Classmate Stories

Karen & John Mitchell

This article, shared by Marty Fefley, first appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

The Model of Bakeries

Tim Carl Mar 11,2019 Updated Mar 20, 2019

Located on St. Helena's Main Street and housed in a century-old brick building, the Model Bakery has become a quintessential destination for those living in or visiting the Napa Valley. Karen Mitchell started the bakery in 1984 and runs it with the help of her daughter, Sarah.

It is a rare day when the 1930s European-style cafe is not bustling with  customers eager to purchase organic artisan breads and flaky, delicate pastries. With products coveted by celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, famous chefs that include Rachael Ray and Michael Chiarello, and by politicians such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the bakery's current stature may seem as if it were predestined .

A family of cooks

Karen grew up in Portland, Oregon, where she was surrounded by, and gained an appreciation for, good food made from scratch. Her family grew their own fruits and vegetables, and her father fished and hunted for game. "My mother and grandmothers were among the best cooks of their time and everyone baked," she said. "My great Aunt Emma had a restaurant in Portland called Berg's Chalet, where James Beard (also from Oregon) often dined."

Not yet seeing the culinary arts as her career path, she attended Salem's Willamette University to study history. There she met her future husband, John.

"In the early 1960s, there weren't many options for women -you could become a wife, a teacher, secretary or nurse," she said. "You were never going to control much, but I was pretty independent and I definitely wanted to be in charge."

After college, the couple married and moved to Florida and then to Southern California, where John trained and then worked as a Marine helicopter pilot. The Vietnam War had started and he'd decided to join out of a sense of service but also imagining that doing so would give him more choices.

Shot down

Three years later, John found himself flying through the jungles of Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. When he was shot down, his femoral artery was severed by the helicopter's blade. Taking fire from all sides, a rescue helicopter swooped down and its crew dragged the severely wounded pilot to safety. "A week later, he called from a hospital in Japan and told me that he'd been wounded and that they wanted to amputate his leg," Karen said. John's leg was eventually saved but not before he'd gotten gangrene and spent nearly a year in recovery. "Francis Ford Coppola was going to make a movie about his story at one point," Karen said, with a smile.

A coin toss

During John's deployment and recovery, Karen worked first as a junior high history teacher and then on a governmental study at UCLA to examine the differences between left- and right-brain function. There she was exposed to "crazy and smart professors" and "wonderfully creative people." Their experiences had made both of them question their future career paths. "By then, John had obtained an MBA from USC and I'd been accepted into the law program at UCLA," she said. "John really wanted to travel around the world before we settled down, so we flipped a coin to decide."

A few months later, they sold their cars, wedding presents and furniture and hitched a ride on a military transport plane to Germany, where they purchased a Volkswagen bus, intending to travel through Europe.  For two years, until 1973, they lived on John's meager disability checks and traveled through the countryside, exploring their shared love of history and gaining a deeper appreciation for handcrafted foods, especially breads and pastries. "It was Europe on $5 a day," Karen said.

They traveled through Germany, France, Greece, circumnavigated Europe and then visited North Africa, Russia and Nepal, where they hiked to the Mount Everest base camp. All the while, John had a growing love for wine and Karen was becoming more and more fascinated by the quality and diversity of foods as they shopped at farmers markets, ate at cafes and visited bakeries. "Each town had its own little bakery where people gathered, maybe stopping in for a cookie, a loaf of bread or cup of coffee," she said. "I'd never really ever seen anything like that before, and it was something that really stuck with me as being meaningful."

During their travel to Mount Everest, John had eaten some fresh salad in Pakistan, which is how they believe he came down with the hepatitis that ended their world adventure. By then the couple could not imagine moving back to a big city and found that the Napa Valley provided them with the idyllic rural environment that was attracting an inflow of their like-minded peers at the time.

-'We lived up on Spring Mountain in a little cottage, and I taught at St. Helena High School until Sarah was born," Karen said. "John worked first at Burgess Cellars and then for Jack Davies (Schramsberg) before becoming a contractor and building homes." John would eventually come to make his own wine, Four Cairn, which is both rare and delicious.

After Sarah was born, Karen decided to follow her passion toward cooking and began working at a small Calistoga restaurant called La Pyrenees. The restaurant- owned by Philippe Bonafont and his bombastic, opera-singing partner, Chef Gregory- helped usher in European-influenced cuisine throughout the region. Eventually, Karen followed the owners when they opened La Belle Helene Restaurant in St. Helena. There, she cooked lunch for two years before opening up her own business, one of the valley's first catering companies with her friend Priscilla Upton.

By the early 1980s, St. Helena, and more broadly the Napa Valley, was growing into a culinary destination with a distinctly French bent, with restaurants such as Miramonte, Le Favour Cafe Oriental (one of the first French-Thai fusion restaurants in America), Trilogy and the nearby Auberge du Soleil and Domaine Chandan gaining national prominence. But what the valley didn't have at the time was an artisan-style bakery. According to Karen, by the mid-1980s she was hoping that a small St. Helena bakery with old-styled brick-hearth ovens, high ceilings and skylights might someday become available. When that happened and the previous owners departed she jumped at her chance, uncovering a long history in the process of renovation.

During the remodel of the bakery Mom found coins from 1908 in the wall that said, 'St. Helena Bakery, good for one loaf of bread, 5 cents,' so it's been around for at least that long," Sarah said. "The name changed to the Model Bakery in the 1930s and then changed to the Sugar House bakery in the '60s." "We really didn't know what we were getting into- I mean, just heating the two ovens was something we had to figure out," Karen said.

ANCIENT OVENS

Still in use today, each of the 100-year-old 18-feet-wide ovens is 14 feet deep, 1.5 feet high and encased with bricks. They are not heated by wood or electricity, but instead by enormous flame-throwing natural gas "guns" that blast the interiors, with the heat retained for many hours, even days. Steam can be injected as a source of heat, and it also allows the breads to rise before being shut off to produce baked goods with distinctly crackly crusts and chewy, creamy centers.

Beyond the ovens, John used his construction skills to renovate the interior, building shelves, glass-enclosed displays and counters. Karen created sourdough starters, procured high-quality ingredients, and built a team of artisan bakers. The bakery's old name was resurrected when an old-time St. Helena resident who remembered its former glory entered the space and exclaimed, "Ah...the Model Bakery!" Over the years, the Model Bakery has become a Napa Valley destination in its own right not through anything that even remotely approaches flashy but instead by creating an appealing and comfortable space for patrons to enjoy consistently high-quality baked goods in a casual setting.

The approach has been successful and resulted in celebrities such as Oprah telling People Magazine that her "...greatest extravagance is flying in English muffins from Napa Valley [from the Model Bakery]." These very same English muffins have also been called out by the Food Network in "The Best Thing I Ever Ate" show and given by star chef Rachael Ray as gifts to her studio audience. Pelosi seems to prefer the spelt bread over the English muffins, whereas many locals clamor for the freshly made croissants, with their outsides as crispy as the thinnest sheet of ice, their interiors buttery and chewy.

Karen and Sarah plan to expand distribution, eventually servicing more Bay Area locations and allowing additional people to experience what has become for many the model for bakeries. For now, though, their products can be found only at their St. Helena, Yountville and Napa locations or ordered online.

In the forward to "The Model Bakery Cookbook," Karen writes, "[When I started the bakery] I was a young, naive and determined self-taught chef. ... I never doubted that we could renovate the facility, develop a new product line and make a successful venture out of this wonderful old building ....    I longed to create naturally fermented sourdoughs and ... European-styled croissants and pastries. At the time, I had no idea how big a project it would become.