Rock | Born to be Wild

Irie Magazine | Rock | Born to be Wild

Born to be Wild

Pete Sittnick

Photography By: Mark Leet

I don’t think that I can recall my actual first meeting with Jan Birnbaum. I know I ate at his restaurant
Catahoula in Calistoga a number of times before we met in person. I remember how the flavors of the food were big and bold and passionate… I would then learn how this reflected in Chef Jan the person.

We did first work together on the opening of Sazerac in Seattle for the Kimpton Group. I was on the opening SWAT team out of San Francisco, and Jan was going to be the opening and consulting chef for the restaurant. Before the restaurant opened to the public, I remember how he would work in the kitchen all day and night until about 11:30pm, then come out and have a couple of cocktails, probably smoke some weed (I do not have firsthand confirmation), and then go ride his motorcycle around the city. I would make it down into the restaurant the next morning around 8am to start training for breakfast service, and Jan would already be in the kitchen. I couldn’t figure out how he could do that. At the opening party, when I ran into one of the restaurant purveyors, he told me “I get calls from Jan at 3am for a 50 pound bag of flour”. Unbelievable!

When I opened Martini House in 2001 in Napa Valley with Pat Kuleto and Todd Humphries, I would run into Jan a bunch. He was usually cruising around in his truck checking things out. It was in the next couple of years where we made the decision to do the restaurants in Rincon Park San Francisco, and Jan was going to come on board as the chef at the “Meat Restaurant”. This is where we started our relationship of practicality versus creativity and of business versus pleasure and of efficiency versus excess. Jan needed to design and build his own kitchen the way he wanted it. He basically got everything he wanted including a custom built brick oven that you could put 3 pigs into, but I told him he absolutely could not have his own shower stall in the kitchen. He tried to persuade me by saying it would save money on labor because he would never have to go home.

We got EPIC open in January 2008, and that’s where the fun really began. We were busy as all get out in the beginning, and we both just worked as hard as we could to stay afloat. I remember that first year having some yelling and screaming matches and debating what was really important and who was good at doing their job and who couldn’t hang with the big boys. Looking back, I think that I was trying to make an impression to Jan that I was just as tough as anyone in the kitchen. We scrambled through those first few years, deep in the middle of the recession, and trying to find an identity for the restaurant. It was a great exercise in evaluating what could actually wind up working whether it was making gumbo from scratch or using three different table salts or trying to do chocolate soufflés and still turn tables. What I am ultimately most proud of is that the two of us put together the EPIC Mission Statement together and it still stands to this day and that it really ties up all the balancing that needs to happen to make guests, employees and investors happy.

There are many stories out there to tell-the LA research and development road trip, the Portland investor dinner, the grand opening party, the Jeremiah Tower Stars reunion dinner, the Jacques Pepin visit to EPIC, the Paul Prudomme visit to EPIC and my first trip to New Orleans Jazzfest with Jan. These are funny stories, but they reflect on the true goodness and soul that Jan embodied, and how he shared it with me in his own unique way. I think I became closer to Jan once he “retired” from the day-to-day operations at EPIC. Maybe it was because I stuck it out or maybe it was because we actually began to make money or maybe it was just not seeing each other every day. Whatever it was, I am grateful that our friendship got to grow into more than just restaurant partners. We got to talk more about life and the things that we struggled with individually. We talked and listened to our favorite music and asked why it was like that. We debated whether or not eagles renewed their lives by biting off their feathers and beaks. We talked about food and cooking but it was more about how that satisfied your soul then about how it sold on a menu. This is truly a case where The Universe brought us together and showed us on our own way to become better humans and better friends.

When I went to see Jan before he died, we hugged and kissed and just talked about some stuff. Then, he said to me “I am sorry I told you to move”. At first I didn’t understand, but then he explained it. When Jan was expediting in the chef area at EPIC, I would always come in to his space to look at how the kitchen was performing. Jan took that as a nuisance and hindrance of what he was doing so he would just yell “MOVE!” I was in awe of how he would remember that and how he had probably been carrying that around with him. I was truly touched that this made a difference to him and now I could reflect on his influence on me.

When Jan died, I was sharing with another chef about how he used to yell at me at EPIC during service and in front of guests and employees. The chef said “you were just taking a shower in Jan’s passion”. I now realize how grateful I am to have been able to experience this shower and not the one I wouldn’t let him build in the kitchen. Keep kicking ass with one leg, Chef. I love you.