Mendocino Talking: Steve Baird

[Steve has been many things to many people over the years living and working in and around Ukiah. As a musician, he plays Upright and Electric Bass, Trombone, Trumpet, and other brass, and has played for many years with local favorite Will Siegel and Friends band. He is also a familiar face as maitre d’ of Ukiah’s popular and beloved Oco Time Restaurant in downtown Ukiah. ~DS]

I grew up in a musical family in Marin County and Monterey. My dad was a professionally trained singer, besides being a minister, and my mom was a pianist, so I grew up playing music from a young age. I played in school bands and then jazz bands. I started going to the annual Monterey Jazz Festival while in High School. I saw phenomenal jazz performances in the late fifties and early sixties… Ellington, Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Carmen McRae and on and on… 

After some college and residence in Mexico, in 1967 I moved to Berkeley just in time for the Summer of Love. Living in Berkeley and hanging out in San Francisco in the late sixties, you could see live bands in the ballrooms at night, the Avalon, the Fillmore, the Family Dog, Longshoreman’s Hall… and free in the parks on Sundays: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Steve Miller, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company… 

I got a job in the auto biz working in a Volkswagen engine rebuilding company, and, with some guys I met there, we eventually opened our own garage working on VWs and Porsches. At the time, every other car in Berkeley was a Volkswagen, so we did well, and I found myself to be a corporate Vice President.

I then got a job with Alice Waters and her partners, helping to open Chez Panisse Restaurant, from sheetrock to Quiche Lorraine, and then as one of the dinner chefs. I would come on at 3:30 in the afternoon and finish prepping for dinner and then serve out the evening meals. My responsibility was to bring everything together, serve a plate that was beautiful, went out hot and clean, and honored the house. After dinner I would prep for the next meal: making 60 quarts of chicken stock, peeling mountains of potatoes. About 6 months later we decided to open for lunch, and I was the lunch chef for awhile and then worked in the modest café we opened upstairs. With Mr. Peet and his coffee store around the corner to jazz us with his French roast, and the Cheeseboard Collective in between, Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto” was getting off the ground. Then we got a very nice review in an influential private food newsletter. We all used to share in answering the phone in the afternoon, which didn’t ring that much initially. When that review came out, the phone started ringing off the hook, and it hasn’t stopped in 40 plus years now, I’m sure. I had only cooked at home before working there, so my restaurant training was my year at Chez Panisse. 

But, we started getting sour on the situation in Berkeley. We’d been through all the highs and lows of anti-war actions, People’s Park occupation, tear gas, demonstrations at the Oakland Induction Center, rallies in San Francisco and Berkeley. After all that, it was sad to see the Telegraph Avenue scene, the home of off-campus cultural life, getting pretty ugly. We started looking for another answer.

Meanwhile, in the early 70’s, relatives had moved to Ukiah and suggested that we move there. I bid goodbye to the Chez. We packed up and, without jobs or resources, moved in briefly with the family, and started looking for work. We did some janitorial work, my wife did some legal transcription… I went from Chez Panisse to working at Round Table Pizza.

Then I met Dana Crumb and she asked me to work for her. So I became her hired hand for a couple of years out at her place in Potter Valley, commuting from my rustic digs in Redwood Valley in my battered VW bug. I fixed her fences, built a barn, took care of her kids, doing whatever she needed. A great cook, she hosted some very famous parties and events over the years, and I learned a lot from her about life… and chopped liver. She was already separated from R. Crumb, but he was still living in a cabin on the property. I’d call it “peaceful coexistence.” I got the opportunity to observe this exceedingly talented artist and appreciate his obsessions with his drawing notebooks and his 78 rpm records. His band “The Cheap Suit Serenaders” were around at times, playing music dug from the deep grooves of ancient vinyl, and I’d hang with them once in a while. Ultimately, as a favor to Dana, I was the one to serve Robert with divorce papers at a San Francisco restaurant some years later. As I recall, he knew it was coming: he was very pleasant about it.

