Creating Stories

Chef Cathy Pavlos comes full circle at Provenance 


As told to Susan Irby


To meet chef Cathy Pavlos is electrifying. Her smile illuminates the room. Her welcoming enthusiasm draws in guests. Her culinary creations abound with depth derived from her training as an art historian and teacher of architectural history, her knowledge of French, Italian and Latin cooking techniques, and morsels of family memories revealing her Italian roots. Here, chef Cathy on food, family, and the journey to “come home.” 

What does the name Provenance mean to you?

With a degree in art history, I taught Architectural History. Provenance is a term used in art history to trace origins of a piece of art back to its source. When you ask what is the provenance of a valuable object, you are asking who owned this object over time, who created it, and why. In this day and age, guests care about the source of their food; here at Provenance, we can trace the origin of all of our ingredients back to their source. We know our purveyors and our purveyors’ purveyors. 

Your business card reads: “Locally Sourced, Napa Valley Inspired, Chef & Ingredient Driven.” Why Napa Valley?

When I was a kid, Orange County was rural. I could ride my horse to school; I raised sheep, goats, and rabbits, and my grandfather was a commercial farmer in Huntington Beach. The phrase “locally sourced and ingredient driven” may sound trendy today, but that was the way many of us lived in the ‘50s and ‘60s. We weren’t being stylish; we were living off of what the land could provide.  

Napa Valley today reminds me of northern Italy where my family lives and, also of Orange County where I grew up. It is no exaggeration to say that Napa Valley is home to some of the best restaurants in the USA. 

What makes a successful licensed architect quit her job to work at a health emporium washing dishes? 

For the most part of my life, I worked white-collar jobs: architect, project manager, college professor, academic administration. I have four college degrees, including a PhD in Environmental Design and Analysis. By 2001, I wanted to get back to my roots—I was my Italian immigrant grandma’s sous chef at the age of 4, and she was the best cook around. Everyone would come to her house to eat Sunday Suppers. We’d cook for 50 and she’d never break a sweat—all of it locally sourced and ingredient-driven. 

In our conversation, you mentioned that American palates have gotten brighter. Why do you think this is? 

As a population, especially in California, we have been able to taste very ethnically diverse foods; moreover, the last couple of generations have traveled abroad and experienced the rich cultures of the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. At Provenance, we have created many sauces and condiments, based on authentic recipes from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, but we’ve tweaked them for a more contemporary California taste. And, we’re not pulling any punches on the heat; if the sauce is supposed to be hot, it is, and our guests have loved it. 

You’ve said, “I am still an Academic at heart.” How does that translate into your life now and the foods you create at Provenance? 

I spent a lot of years doing research—in art history, in architecture and in the social sciences—and this process gave me an appreciation for history, context, time, and place. I spend a lot of time these days researching recipes and cooking techniques. I love a good backstory; all of our menu items have a great backstory. I also research our suppliers and get their backstory out there too. There are so many small farmers and ranchers doing everything right and they don’t get the credit that they deserve.

As it is now, you make the dish. If a dish were to make you, what would it make?

Interestingly enough, my dishes have made me, I guess. In another life, I used to paint and draw; I was an active architect who created models and built from them. When I first began in culinary, I was pretty conservative, learning as I was doing. I knew that plating was important to me and so was taste. My grandma taught me that you first eat with your eyes. My training as an architect taught me to use the elements of line, form, color, and texture, and put them together using the principles of rhythm, balance, proportion and scale. I was also taught about time and place. In the early years of culinary I struggled because I separated my earlier design training from my culinary training. It was only in the last couple of years here at Provenance that I realized that it has all come together and I could still be an artist, and as a result, my plates have come alive. 

What’s next for Cathy Pavlos?  

I will be spending more time up in Napa Valley in the coming years, and commute back and forth. The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) has opened their new Graduate School of Business in Copia in downtown Napa. I am going back to teaching—this time in Culinary Arts and Business. Each time that I come back to Orange County from Napa and Sonoma Counties, I bring something back that we integrate into the operations or menu at Provenance. It’s a win-win. I’ve met so many chefs, purveyors, farmers, foragers, and ranchers—and all of them have inspired me. In a way, I have come full circle, and I have come home.

  Photo courtesy of Anne Watson

Photo courtesy of Anne Watson

  Photo courtesy of Anne Watson

Photo courtesy of Anne Watson


2531 Eastbluff Drive, Newport Beach, CA 92660 ~ 949 718 0477 |