For 10 years in her teens and twenties, Polly Lappetito fished for halibut and salmon in chilly waters off Alaska. Now, at age 41, she's executive chef at Greystone Restaurant in St. Helena, Calif.—the third woman to run the exhibition kitchen since it opened in 1995. This October, students from the on-site Culinary Institute of America will cook beside her for the first time. (707) 967-1010, www.ciachef.edu.
Q How'd you start out?
A The cook on a boat doesn't have to fish. I'd think, look how warm and cozy it is in the galley, so I switched—and was miserable. All of a sudden your kitchen is at a 45-degree angle. Or somebody leaves a fridge unlatched and your cake batter sails across the galley. But food was big in my family. I got halfway through culinary school and decided I'd go work in a restaurant for a while.
Q Why in the Napa Valley?
A In 1997, friends took me to lunch at Greystone, and I sat there wondering, Wow, could I do that? So I left a resume. Joyce Goldstein, the chef then, taught me to be passionate about food.
Q You've cooked there for almost a decade?
A Actually, I did a stint in the front of the house. It was fun to wear nice clothes and not be covered in slime or on fire.
Q And the exhibition kitchen—good or bad?
A It's great to connect. You learn how people eat. I'll stop a cook who's hurrying and say, "See that woman there? You can see her face. Do you really want to send that pork chop out that way?"
Q Qualms about training youngsters?
A Our guests already think we're all students, but, no, we're excited. We're creating the nation's future chefs right here.
Q And the name Lappetito?
A A friend says it means I'm hungry. I'm sticking with that.
Photography by Terrence McCarthy
This article was first published in September 2007. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.