I have always gravitated to being a customer service guy in my work life. About that time, I met and was hired by Rick Buchholz who had opened a health food store in town. It was where Church Street runs into Main Street, and not really on the corner. He was a sort of far-sighted progressive cowboy, selling organic vegetables in Ukiah when the Co-op was still a buyer’s co-op (The Homestead Exchange), where you would meet and divvy up the food. The Corner Store was an actual natural food store, with bins of grains, jars of herbs, and a walk-in cooler full of organic carrots which we juiced all day long, it seemed. Rick had started making sandwiches in the back of the store and decided to make a restaurant there also. So he created some cafe space and hired me to open what we called the Northside Cafe. Buckwheat burgers and smoothies ruled the roost. Along with my future wife, Sheilah, many locals, including Dana, contributed to the kitchen staff. After a couple of years, the whole store was remodeled into a very cool gourmet grocery… way ahead of its time. 

After about 8 years there, my friend Will Siegel suggested I check out an opening at the Band Box music store on Main Street. It was the full-line music store in town at that time, with all the brands: Fender, Gibson, Yamaha, etc. plus band instrument rental and repair, with Will and others teaching guitar and other instruments. It was a time of great local musical activity, and I met most of the local musicians, many of them still contributing to the scene, over the ten years I worked there.

When I moved here, you could go out at night and there were multiple places you could go dancing… the Wine Glass Tavern, The Peacock, The Lido where the Perkins Street Grill is now, the House of Garner etc., all with live music, of course. I started playing bass again with some friends and ended up playing with Will. I had been introduced to local jazz pianist Barbara Curtis, and was fortunate to play with her for the next 20 years or so. Her husband Hal was the drummer, the great Rod Pacini was the saxophonist and Will was the guitarist. We played all over the place. Will and I, and others, also gigged around as Jump Street and Willy and the Nighthawks.

Then I was recruited to work at Bulldog Brothers Auto Service, right next door to the old Corner Store location, just up the street from the music store; it was my third workplace on good old Main Street. That was another 10 years in customer service and the auto parts department, plus a bit of barbershop singing in the shop when the mood struck.

It’s amazing how much musical activity there is around here, given the limited number of places there are to play these days. We used to play the Ukiah Brewery and, back in the day, the Hopland Brewery, but we no longer seek gigs that start at 9:30 and run until 1:30 AM. Having achieved senior status, we prefer the 7-10PM time-slot. We play the Blue Wing in Upper Lake every couple of months, and occasionally the Soper Rees Theater in Lakeport. In recent years, summertime has been our busiest musical season when we play weddings and other family celebrations, hosted events by local wineries like the Acoustic Café at Parducci Winery, and community events like Sundays in the Park. We produced a CD in 2014, released in the fall, recorded at the Mendocino College studios. Fortunate to have a group of fine musicians as friends, we play together in a variety of configurations, mostly for the love of music. 

In the early 2000’s, Yoshiki and Naoko Sakane, came to Mendocino County to build their dream California-Japanese Cuisine restaurant, finding a location on Church Street in Ukiah. Yoshiki had actually dreamed this restaurant, and when he saw the location and building, he said it was exactly what he had seen in his dream. At that point, they had three young kids and few resources. Yoshiki had been a builder, a technician and roadie for rock bands, and other jobs, in Japan, but, although he had worked in several Japanese restaurants in California, had never had a restaurant of his own. He did everything himself in building OCO TIME, and it took two years to complete the project. 

Meanwhile, Naoko started figuring out the business side. She had worked for a bank, and as a journalist for a regional magazine in Japan, but lacked knowledge about running a restaurant. She found the West Company, which had been created to help low income people start their own businesses, and took classes to learn how to do a business plan and start a company. In 2003 they got ready to open. Yoshiki had a chef friend who came to help them with the menu and to open, but they immediately learned how difficult it is to run a full service dining room. I came aboard, was able to get the dining room staff up and running with a high level of service, and over time we evolved into a very popular, even beloved, community resource, now expanded into a next door take-out, and another restaurant up in Willits.

So, in the end, as in any community, we had to find our way into this one by doing whatever needed to be done. We had to do a little of this, a little of that to make a livelihood and a life… and it’s been a pretty good one for us. I, for one, feel blessed to have come here, and to live in an amazing place.

SteveBaird

(Coming up: Terry d'Selkie — School Teacher, Mendocino School Gardens, Mendocino Food Action Plan, Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetables; Mike Zarkowski — Musician, Luthier, Hobo Guitars.) 

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