What in the world were Robert and Margrit Mondavi doing in Sacramento last night, other than the obvious, which was savoring dinner at The Waterboy with a couple I didn't recognize? Dinner at The Waterboy is reason enough for a trek from Napa Valley to Sacramento, sure, but I suspect more was on the agenda than a meal with old friends. Probably had something to do with the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science nearing completion at UC Davis, underwritten with a $25 million donation from the legendary Napa Valley vintner.
Then another thought occurred: Could the Mondavis possibly be scouting out Waterboy owner/chef Rick Mahan as a candidate for a Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence? Never mind that the awards haven't been given out for about a decade. Though Mondavi subsequently lost his pivotal Napa Valley winery, the awards conceivably could be revived by the corporate officials who now own the place. Up to now, however, they haven't picked up many of the threads that Mondavi so famously wove into the fabric of the nation's culinary consciousness. But we can hope that they again will be proactive in promoting the smart, artful and, yes, moderate consumption of wine and food, always one of the abiding principles of Mondavi's philosophy. Revival of the awards would be a savvy way to reemphasize that connection between food and wine while also recognizing Mondavi's many contributions to the state's wine industry, and why not start with Rick Mahan?
Quick, who is the only Sacramento chef ever to receive a Robert Mondavi Culinary Award of Excellence? Why, Biba Caggiano, who got the tribute in 1996, the same year that five other chefs were recognized, including Cindy Pawlcyn, who at the time had 10 restaurants in San Francisco and Napa Valley, including Mustards Grill and Fog City Diner; Nobuyuki Matsuhisa of Matsuhisa in Beverly Hills; and Norman Van Aken of Norman's in Coral Gables, Fla.
The honor included a 30-square-foot portrait of each chef by Santa Barbara artist Rise Delmar-Ochsner. Caggiano's still looms over the bar of her midtown restaurant Biba. Space for such large art is tight at The Waterboy, but if the awards are resurrected maybe Mahan could hang a portrait at his new place.