YOUNTVILLE — Sixteen years after opening Hurley’s Restaurant, Chef Bob Hurley has announced he will close on Sunday, after selling the property to the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group.
“I have a really big bucket list and I’m not getting any younger, so it was just time to move on to my next adventure,” Hurley said. “My wife (Cynthia) and I would like to do a lot more traveling — like we did when we were younger — and I intend on redefining myself.”
Hurley sat down to discuss the sale, his past and his future at the bar of his restaurant just as lunch service last Thursday was about to begin. The staff, who had been informed of the closing only a few days earlier, put on brave faces and went about their business of greeting customers warmly. The news had just begun to trickle out into the community.
“Our team is the best I’ve ever worked with, and I wanted to make sure that the deal was 100 percent sure before I announced the sale,” Hurley said. “We have provided each member of the staff severance and are helping them with the transition as much as we can.”
Given the chronic labor shortage in the Napa Valley, it is unlikely that his staff will find it difficult to procure work. But replacing the culture of Hurley’s will be a challenge.
“I have been here for 10 years, and most of the other staff have been here for a long time, too — that’s pretty rare in this business,” said General Manager Meredith Ahrenholtz. “I will miss everyone, including all of our longtime customers, but I am also happy for Bob. He is probably the hardest-working person that I have ever met, and he and Cynthia deserve to enjoy their lives outside of the restaurant.”
When she heard the news, another longtime employee, bar manager Cassie Gesiakowski, had mixed emotions.
“I was extremely happy for him because he deserves it,” she said. “When he told me I had lots of tears — happy tears. I was kind of a lifer here (14 years) and so this is a good kick in the pants to get out there and experience something new and see what else I am made of.”
What’s next for the Hurley location?
“As I understand it, Thomas (Keller) is considering a range of options, including Mexican food, for the space,” Hurley said. “One thing that he did make perfectly clear was that he intended to honor and respect our legacy of ensuring that any restaurant would be committed to the community and its values, which he has long been a part of. I have always admired him (Keller) in the past, but going through this transaction has only made me like him more.”
Hurley grew up in San Francisco and graduated from high school in 1972. Not certain about a career path, he “bumped around,” spending time at community college and taking a job with the Teamsters. After saving a little money he bought an old van and set off for a few months of traveling around the United States.
“To make money for gas I started working at hotels and restaurants part time,” he said. “Beyond the money, I also got fed and I found that I really enjoyed cooking, so when I got back home I enrolled in the culinary program at City College.”
After graduating from culinary school, Hurley headed to Europe, India and North Africa, where for two years he toured, cooked and learned how food and culture were intertwined.
“For me, getting to know the culture was a great introduction to the food,” he said. “If you understand how people live, then you understand why they are eating what they are eating. So that was really an important step for me. When I came home and I needed to cook a dish from Southern France, I knew what that meant — I had lived it and it was in my blood.”
Coming back to the United States in the early 1980s, Hurley found work at the recently opened Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, where he cooked under Masataka (“Masa”) Kobayashi, moving with nearly the entire team to San Francisco when Masa’s restaurant opened there. After that, like many other successful chefs at that time, he spent a couple of years under the tutelage of Jeremiah Tower, former chef of Chez Panisse, at his San Francisco restaurant, Stars, before heading out again to travel the world.
“It was sort of what I did: work for a few years gaining experience from a broad range of culinary talents and approaches, and then I’d travel around for a few years,” he said. “After Stars, my girlfriend (now wife) and I traveled through Asia and Malaysia. At a point in the trip, we just became travel- fatigued and decided to go back home and get serious.”
They moved back to Yountville in the early 1990s, and Hurley went to work at Domaine Chandon’s restaurant, which was led by executive chef Philippe Jeanty. He next became head chef at the Napa Valley Grill for nine years before opening his own restaurant in the center of town.
“I had come to know and love this community and I felt like it was home,” Hurley said. “We always wanted to be a place where locals felt comfortable and welcomed, a place that wasn’t trendy but provided consistently good food in a warm atmosphere, surrounded by friends. So when this space opened up it was perfect.”
Building Hurley’s restaurant
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With a growing family (a partner and two children), Hurley knew he needed to focus on becoming a successful businessperson. That meant giving up his earlier intermittently nomadic lifestyle.
“As any chef knows, there is no substitute for being present at your restaurant,” Hurley said. “My normal workweek was from Monday to Saturday, and I worked from about 6 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. every day. I tried to pull back over the years, but I always felt better being involved with my team, and the customers seemed to appreciate it, too.”
A key to Hurley’s success has been the strong support of locals, many of whom have been coming to the restaurant since it opened.
“I am thrilled for Bob, although I am sad to think his restaurant — which is a local gem — will no longer be an option for all of us who have loved it over the years,” said Cyndi Gates, a local real estate broker. “Dining here you might see anyone from the community having a meal or chatting at the bar.”
Finding time for friends and family
“One of my hopes is to explore some of my hobbies that have been on the back burner,” Hurley said. “I plan on doing a lot more traveling, hiking, kayaking and fly-fishing. I also hope to spend more time hanging out with my family and friends. For years, I’ve been having short conversations before running back into the kitchen, but soon I’ll have more time to just sit and talk — even relax a little at a barbecue.”
One of the most popular events at Hurley’s was their annual tradition of holding summer barbecues that included a variety of grilled items and shared wines.
The future of the Napa Valley
“It’s actually hard to find a bad meal in the Napa Valley, and especially in Yountville,” Hurley said. “But I’m really careful predicting the future of cuisine in the Napa Valley. Every time I think we might be at maximum capacity for restaurants, some new place opens and does really well. That said, there is a moment when the density of new restaurants becomes too high, resulting in some businesses not being able to hit their margins.”
But having sold his restaurant, Hurley can leave behind any worries about profitability, menu development, staffing, ingredient procurement or broken dishwashers and instead take some time to relax and reflect.
“My hope is that we brought some joy, comfort and fun to the community,” he said. “This is such a special place, and the people have supported and encouraged me to become whatever it is I have become. We’ve been happy to give back where we can.”
As a part of that giving back. he and his wife have been active in the community, serving on boards, providing donations, support and food to those in need, and even holding annual etiquette classes for the young students of Yountville’s Elementary School.
“People often said how nice it was that we worked with the kids on table etiquette,” Hurley said. “But, really, it was just so much fun to be around them with all their excitement and curiosity.”
The toll of being on his feet nearly every day for 12 to 14 hours is that Hurley has plans for hip-replacement surgery, after which he plans to hit the hiking trail with his wife just as soon as he is able.
“Oh my gosh, I am so excited to have more time with my husband,” Cynthia said. “Our kids are grown and out of college, we have our home and some time to travel. I can promise you I have no ‘Honey-do list’ for him to complete because he’s done enough. Now it’s time for us to take some time to recover and then have some serious fun.”
As Hurley talked, not five minutes had passed without a guest or passerby coming to congratulate the nearly retired chef. Each time Hurley would greet them warmly, often with a long hug. Invariably the individuals would step back and might gently shake their heads, a few growing visibly emotional.
“My family and I are happy to begin our next adventure, but I will miss our team and I will miss our customers, our friends — I am grateful to them and everyone in our community who has supported us,” he said, and then paused and looked around the busy restaurant.
When he turned back, he smiled as he nodded his head slowly. “We will miss it, really miss it. But it’s time.”