again, this attitude paid off. The project Humphries promised him turned out to be the highly acclaimed Pat Kuleto collaboration Martini House in St. Helena, where McCown again ran the kitchen as Chef de Cuisine. Under MCown’s guidance, Martini House would gain fame and garner numerous awards, including Esquire Magazine’s award for top new restaurants in America, Bon Appetit’s “Best of 2002”, the San Francisco Chronicle’s top five restaurants for new American cuisine and one star from the Michelin Guide.
Now having put in his dues and at a peak of his professional life, McCown took a turn to pursue a dream job as a winery chef, an idea that had always intrigued him. It seemed the quintessential Napa Valley gig and was a growing position at the time. The economy was booming and Napa tourism was thriving. When he found out the Francis Ford Coppola-owned Chateau at Inglenook was hiring, McCown jumped at the opportunity. He faced seemingly endless interviews for the job, which finally culminated with meeting and cooking for Coppola at a final “try out,” featuring a multi-course chef’s tasting menu where Kelly pulled out all the stops. Now, Francis Ford Coppola is renowned as a wine lover, and a foodie of sorts, but he is not into “fancy.” At the end of the evening he simply asked McCown, “But can you roast a chicken?” He could, and McCown was hired on as Executive Chef at the winery. After coming off the high of the success of Martini House and landing this dream job, Kelly thought to himself, “I MADE IT!”
There he was, working for Francis Ford Coppola at the oldest Chateau in the Valley as an Executive Chef. He had a staff, his own gardens on the property, and creative freedom. He traveled the world cooking and representing the winery. At home, he staged elaborate events, like one where the team turned the barrel room into a bamboo forest and projected Akira Kurosawa films onto the celling during dinner. Then there was the event, McCown recalls, where they took the Chateau back in time to the 1800’s, putting guests in horse and buggy at the gates, preparing and serving the meal without electricity while in period costumes created by Coppola’s Hollywood effects team.
Life couldn’t have been better – it was like a dream. And then McCown woke up to economic collapse of 2008 and the Great Recession. Everyone was affected, even in the fabled Napa Valley. The winery was restructured, and soon McCown’s job did not exist any more. The party was over. Despite the crushing disappointment of losing this dream job, he once again put himself out there, willing to dive into the next chapter of his life and career, whatever that might be. He applied to one restaurant group he had heard good things about in Sacramento, and took an interview at Ella Dining Room and Bar, though he had NO INTENTION (emphasis his) of ever working there or of moving to Sacramento. But once again, McCown would soon find that opportunity is sometimes where you least expect it, especially if you are open, willing, and ready to work!
Up Next, Part 3: Chef Kelly McCown Comes to Sacramento