As a neophyte she was inspired by cooking homemade marinara sauce and German potato salad. Today her meals are haute cuisine, but her fundamental enthusiasm and desire to regale remain unchanged.
Chef Karen M. Hadley, the new executive chef at The Penguins Restaurant and Bar set for a "grand reopening" in Napa Oct. 4., has been cooking since she was 8-years-old.
"My mother taught me how to make spaghetti sauce from scratch," she said. "The rest is history."
At 48, Hadley has gone from a single mother struggling to make ends meet, to a culinary school graduate and professional chef.
According to daughter, Elana Galvan, 21, Hadley was creative even before culinary school.
"My mom used to come up with creative stuff when I was a little girl. We didn't have much money when I was growing up," she said. "For my dinner, she would serve a tomato stuffed with tuna salad, served on lettuce leaf."
One day changed her life
It was a batch of potato salad that changed her life.
She was asked to bring a salad to her father's 60th birthday, so Hadley whipped up a batch of the potato variety.
"Daryl Sattui told me that everyone loved my potato salad," she said. "He asked me if I would be interested in making it for his deli."
That deli, at V. Sattui Winery in St. Helena, is estimated to serve between 1,800 and 2,000 visitors a day on the weekends.
"I asked him how much would I have to make. He said about one hundred pounds a week. I was going to pass it up, but my dad said, 'do you know what an opportunity it is?' So, I made up a demonstration batch, and from July 3, 1987 until May, 2000, I continued to distribute my potato salad until my chef externship started."
Hadley made a daunting 36,000 pounds of potato salad in nine years.
It was during that time that she made a personal pledge to use only fresh ingredients in her products, an assurance she continues today.
"I did everything from scratch, it was hard work. I would get my little princess off to track practice, then I would go home and put on potatoes. I would go back to watch Elana, then I would run home to take the potatoes off the stove," she said.
Her diligence paid off, she was able to pay for her culinary education, up-front and in-full.
Her daughter, now 21, worked at the Deli at V. Sattui Winery.
Galvan said that tourists from all over came in looking for the salad, long after she discontinued its production.
"I still make it for special orders. No one knows the recipe. I will hand it down to my daughter when I am very old," Hadley said.
She says that her mother taught her how to make hot potato salad, the classic German recipe, but she improved upon it.
"I put bacon in it, substituted tomatoes for pimentos and bumped it up," she said. "Who knows, maybe it will be on The Penguins' lunch menu."
Napa Valley Culinary School
Hadley applied and was accepted at the Napa Valley Culinary School, in St. Helena, in 1999.
"Dr. Sprott, my employer, cried when I was accepted," she said.
In 1987, Hadley began working full-time as the office manager for a local orthodontist, Dr. Robert Sprott.
"Karen did everything from hiring to dusting. Whatever I asked her to do, she would complete it, and very well. She is quite competent and reliable," said Sprott. "She had always wanted to be a chef. I knew that. She had been working for sometime making the world's greatest potato salad. It wasn't out of the blue that she applied to culinary school, it made sense for her."
Hadley said her friends thought she was absolutely crazy.
"I downsized my income from $50,000 a year to minimum wage," Hadley said.
Karen's old fashioned potato salad with bacon was such a success that her initial thought was to sell the recipe and the business.
"I had so many people wanting to market my salad, but it is more complex than I even imagined." Hadley said.
She felt she needed to be educated in all aspects of the culinary field like food management, safety and sanitation, food and beverage cost control and marketing.
She wanted to make an educated decision on the fate of her potato salad recipe. The final verdict is still pending.
Hadley says that it was tough going through school, all over again, at 45.
"I was the eldest in the class. The most memorable part was coming home late and seeing my 19-year-old daughter, standing in the doorway, tapping her toe. She was worried that I wasn't home doing my homework," she said. "I will never forget that image. It was total role reversal."
The culinary program latest for 14 "extremely intense" months.
Hadley credits executive chef and instructor George Torassa with being her inspiration. He is now at the Culinary Institute of America in San Francisco.
"He pushed me to achieve the best that I could and to learn more. He was an extreme inspiration and great instructor. He was so proud of me when I graduated and he told me that he knew I could do it," she said.
In order to graduate, Hadley had to complete 800 hours of supervised work, called an externship. She saw an ad in the newspaper for a salad cook at Domain Chandon and applied.
"I took my resume in and briefly spoke with chef Robert Curry," she said. "Traditionally in the restaurant business you are supposed to try working in a kitchen for a few hours, several days in a row, for free. After the second day, I asked chef Curry if I had a job."
Curry gave Hadley the position of Garde-mangre, and put her in charge of all of the cold items on the menu, like salad, foie gras, tureens and oysters.
Her externship and subsequent employment, mostly under Curry, lasted from July 2000 until July 2002.
Since April 2002, Curry has been the Chef de Cuisine at Disney's Flying Fish Cafe in Orlando.
"Karen is a very upbeat individual, perfect for the restaurant business. She is really passionate about her work. She has a great love for cooking and for food," he said.
Hadley remained at Domain until Curry left, then started to explore other opportunities.
New owners open for dinner
Hadley heard there was new ownership at The Penguins, so she arranged a meeting with owners Louis Maldonada and Greg Hosburgh.
After a few meetings, she was offered the position of executive chef.
"The restaurant had been a seafood restaurant and they wanted to continue in the same tradition. The owners have given me great creative license in planning the menu," said Hadley.
She plans to change the menu regularly and will also have periodic specials.
Co-owner Maldonada decided to go into the restaurant business after helping his brother start one in Merced.
"It has always been a dream of mine to start something. When the (original) Penguins Restaurant was closing, I saw it as a great opportunity," he said.
According to Hosburgh, the restaurant was founded in 1977 by the Drossos Family.
"We plan on carrying out the tradition of the Drossos Family. They won't be disappointed," Hosburgh said. "We are committed to making this one of the finest restaurants in Napa Valley."
Maldonada explained that the original owners were from Greece and wanted to go back to retire.
"We decided to keep the original name, because of its history and so many people already know it. Why change something that's working?" he said. "People always stop here when they are traveling. Even when we were closed for renovations, they were calling and waiting for us to open."
The restaurant quietly opened for dinner service on Sept. 18.
Excited about her future and the anticipated success of The Penguins Restaurant, Hadley encourages others to step out of their comfort zone and to try something that they have wanted to do for years.
"Life is short, so follow your dreams. Reach for the stars, just like I am doing," she said. "We all have to follow the passions in our life. My passion is people and making them happy. Food is a way of doing that which is extremely positive for me."
1533 Trancas Street, Napa, CA
Note: Reservations preferred, although walk-ins always welcome.
Menu: All fresh seafood, including Ocean Rose Abalone; Wine country meats: all fresh produce.
Hours: Dinner service 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday.
Bar: 2 p.m.-midnight—anticipated to be seven nights a week-call for specifics.
Future? To add lunch service, probably by early 2003—There is a possibility that Karen's Old Fashioned Potato Salad with Bacon will be on the menu.
Grand opening will be on October 4.