Celebrated Owner-Chefs Vanish : The Souffle Caves In on Boonville’s Claim to Fame

Times Staff Writer

Globe-trotting gourmets still blast into town, tooling their sports cars past the Boont Farm restaurant and the Horn of Zeese coffee shop.

They still park in front of the familiar old hotel with its quirky, arty sign. They still expect a world-class meal prepared by a world-famous chef.

They are still being disappointed, too, because the hotel door is locked and the windows shuttered.


The New Boonville Hotel restaurant--a highly regarded urban anomaly among the serene orchards and vineyards of the Anderson Valley--is out of business.

Its celebrated owners and chefs, Vernon and Charlene Rollins, have vanished, leaving their legendary garden to wilt and their legions of creditors to fume.

Vernon Rollins recently penned letters to newspapers in Boonville and San Francisco expounding on the failure of his culinary dream, but he did little to unknot the story that has sprung up around him.

Some of the people who knew the Rollinses defend them as idealists who came to the country to run the perfect restaurant but were hounded into bankruptcy by shortsighted investors and ungrateful employees.

Others portray the Rollinses as brilliant chefs but abysmal business owners--people who bounced one check after another, who could not keep a set of books, who piled six trust deeds on top of one another in a vain bid to stay afloat and who were finally reduced to paying workers straight out of the till each day.

Still others dismiss Vernon Rollins as untrustworthy at best, a “con artist” at worst.

“It’s a community Rorschach test,” said J. David Colfax, a Boonville goat breeder and free-lance writer and friend of the Rollinses. “Everybody sees what they want to in it.”

The story began in 1979, when Vernon and Charlene bought the old Boonville Hotel, a large, two-story, wood-frame building along the strip of stores and coffee shops that constitute the downtown part of this town of 750 residents.

At first, residents of the apple, pear and grape-growing Anderson Valley thought the Rollinses would simply restore the old inn to its original country splendor. But as the renovation dragged on for two years, that clearly was not the case.

When the restaurant portion of the New Boonville Hotel debuted in February of 1982--six guest rooms upstairs and a pool and tennis courts out back were postponed, and eventually forgotten--it featured an elegant and sophisticated interior graced by expensive works of art.

It also featured a menu that won the praise of restaurant critics from Los Angeles to New York. Many visitors to San Francisco, 125 miles south, came up to dine; some even flew in from as far away as Australia and France to sample its fare.

Treat for Eyes

A typical meal would be as much a treat for the eyes and imagination as the palate. It could open with a salad garnished by three kinds of edible flowers, and move on to rabbit grilled over a secret mix of apple wood, live oak, grape cuttings and manzanita.

Pasta was served with baby Brussels sprouts so small they looked like peas; fancy nouvelle pizza was heaped with crumbled goat cheese. Dessert could be a plum sorbet or hearty cobbler. After a meal, diners could choose from among dozens of brandies and cognacs racked up behind the bar.

Dinner for two ran $80 to $100.

Visiting gastronomes found themselves in a unique sliver of America tucked into a fold of the Coastal Mountains in southern Mendocino County. Boonville is a bucolic farm town that was once so isolated it developed its own language, Boontling.

The dialect remains--”Horn of Zeese” is Boontling for “cup of coffee”--but isolation is a thing of the past. Local folks have been joined by a variety of urban refugees--world-weary academics, well-to-do winegrowers, a few yuppie muffin-mongers and New Age farmers with names like “Rainbow.”

Still, Boonville was little more than a wide spot on the road to Mendocino--until the New Boonville Hotel invited in the world.

“It was like a spaceship had landed in the middle of Boonville,” Colfax recalled, “and it attracted all of these aliens, with their weird automobiles--Audis and Porsches and BMWs.”

‘They Didn’t . . . Want Us’

And, many noted, local residents were not made to feel welcome.

“They didn’t particularly want us in there,” said one nearby merchant, who asked that his name not be used. “They wanted the tourist trade, not local people. They wanted nothing to do with us.”

But there was a mystique about the place, former employees and other locals said, and the Rollinses vigorously promoted it whenever they were not actually at the restaurant--which was not often. Employees and friends said the couple often worked 14- or 16-hour days, six or seven days a week.

The mystique focused in part on the source of ingredients. A big, attractive garden spread out behind the house, while goats and rabbits were kept penned at the side door. Some customers said they were told that everything on their plate was raised on the premises.

Employees now say this was never so, that much of the produce was bought at a market in Ukiah, 25 miles away; that chickens were purchased in Petaluma, 60 miles to the south; that the beef was supplied by a wholesale butcher, and that the rabbits were raised elsewhere in the Anderson Valley.

“The bulk of the produce did not come out of the garden--it simply wasn’t big enough,” said Morning Hullinger-Wood, the restaurant’s bar manager. “The garden became a showcase, and it was beautiful.”

Lavish Praise

In any case, the end product won wide and lavish praise, so the homegrown reputation--whether apocryphal or not--not only stuck, it grew.

But despite its vaunted culinary achievements, court records and interviews with investors indicate that the restaurant was never a financial success. A year after it opened, the original limited partners grew suspicious of its losses and got a court order to send in an auditor.

“There was not a proper accounting for what was being done,” said Narsai David, a noted San Francisco-area restaurateur and an early Boonville Hotel investor.

A declaration by the auditor filed in connection with a lawsuit brought by David and the 11 other original investors reports an inexplicable commingling of funds from five separate restaurant checking accounts and “a complete and total lack of any recognized bookkeeping and accounting practice.”

