The group of childhood friends from Chicago were gathered around the table for breakfast at the Inn on First Street in Napa.
There was one empty seat at the table, and they issued an invitation to join them, amidst a chorus of accolades. “You’ve got to try this.” “It is just wonderful.” “It’s fantastic.”
It was: a twist made of homemade puff pastry, filled with finely chopped prosciutto and Petite Basque cheese, topped with a perfectly poached egg and a lemon thyme sauce and served with a side salad dressed with lemon vinaigrette. On a separate plate was a home-made date nut roll.
Once a year, the women, who graduated high school together, choose a destination for a reunion trip. This year, they’d come to Napa Valley for the first time. They were having a fine time visiting wineries, shopping, and admiring the landscape and the weather. “It’s not freezing,” pointed out the woman from South Dakota.
It was clear, however, that a highlight of the trip was: breakfast.
Listening to them, it became clear every meal cooked for them by Jim Gunther, who owns the Inn on First with his husband, Jamie Cherry, had sent these seasoned travelers off into the state of culinary bliss.
They aren’t the only ones. When Trip Advisor ranked the Inn on First Street “the best breakfast” in Napa, people began showing up at the door, wondering if they could just come in for a meal.
“Sadly, we had to explain that it was just for guests who were staying here,” Gunther said.
Now Gunther, a trained chef, has remedied the hunger for one of his breakfasts: he has published “A Napa Valley Breakfast Book,” a collection of the recipes he has created and served during the 10 years he and Cherry have been running the Inn on First.
The Ambassador for Breakfast
Gunther got his first taste of cooking growing up in Los Angeles as one of 17 children.
“My mother wanted to spend time with us every day so, she would call each of us into the kitchen and we would help for 15-20 minutes, peeling potatoes or carrots, and talking. She’d also put a huge pile of laundry on the table every day and we’d all help sort and fold and talk about about our days. It was her way of spending quality time with her kids.”
At 17, he decided to become a priest, and after his training spent nine years at a parish in Los Angeles, gradually realizing he was not meant for solitary celibate life. The day he decided to leave the priesthood, he said, was as he was performing a funeral service, and he watched the widow of a 50-year marriage realizing, “no one will ever love me as she loved her husband.”
Back in the secular world, his sister was the one who reminded him “You’ve always loved to cook,” and so he enrolled in the California Culinary Institute in San Francisco. After graduating, he said he realized that, love of cooking aside, it could be years before he made a living salary as a chef, and so he turned to the tech industry. There he met his future partner in life, who was also in the tech world, and they prospered until 2006, when Gunther was laid off.
He went off on a solo retreat to think about what his next step in life would be and returned with an idea and inspiration: he told Cherry he wanted to own a bed and breakfast.
“Jamie’s first reaction was: ‘What? No,’” Gunther recalled. But then the death in an accident of an in-law, the same age as Cherry caused him to rethink his own life goals.
“I still remember this,” Gunther said, “We were driving to L.A.. We had just got to Santa Nella (on Highway 5), and Jamie said, ‘Tell me more about your idea.’ I knew I had five hours to make my case.”
That was December of 2006; by February of 2007, they were the owners of the Inn on First in Napa and began renovations on the historic 1905 house.
Today it has has five suites, each with a gas fireplace and a whirlpool bath for two. An additional five spacious suites are in a separate building in the gardens behind the mansion.
Their roles divided naturally. Gunther, with his cooking background would be the resident chef, and Cherry, who oversaw the redecorating into a light, modern space, became the concierge for guests. “He spends hours on the phone with guests before they ever arrive, to be sure they get the experience they want,” Gunther said. “It’s not just about wine.”
And Gunther would find that all his previous work, in service, cooking and in tech, would contribute to their grand new adventure.
Each breakfast a different ride
As he contemplated creating breakfasts, Gunther said he wanted his menus to reflect “the culture, the land, its people, restaurants and wineries,” but also to stay “whimsical and fun.”
“I wasn’t afraid to tackle breakfast for 20 at once: I grew up with that experience.”
And he had another idea: “I remembered reading somewhere Thomas Keller saying that he kept a list of people who had dined at the French Laundry so that for repeat guests, he could also serve them something different. Maybe not an entirely different menu but something was different,” Gunther said. “And I wondered if I could do that with breakfast.”
He wanted to serve dishes with Latino and Italian flavors to honor the roots of the valley. “As I dug deeper into the history of Napa, I found German, Chinese, Swiss, French and many other cultural influences that have helped Napa to become what it is today. I began to think of my own travels and food I had enjoyed, and began to imagine new ways to present dishes that would reflect a global approach to food.”
Guests provided feedback on his menus. He also found ideas in local restaurants. One of his most unusual (and popular) inventions, the Corn Dog Omelet, was inspired by Carpe Diem in Napa, which had Kobe beef corn dogs on the menu. “I enjoyed them so much I came home and figured out a way to create corn dog omelets,” he said. “I love the cornmeal flavor, especially with mustard. Typically, we serve this with a salad and vinaigrette to that will cut through the fat of the corn dog.”
“So many people think of breakfast as eggs and cereal, I really want them to see the limitless possibilities,” Gunther said.
‘The Napa Valley Breakfast Book’
Ten years after opening their inn, Gunther had collect 200 of his recipes into a cookbook brimming with ideas.
What will you find here? The infinite possibilities of a breakfast beyond over- easy eggs and toast.
“Sweet Beginnings” includes pastries they serve, from Apple Kuchen to Zorn Cakes, adapted from the recipe of the grandmother of friends, named Zorn. Cinnamon rolls, fritters, fruit tarts, scones and muffins are in this section along with recipes Gunther learned from his mom, like Split Seconds, “part pastry, part cookie, one of her favorite snacks,” and Flying Saucers, “the best trading cookies for any kid at school: take one to lunch and you could trade for anything you wanted.”
At The Inn on First, “whenever possible we make everything from scratch,” including doughs, sausages, sauces and condiments, Gunther writes. “This approach to making breakfast increases intensity and freshness of flavor.” He includes these recipes in this rich collection, but notes that for time-crunched home Do cooks, he also has recipes for that use prepared or pre-packaged items. Recipes for ketchup, vinaigrettes, hot dog buns, and his own version of puff pastry (“I can taste the chemicals in store bought puff pastry.”) are here.
He also included variations for preparing gluten-free versions.
And then it’s on to the breakfast dishes. How about Lasagne with Ricotta, Bacon and Eggs? Risotto Tater Tots with Poached Eggs and Basil Oil? Knodels with Proscuitto and Mixed Cheeses in Chicken Broth with Vegetables and Poached Egg? Or Noodles in a Savory Broth with a Steamed Bun? Empanadas, Enchiladas or Eggplant Parmigana Towers? A Banana Split French Toast Sundae?
It’s enough to cause you to put your box of Cheerios back in the cupboard and embark on an adventure to start your day.
And has he achieved his goal so far in not repeating a recipe for returning guests? So far, yes, and one couple has come back to the Inn on First 28 times.
Currently Gunther is working on a new recipe for a Wonton Tower with a caramelized, sweet-sour sauce. His goal is to have 250 recipes in his collection by the time he and Cherry are ready to retire — or head onto their next quest.
“A Napa Valley Breakfast Book” is available at Napa Bookmine or on Amazon.com.