The Treacherous Journey of Vernon & Charlene Rollins

Getting to the bucolic college town of Ashland, Oregon, 25 miles north of the California border, can be a little hair-raising. Highway 5 rises from the Central Valley up past Mt. Shasta (elevation 14,162 ft.) and a formidable phalanx of rock formations known as Castle Crags. The drive is a slow climb and the descent into the valley is downright precipitous, marked by perilous turns and special ramps for runaway trucks. No wonder so many wayfarers who make it to picturesque Ashland – home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival – never want to leave.

     When Vernon and Charlene Rollins – proprietors of New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro, called “one of the best kept secrets in the great Pacific Northwest fine-dining frenzy,” just outside of town – first came here nearly 15 years ago, they hadn’t planned on staying. They were fugitive chefs at that point, fleeing from the spectacular failure of their world-renowned Northern California restaurant, the New Boonville Hotel, and headed circuitously for France. Charlene was eight months pregnant and they were traveling in an old Valiant convertible with a top that wouldn’t close.

     “There was a nice feeling about the town,” Vernon recalls. A tall, bespectacled man with a great cloud of white hair, he would look like a displaced academic were it not for his Hawaiian shirt, one of a closet-full. “We thought, Gee, if we ever come back to the states maybe this would be a place to try.”

Within a year the couple’s French sojourn was over. Charlene’s mother, now living in Ashland herself, was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and the Rollinses wanted her to meet her grandson. They also thought they could find work there. Thanks to the half-a-million theatergoers who return each year, there are over 200 places to eat in Ashland, everything from stuffy faux French to Burger King – not the first place your average person would think of opening a restaurant. But Vernon Rollins – who went to Hastings and passed the California bar only to discover he didn’t want to practice law, and who ran an ill-fated wine importing business before opening the New Boonville – is not your average person. Former friends and business associates describe him variously as a genius and a fool, a con artist and a visionary. And Charlene, a lean and intense woman who has shared his life and his dream through two restaurants (she cooks while he runs the dining room) has been called his soul mate or his co-conspirator.

But 14 years after opening New Sammy’s their restaurant is an unqualified, albeit quiet triumph – a small, manageable success in contrast to the Boonville’s meteoric rise and fall. To persevere in the wake of that food mecca’s flame-out – the restaurant’s closing made headlines from Los Angeles to Rome – is something most people couldn’t imagine, while the Rollinses couldn’t have imagined anything else.

“It’s not that we couldn’t do anything else,” says Charlene, sharpening her knives in preparation for this evening’s onslaught, “It’s just what we do. It’s what we are. And during the times we didn’t have a restaurant we were always looking for one.”

Like so many California food stories from the ‘80s, the saga of Vernon and Charlene Rollins began at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. Charlene, who’d received a doctorate in philosophy but got her real education dining in France, was working in the kitchen under the famously temperamental Jeremiah Tower. Vernon, a close friend of both Tower’s and owner Alice Waters, was supplying the restaurant with fine French wines, enlightening his customers and their clientele in the bargain. As a witness to the creation of the nascent California Cuisine movement Vernon says, “My only contribution was to keep people focused on wine. I was pretty influential in that aspect of it.”

     The two met at Chez Panisse’s seventh anniversary bash in 1978 and it was love at first sight. “We spent the afternoon, right in the middle of the party, talked and drank wine, compared ideas,” recalls Vernon. (“He gave me a lot of wine, let’s put it that way,” says Charlene.) “She wanted to do a restaurant in the country and that’s what I wanted to do.” 

     Vernon wasn’t troubled by his lack of experience. It was the age of self-invention: Waters started as a Montessori teacher, Tower had been an architect. Within six months of meeting they were married and within a year they were in Boonville being bankrolled in their experiment by a host of eager investors.

     Ask anyone who knew Vernon Rollins in those days and they will tell you that his great skill was getting people to share his enthusiasm for good food and wine. As co-owner of the MV Wine Company he convinced gourmet groupies in Berkeley – doctors, lawyers and professional people drawn to the burgeoning food scene – to invest in the Bordeaux and Burgundies he imported. (One of Vernon’s favorite gambits was buying the wine cellars of failing French restaurants such as Paris’s Chez Denis – the site of Craig Claiborne’s notorious $4,000 dinner.) But at least one of those investors claims the promised returns never materialized. Don Stanford, a Berkeley psychiatrist, estimates he spent $25,000 for which he ended up with a handful of bottles. “I got what I paid for, though,” says Stanford. “It enriched my life to be involved with him and what he was doing.”