Creditors allege that Vernon placated the early investors by refunding some of their money. But he sinmply went out and solicited new investors. It was the start of a Byzantine mortgaging spree that eventually included at least six trust deeds for various combinations of the four lots on which the hotel and its garden are located, according to attorneys familiar with the financing.

“It’s very confusing,” said Joseph A. (Buck) Adams, a San Francisco lawyer for one group of investors.

Together, the deeds constitute more than $500,000 in debt, which is owed to investors from Boonville to San Diego. All have declared the loans in default. The hotel is scheduled to be auctioned Monday to try to recover some of the money.

Despite all the investors, there never seemed to be enough money. Creditors say the couple could not repay loans. Employees say they could not fully pay the help. Local merchants say they could barely pay suppliers--and had to do so in cash on delivery.

Finally, in August, headwaiter Tom Cronquist of Boonville went to the state Department of Industrial Relations complaining that the Rollinses owed him $18,000 in back wages and tips. He also alleged that the couple failed to provide workers’ compensation insurance.

That same month, court files show, holders of the second trust deed declared the Rollinses in default, prompting the auction.

Eyewitnesses said that on Aug. 22, Gregor MacInnes, an inspector from the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement in San Francisco, seized the restaurant’s books as part of his investigation of employee complaints.

Seen Heading North

The next morning, employees said, Vernon and Charlene packed a few things into her father’s pickup truck, announced to their employees that Charlene was having difficulty in her seventh month of pregnancy, and drove away.

One employee said she saw them heading north on California 128, the road that runs through town on its way to the coast. The local newspaper, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, reported that another Boonville resident saw them on Interstate 5 near Eugene, Ore. Their whereabouts now are unknown.

However, two days after they left, someone broke into their restaurant and took, among other things, some artwork being held on consignment, some of the distinctive glassware and a ceiling fan. After that, friends of the Rollinses said they removed the couple’s private art collection for safekeeping.

Since then, questions have been raised in Boonville about the fate of the restaurant’s extensive wine cellar. Diners were served only California wines, mostly those made in the Anderson Valley, but several sources said the cellar stocked expensive French wines as well.

Local residents were not clear whether the wine belonged to Vernon Rollins personally or to the restaurant. But at one store that sold him French wines, Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, manager Dave Stewart said Rollins paid for his purchases with New Boonville Hotel checks.

French Wine Taken Earlier

The Anderson Valley Advertiser speculated that the Rollinses had taken some of the wine with them when they fled, but an employee, Hullinger-Wood, said the couple did not have time to remove any wine the day they left.

Hullinger-Wood did say that more than 100 cases of French wine were removed from the cellar in early July--about the same time Vernon Rollins was losing a $22,398 judgment in a San Francisco lawsuit.

That suit stemmed from a previous business enterprise, a San Francisco wine-importing venture called M-V Wine Co., which he started in 1970 with a partner named Judith Shane.

In her suit, Shane accused Rollins of fraud and breach of contract, alleging that he failed to repay $23,000 she lent him, then duped her into giving him control of the company in exchange for a worthless promise to pay an additional $50,000. The suit also referred to a shipment of French wine to M-V Wine Co. that was never accounted for.

Shane declined to discuss Rollins, but her lawyer, David Schwartz, said Rollins has not paid the $22,398 owed to Shane.

“He left her high and dry,” Schwartz said.

‘A Great Con Artist’

A former associate in the wine business, Darrell Corti of Sacramento, was less kind: “Vernon is a great con artist--just ask any of the people who have lent him money. Vernon is of the check-is-in-the-mail school.”

In a letter to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, which arrived with a check for some of the back wages owed to restaurant employees, Vernon Rollins told what persuaded him and Charlene to finally give up on Boonville and go away.

He wrote of long days, no pay, endless bills and the embarrassment of having wide-eyed customers watch as lawmen seized his books.

“Work 15, 16, 20 hours a day; sleep; get up and do it again,” he wrote. “Never paid ourselves, sold our possessions to finance the place. . . . No, nothing except work, sleep, work. Talk to lawyers, deal with creditors, work, sleep.”

The souffle finally fell with the seizure of his books by authorities, he wrote, and “(our) will was gone.”

He added that he and his wife were “too broke to go broke” but hinted that he was still trying to raise $500,000 “to save the whole thing.”

Criminal Complaint

In a subsequent letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, however, Rollins wrote that while he and Charlene may “someday have another restaurant,” the chances of its being in Boonville are “virtually none.”

The change in attitude about returning to Boonville may have to do with the decision by the Mendocino County district attorney’s office to file a criminal complaint in Ukiah charging the Rollinses with 20 misdemeanor violations of the state Labor Code.

Arrest warrants for the couple have been issued.

Meanwhile, the Rollinses’ friends and creditors--the two often were one and the same--are left to wait for the upcoming auction of the hotel property.

And they are left to assess what happened.

“It’s surprising and disappointing,” said investor David. “I’d like to think it was a matter of an honest man who was incompetent at business, but now that is all thrown into question.”

‘Grumbled, Snapped, Whined’

“Honesty was kind of relative to (Vernon),” said former headwaiter Cronquist. “He didn’t like to do things unless he was forced to do them. He didn’t give employees their paychecks, for example; you had to ask for them. He just grumbled and snapped and whined. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience.”

“I don’t think they’re bad people,” said Hullinger-Wood. “I just think they are extremely bad business people.”

“Charlene and Vernon were just absolutely uncompromising,” said Colfax. “That was part of the antagonism (with investors and employees)--they were going to do it their way.”

And their way, all agreed, was as unpredictable as it was tenacious.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said O’Donnell, “if Vernon Rollins was right now back on his way from wherever he went to with $500,000 in cash to save the place.”