May 06, 2002 12:00 PM

I knew since I was 13 that I wanted to be a chef,” says Cindy Pawlcyn. “I never had any doubt.” Good thing. Professional cooking is a macho world, and Pawlcyn spent her rookie years getting hazed by y-chromosomed colleagues. One boss, she recalls, treated her as a klutz, a jinx or both. “He said everything in the kitchen that broke, broke because I was there,” Pawlcyn says. At another job, if Pawlcyn worked side by side with two male chefs, she’d be assigned “a bigger load,” she says, “just because they thought I couldn’t do it.”

Do it she did. Not only has Pawlcyn been credited with helping to create Northern California’s so-called Wine Country cuisine, which relies on fresh ingredients and rich seasonings to complement the flavor of the region’s robust Cabernets and crisp Chardonnays, she has also turned her Napa Valley restaurant (she has two) Mustards Grill into a nationally renowned eatery. “Cindy is a trailblazer because she helped make the Napa Valley not just a wine destination but a culinary destination as well,” says rival chef Thomas Keller, who owns Napa’s acclaimed French Laundry. “Now when people plan their vacations, they say, ‘I want to eat at Mustards.’ ”

It is a reputation Pawlcyn, 46, continues to build on. Last May she launched a second Napa restaurant, Mira-monte, which draws upon Latin-inspired cuisine, and this summer she plans to open Cindy’s Diner, also in Napa Valley, specializing in down-home cooking. Then there’s her most recent endeavor, Mustards Grill Napa Valley Cookbook, which has sold 20,000 copies since its release last fall. “I’ve worked really hard,” Pawlcyn says, “but I’m getting to the part now where it’s starting to pay me back.”

Customers have been reaping the rewards of Pawlcyn’s cooking since 1983, when Mustards Grill opened on the side of a two-lane highway in Yountville. The now $4 million-a-year establishment has become a favorite of celebrities (Goldie Hawn, Sharon Stone and Robin Williams are fans), local vintners and even passing truck drivers thanks to its down-home feel (a wooden sign out front boasts Pork Chops: Almost a Million Sold) and sophisticated spin on standard American fare. Onion rings ($5.95) are cut so thin they look like strands of straw, while barbecued baby-back ribs ($19.95) are slowly smoked in a wood-burning oven, then topped with sharp Cheddar cheese. Even lemon meringue pie ($6.50) gets the royal treatment—with a 4-in. crown of meringue.

The youngest of four children raised in Minneapolis by Stephen, the owner of a small potato chip company who died 5 in 1986, and homemaker Dorothy, 83, Pawlcyn began experimenting with food at age 8, when she would whip up dinners like blood sausage—a family favorite—and recipes from Julia Child’s cookbooks. By the time she entered Golden Valley High School, she was taking culinary classes five nights a week and running her own catering business out of her family’s kitchen. “Even then,” says Pawlcyn’s sister Mary, 53, an antiques dealer, “I never knew her not to have satisfied customers.”

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Stout in 1977 with a degree in hotel and restaurant administration, Pawlcyn studied at Paris’s famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school for a few months before landing a job as a sous-chef at a Chicago bistro.

In 1980 Pawlcyn and her two bosses decided to relocate to the Napa Valley, where three years later they became partners in a new restaurant. “When Mustards opened, there was nothing in Napa as far as restaurants were concerned,” says Margrit Mondavi, the wife of local wine mogul Robert Mondavi. “Cindy came in and gave it a cachet and style.”

It’s where, in 1985, Pawlcyn met her husband-to-be, Murdo Laird, who by then had become a Mustards regular. Today Laird, 47, a former film technician, tends to the couple’s 26-acre property, which includes more than 500 organic apple, olive, peach and fig trees and yields much of the fresh produce Pawlcyn uses in her restaurants.

There’s also a wooden deck with 360° views of the surrounding hills and a lap pool where Pawlcyn swims every morning. More often than not, though, she can be found in her kitchen. “If I have a bad day,” she says, “I make soup. Then I feel better.”

Galina Espinoza

Colleen O’Connor in Napa Valley

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