     Stanford visited the newlyweds in Boonville. “I could see it was the same thing there,” he recalls, “meticulous and special and completely unrealistic.” First there was the town itself. A rough-and-tumble logging village about two hours north of San Francisco, Boonville has a history of xenophobia and “was a magnet for strange people,” according to Vernon. The Moonies once had a camp there and serial killers Leonard Lake and Richard Ng lured their victims to Boonville before torturing and dismembering them. The local talent pool was such that Ng washed dishes at the New Boonville and Lake waited tables. “What a creepy man,” Vernon recalls. “Though actually, he was a pretty good waiter.”

 Most Boonville dreams did not end as spectacularly as Lake and Ng’s – or for that matter, the Rollinses’ – but few fared well either. “We’d seen a lot of people come and go, so we were not that excited when we heard about this couple coming in,” says longtime Boonville resident David Colfax, who, along with his wife Micki, became friends with the Rollinses.

 “What impressed us immediately about it was their obsessive attention to detail,” Colfax says. Taking a page from Chez Panisse’s menu, the New Boonville aspired to be the ultimate local, organic restaurant, with vegetables grown in the garden guests were welcome to visit while waiting for their table to be ready. The restaurant featured birds-eye maple tables, handmade wine-glasses, contemporary California art – and a modern, metal sign marked with a scribble of pink neon.

     “That sign offended everyone in the valley,” recalls Colfax, “it wasn’t funky, it wasn’t oak-y.” The Rollinses didn’t fit in either. Having invited locals to hang out in the restaurant’s bar, Vernon then had to invite them to leave when rowdies threatened to kill them and burn the place down. And though the food was not complicated – grilled rabbit, chicken and lamb were always on the menu, as well as pizzas topped with fresh vegetables – it was beyond the means of most people in the valley (dinner for two was about $55 in 1985). “Vernon had this populist notion that working men would come in from the fields and the hills and, because they appreciated good food, would pay what it costs,” says Colfax.

     Soon the Rollinses didn’t need the community’s support. In 1982 [ck] Patricia Unterman, writing in the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, called the New Boonville “the best restaurant in California,” and by the end of the weekend there were cars lined up on both sides of the highway. David and Micki Colfax had just returned from a trip out of town. “We walked in and Vernon came running up to us and said, ‘You got any food up at your place?’” recalls David. “They had run out of food; they were totally unprepared.”

     In retrospect it’s easy to see the restaurant’s failure as the natural outcome of various forces – a sort of epicurean perfect storm. Begin with some inexperienced investors with a worshipful attitude toward the nascent California Cuisine movement and its practitioners – “food gods and goddesses,” as the star-struck investor Stanford calls them. Introduce them to a cultured and charming bon vivant with dreams of a French-style country inn in California. Add a hostile local populace and season with a profound lack of business acumen – or even common sense – and voila! A recipe for disaster.

Even as other ecstatic reviews followed, the whispering campaign began among the Bay Area’s foodies. The dream of self-sufficiency was not sustainable, they said. The books were a mess, customers waited hours for their entrees, and waits were endured without apology. “It was like a food museum,” recalls one apostate. Charlene’s dishes were presented with a reverence that might seem laughable now.

 In 1983 Vernon’s partners (led by East Bay food macher Narsai David) sued to remove Vernon and Charlene as general partners and demanded an accounting for the nearly $500,0000 they had invested to date. Rather than become hired help in the restaurant they created, the couple found new investors to pay off the old investors – a sort of pyramid scheme in which no one was getting rich.

     “Vernon’s whole strategy was to get people to invest in his vision,” says Colfax, adding, “They worked harder than any people I have known.” But hard work was not enough. In August of 1986, responding to an employee’s complaints, a field investigator from the California Division of Labor Standards served Vernon with a search warrant and accused him of, among other things, failing to carry workmen’s compensation insurance. The Rollinses panicked, borrowed Colfax’s 1965 Valiant and headed north, leaving their investors – not to mention their wait staff and quite a few disappointed diners – to fend for themselves.

 

“In retrospect it would have been easy,” says Charlene today. “Our partners were willing to buy us out. We said no.” Fifteen years later recounting the Boonville saga still gets her agitated; the color rises to her neck and face as she speaks in the kitchen, aggressively dicing vegetables. “We were dumb, we were really dumb,” she continues, but insists they never thought once of selling. “Our whole thing is do things our way. That’s what we want to do with our lives is to do it our way.”

     Doing things their way has included home-schooling their son, Sammy, who was born in France less than a month after the couple abandoned Boonville. Charlene teaches him French while Vernon concentrates on math and humanities. Their own lessons have been equally strenuous; learning from the past, they have sought no investors for New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro (“We saw that as the source of our problems,” says Charlene) and have established credit with local growers and ranchers by paying as they go. The restaurant itself – along with the surrounding 1.1 acres and the mobile home the Rollinses call home – was paid for on the installment plan. The couple insists that investors and employees of the New Boonville Hotel have been taken care of (a contention some former investors and employees dispute).

