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The Art of Cooking

[whitespace] John McReynolds
Michael Amsler

Magic moment: Cafe LaHaye chef/owner John McReynolds realized during a serendipitous moment that he was fated to have a career in food.

For John McReynolds, the kitchen is his canvas

By Marina Wolf

JOHN MCREYNOLDS is a tall man. His diminutive kitchen, a triangular space opening out onto the proportionately small dining room of Cafe LaHaye in Sonoma, seems like a My-First-Kitchen toy when he's inside it. As he sprawls down into a chair, McReynolds looks like an overgrown boy, his casual corduroy jacket and jeans contrasting pleasantly with the graying hair and the San Francisco Chronicle review taped up in the front window, touting McReynolds and his young restaurant as one of the best new restaurants in the county since the Willowside Cafe.

McReynolds' embarrassment about such attention from high places seems boyish, too; he says repeatedly, as if still somewhat stunned, that he really was not expecting the success.

"Beyond a local neighborhood restaurant," he says, "which is what I intended it to be, [the response] surprises me."

But anyone stepping into the light-filled space at the front of the La Haye building wouldn't be surprised at the draw. Brigitte McReynolds, John's wife, has filled the walls of the cafe with her art: canvases of smoky, mysterious figures laid against softly angular backdrops.

And the menu showcases John's art: simple, hearty European preparations of the Sonoma Valley's best foodstuffs. "It's the same process that happens for artists when they get involved in doing their art," he says, gazing thoughtfully at the play of the afternoon light on the floor. "You lose track of time, you lose track of everything else except what you're doing.

"For me, it's the same kind of feeling that I had when I was a child in the sandbox, playing with my tractor and making mud pies," he continues, blinking out of his reverie. "It's intensely gratifying and fun."

McReynolds' hands-on cooking experiences didn't stop with mud pies, thankfully. His mother, tired, perhaps, of cooking for five children, let them cook Saturday dinner, so that all the children--four boys and a girl--got their turn at the stove. McReynolds particularly remembers his first cookbook performance at age 10, featuring Potatoes Volcano from The Joy of Cooking, a mound of mashed potatoes filled with a cheddar béchamel sauce. "I was famous for that," recalls McReynolds with a wry grin. "I wasn't asked to do any repeat performances, but everybody was impressed with the way it looked."

The young McReynolds continued his love of food through his years at San Jose State University, where he studied to become a psychiatric technician while working in a county alcohol and drug rehab center. He then took a six-month tour of Europe before coming back to work for five more years in the family construction business, putting in roads for the military in the Monterey area. "We had a contract with the Army and Navy for doing all of their streets," McReynolds says, "so we lived down there in a motel, and we'd go out every night to dinner somewhere on the Peninsula, and we always ate well."

He might still be pushing asphalt were it not for a friend with foresight. At dinner with McReynolds, who was talking on and on as usual about food in general and the dinner in particular, the friend suddenly said, "John, you should be a chef."

McReynolds had never considered being a chef until that fateful utterance, but he knew it was right. "It was one of those serendipitous moments, when you've been waiting your whole life to figure out what you wanted to do. ..."

The very next day, McReynolds went to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, picked up an application, and two months later started the program.

The same casual serendipity continued after his graduation from the CCA: the right jobs just seemed to drop in his lap, out of nowhere, like that yacht gig in Mallorca, Spain. McReynolds was in the south of France on vacation when an acquaintance suggested that he see a yacht broker about getting a job. He was hired on the spot and flown the next day to Mallorca, where he boarded a private yacht and spent the next year cooking Italian food, using the food they picked up at various Mediterranean ports.

Then there was the dude ranch in Colorado that opened up right when McReynolds was working full-time and going to school in San Francisco. "The idea of being ... in the middle of nowhere sounded like a perfect job," he says.

Later, when he found himself again on the verge of burnout with three years at regular restaurants, McReynolds got tapped to establish the food service at Skywalker Ranch, the new LucasFilm complex in Marin County.


McReynolds' recipe for whole-wheat pasta with
butternut squash, prosciutto, and garlic cream.


NOW MCREYNOLDS seems to be settling down. He has a 5-year-old daughter to take care of, and new teaching duties next spring at Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School. And, above all, he owns his own restaurant. "It's harder than I expected," he admits about being the owner. "When you're just the chef of a restaurant, no matter how committed you are, no matter how responsible and involved in the process you are, you can still get up and walk away.

"But when it's your own business, you can't do that. You're stuck. ... I think that there's a lot more motivation to make it work."

But for all the drudgery of a small restaurant--cleaning the oven, peeling potatoes--there's still room for art, for total immersion in the experience, the Potatoes Volcano, the mud pie. Sometimes the artistic abandon gets McReynolds in trouble with the clock, he says. But that doesn't stress him out, not anymore.

"We open at 5:30 p.m., but at 5:15 I'm often still figuring out what the specials are going to be," he says. "I couldn't have done that five years ago, or even three years ago, but now I feel like I've been doing this long enough and I feel comfortable enough that I know that something is going to come out, and it's going to be good."

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From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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