The Napa Valley has lost one of its brightest lights. Legendary Chef Jan Birnbaum, 61, passed away on June 12 at his home after a prolonged illness. His wife, Linda Giglio, was by his side.
In 1994, Birnbaum opened the popular Catahoula in Calistoga, where he blended his Louisiana roots and extensive culinary training to create Southern-inspired American cuisine. As proprietor and chef, Birnbaum led his restaurant to quickly become a popular Napa Valley destination for gourmands, and it earned reviews and glowing features in publications from the New York Times to Gourmet magazine. In 2003, Birnbaum closed Catahoula to explore new projects in the Bay Area.
“He will be terribly missed — he was such a wonderful soul and friend,” said Napa Valley Chef Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill, Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen).
Birnbaum began his career in New Orleans with renowned chef Paul Prudhomme at the famous K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen. Before arriving in the Bay Area, he honed his skills and earned distinction at a number of restaurants throughout the United States, including New York City’s Quilted Giraffe and The Rattlesnake Club in Denver.
Later, he moved to San Francisco to become head chef at Campton Place Hotel.
There he gained four-star status and garnered awards and accolades that included Food and Wine magazine’s Top 25 Restaurants in America, the DiRona Award for distinguished restaurants in North America, and the Conde Nast Traveler Distinguished Restaurant Award. He also was featured on Julia Child’s “Master Chefs” series on PBS.
From the Bay Area Birnbaum headed to Calistoga and then later was back to San Francisco to open EPIC Steak.
“It is with great sadness and tremendous love and respect that I learned of the death of Chef Jan this morning,” said Pete Sittnick, managing partner of EPIC Steak. “Everyone who works or has worked at EPIC over the last 10 years is a better person for knowing Chef Jan and the joy he brought to cooking and hospitality. We all send our love and prayers to his family and the multitudes of friends and colleagues that he touched with his life.”
Birnbaum was well known for his use of spices and smoky wood-fired cooking as well as his generosity and support of charities throughout the Napa Valley and beyond.
“For the last 24 years, Chef Jan was involved with our music festival supporting brain health — he was always an inspiration both in the kitchen and also for his leadership and spirit,” said Garen Staglin, co-owner of Napa Valley’s Staglin Family Vineyard. “Jan was a person with immense talent, he gave joy to others, was unselfish and inspiring. He will be missed but not forgotten.”
To honor Birnbaum’s memory, the Staglins said they intend to provide a special tribute to his life and legacy at their next Annual Music Festival for Brain Health, which will be Sept. 15 at their winery.
Beyond mental-health charities, Birnbaum also supported various other charities.
“I remember when Jan moved to the valley to open Catahoula — it was the beginning of a loving friendship,” said Lissa Doumani, co-owner of Terra Restaurant in St. Helena. “Jan’s passion and support for Meals on Wheels is legendary. He rallied us to donate great lots that seemed to bring in more and more money each year. Even recently he and Linda went to a thank you and fundraiser for Meals on Wheels that was for Jan and Nancy Oakes. He wasn’t in the best of health but that’s how important it was to him.”
Writing on a Facebook post that shared the news, Ashley C. McCumber, CEO of Meals on Wheels San Francisco, wrote, “Meals on Wheels San Francisco stands on the shoulders of giants in our community. Chef Jan Birnbaum was one of those giants. Almost 32 years ago he helped launch the legendary Star Chefs and Vintners Gala. Because of his commitment to others, millions of meals have been delivered to tens of thousands of San Francisco seniors. Because of Jan, a new generation of chefs continue to give back.”
“We worked together during his years as chef/owner of Catahoula and I was a wine vendor just getting into the wine industry,” said Scott Harvey, proprietor of Urban Wine Brokers. “It remains the most missed restaurant for me in over 30 years of living here in the Napa Valley. I often think about the Rooster Gumbo (it was the best) as well as the Bananas Foster and the ‘Snortin’ Hot’ Bloody Mary’s he served at weekend brunches.”
Birnbaum brought a Southern flair to both his cooking and to his life. His legacy in the kitchen, according to Pawlcyn, influenced the region’s cuisine by his use of wood-fired grills and also because of his warmth and generosity.
“It’s so sad; he was a wonderful man, fantastic chef and had the biggest heart of anyone I’ve ever known,” she said. “Jan was too young and too full of life, which makes his passing all that much more tragic.”
Along with his wife, Birnbaum is survived by his brother, Jeff Birnbaum, of Charleston, S.C. Funeral services will be private. Donations in Jan’s memory can be made to Meals on Wheels San Francisco, Bay Area Jewish Healing Center or Hospice by the Bay.