     Determined not to repeat past mistakes, Vernon and Charlene ran New Sammy’s by themselves for the first few years: Charlene did all the cooking while Vernon waited tables. They worked from nine in the morning to eleven at night, cutting back only during the theater’s winter off-season. Charlene worked through her own treatment for breast cancer, while Vernon waited tables after surgery for a detached retina. “I said, ‘I can’t stay in the hospital, I’ve got to go back to work!’” The doctor, part of Ashland’s large medical community, had reservations for the following evening. “I told him, ‘If I don’t get checked out of this hospital, you’re not getting dinner tomorrow!’”

Once the restaurant had built a following they added waiters and Charlene found herself the ideal prep cook in Heather TK – someone who could meet her standards and stand her style.

     “I’m really mean to people in that position,” Charlene admits. “I can’t help it, I just ride people because I want the things the right way.”

     As tough as Charlene can be in the kitchen and bakery (Sammy’s Bakery provides yeast-free bread for a number of local markets), the more easy-going Vernon is equally exacting in the dining room. Glasses line up, napkins are straight and pressed – but the two waiters who now work with him are informal and informative. “Customers know they have good service when they leave here,” he says, “but they can’t exactly understand why.”

     Where the New Boonville was light and spacious, New Sammy’s is far more intimate (there are only ten tables) – though both Vernon and Charlene say the food is part of a continuum.  “We’ve always been interested in organic food, that’s always been our concept,” says Vernon. “We just think it tastes better.” Indeed, the dishes I enjoy over several evenings – a blue cheese flan the consistency of a soft-boiled egg, beef short ribs falling off the bone into a gazpacho of garden fresh sauteed vegetables – are extraordinary, on a par with LA’s Campanile if not Chez Panisse. “People will come in here and not know we’re connected to the Boonville Hotel and they’ll say, ‘This tastes a lot like that food we had 15 years ago,’” says Vernon.

     “It’s kind of depressing that my food hasn’t changed all that much in all that time,” Charlene counters with a laugh. Giving me a tour of the restaurant’s young garden – three kinds of lettuce, herbs, onions, broccoli, leeks – she reinforces the sense that this world is their refuge. “The most important thing about the restaurant is that we live here,” she says. “We live on the property, our son is home-schooled – everything we do is right here.” As in Boonville, where Charlene’s father sometimes tended bar, New Sammy’s is also a family affair. Young Sammy washes dishes and Vernon’s brother delivers bread.

     In the kitchen that evening, Charlene covers the range the way Elvin Jones plays the drums: eight skillets going at once, all by herself. She works with the precision and timing of a surgeon while Vernon, the bon vivant, entertains the theatergoers outside, walking them through the menu: two pages of teas, 50 of wine… The restroom’s walls are a collage of wine labels, with little room for addition. “These are only wines that Charlene and I drank together,” Vernon says. “We didn’t drink ‘em all at once.”

     A tour of New Sammy’s is like a travelogue of the Rollinses’ life. There are illustrations from the Belgian comic book Tin-Tin; there are photographs of Les Guardiens, the French cowboys that New Sammy’s salutes; but most importantly there are menus from restaurants that inspired them: Auberge de Soleil, La Table de Content, even the legendary Chez Denis, which closed over 20 years ago when Monsieur Denis hung up his toque. “He was an old man,” recalls Vernon. “What he wanted to do was go to the South Seas and take all his clothes off.”

     Vernon and Charlene aren’t ready to retire; though he’s pushing 60 (Charlene is at least 10 years younger) they feel like they’re just hitting their stride. For Vernon especially this squat purple building with the flickering neon arrow, as mysterious to the naked eye as any stop in an episode of The Twilight Zone, is an embodiment of their romance. “It’s love,” he rhapsodizes, “it’s just what it’s all about. It’s how to preserve love. You’ve got to find that one person in your life and you’ve got to make it work. It works for us because we have this joint venture, we built this thing together.”

     For the travelers that they feed – those who have sought out the restaurant for its reputation and those who are amazed at their good fortune on having stumbled on such a meal – Vernon hopes New Sammy’s will trigger fond memories. Like the menus with which he has covered his walls, he would like this evening’s meal to be remembered the way the New Boonville’s are: As a remarkable detour on life’s bumpy journey. “And then maybe you’ll come back and it will be important for your life and the other restaurants you go to,” he says, adding, “A restaurant is just a small portion of what real life is all about.”

(Published in Gourmet, October 2003)

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