by Chef Instructor Randall Cronwell

(Chef) Bikram (Vaidya) and I teach together in the first term of the culinary program. We have a connection, we found out, that goes a long ways back.

Let’s start with my humble beginnings. I am from Detroit Michigan, where there was nothing going on in terms of food when I was growing up. So I went to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I ended up returning to Michigan and found a supper club type of restaurant in East Lansing to work in that was right up my alley. Around that time, a family friend I knew from living in Argentina as a kid (which is another story entirely) named Steve Vranian, called me up. He had moved to California around 1978. He said “Randall, get your butt out here, right now, I’m working for this guy Jeremiah Tower…there’s something about him. I swear, he’s going to be famous someday.” Now, nobody at this time was talking about chefs as celebrities – there was no Food Channel or food blogging, if you follow. But it sounded good to me, so I packed my bags and headed for the Golden State.

When I got to Berkeley, there was this intersection (Shattuck and University) with all these restaurants that was referred to as the “gourmet ghetto.” Alice Waters was running Chez Panisse, Mark Miller would open Santa Fe Bar and Grill, which Jeremiah Tower would later take over. These chefs were developing this concept of “American regional cuisine” using ingredients that were indigenous to where you lived and worked. Believe it or not, although this is all the rage now, at the time, this concept in America was revolutionary. I started with Jeremiah Tower at Santa Fe Bar and Grill, but moved with him to two other restaurants in a span of four years.

In late 1983 or early 1984, Jeremiah brought his crew, including me, into the city and we opened up Stars restaurant in the Opera District. It was a huge success from the moment we opened the doors. I thought I knew what busy was, but I was wrong. We’d do 250 cover at lunch at Stars, then turn around and do another 350 covers for dinner. This was every day. People were lined up out the door. You had to make a reservation weeks or months in advance. It was THE place to go.

Chef Cronwell at Stars doing prep work while writing menus, from  the book American Bistro.

This is the era of Wolfgang Puck, and the concept of “Celebrity Chefs” was starting catching on. Jeremiah wrote a book called “New American Classics,” which came to be the label for this culinary movement – the “New American Cuisine.” Magazines were coming in and writing stories and taking photos all the time. “The Great Chefs of the West” television series had started and he had been featured. And this movement wasn’t just a show. I’ve never been around people so passionate, intense, and dedicated about something in my life. Let me give you an example. The restaurant had a garden up in Napa Valley. We’d get up at three or four in the morning to go up there. We’d write the menus in the back seat of the car after picking whatever was ripe. We’d get to the kitchen and prep, still finishing the menus as we worked. After turning over whatever ungodly number of covers we’d do each day, we’d sit around after closing and talk about food.

Every day was like that, the focus and intensity was palpable. You could touch it. We were in the eye of the storm. That experience changed my whole way of thinking about food, cooking, and eating. We would seek out the best product that we could serve, and prepare everything very simply. It was all about the ingredients. I learned so much about how to simply prepare and serve food — don’t mess with it, and you’re going to have a nice product and very happy customers. That was the most rewarding time in my life in cooking – it changed me fundamentally.

So – back to (Chef) Bikram. Jeremiah’s faithful Sous Chef all those years was a guy named Mark Franz. As Jeremiah’s empire grew and he moved into his phase of franchising his “California casual” concept, Mark Franz opened Farallon in San Francisco. He hired a young Nepalese cook in 1997 named Bikram Vaidya, and almost 15 years later, here Bikram and I are, teaching students how to cook. And when we figured out this connection, everything from that point on — he understood where I came from and I understood for where he came from. The mutual respect was immediate. We learn from each other all the time now. He’s Yin and I’m Yang. The students think it’s funny as hell. When we introduce each other at the start, we always talk about the shared background. We don’t dismiss it as chance, there’s a reason this happened – I don’t care what you call it, karma or whatever. Those were formative years for both of us, and it changed my life, and I think it changed his too.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.