As owner and longtime cook of Carmel Valley's legendary Wagon Wheel, Harry Curry has seen, heard and tasted it all.
Thursday, May 31, 2001
A cowboy chic comfort zone, Carmel Valley''s Wagon Wheel has been under the stewardship of Harry Curry since 1976. This breakfast and lunch spot right next to Quail Lodge serves up expertly crafted renditions of classic American meals. Ever present is the congenial Curry, as is the spirit of his lifelong partner Katy, who passed away four years ago. She remains in the hearts and memories of all who were fortunate enough to encounter her.
In celebration of his 25 years of service to the people of Carmel Valley and the thousands of folks who found nourishment at this wonderful establishment, I recently sat down with Curry as he reflected upon his history at Harry and Katy''s Wagon Wheel.
Feast: What''s it like, 25 years in one spot?
Harry Curry: Well [laughing], let''s see--my wife wanted a little restaurant in Carmel. I was working for a pharmaceutical company at the time and living in Los Altos. I had just completed 20 years with the business and I said, "OK, fine, let''s go buy that restaurant." I knew old owner Gene Lambert, as well as the man that had it after that for a couple of years.
So it was an existing restaurant before this?
Yeah, it was an existing restaurant, but half the size of what it is now.
You hadn''t been in restaurants before?
My wife had, but I hadn''t. I stood right there in that doorway and watched this man cook for eight days and each day he''d say, "Well, tomorrow I''ll let you cook an omelet. I''ll let you do some pancakes." Tomorrow never came--the eighth day came around, he walked out the door. So we closed it for nine days and we cleaned it, scrubbed it and I cooked for the family and that''s where I sorta learned timing, more than anything else. They were, you know, "The pancakes are raw" or "You overcooked the bacon"--trial and error.
Was your wife out front?
She was right there with me. I took stove number one and she took stove number two. We both started cooking and I was dropping pans and dropping eggs [laughs heartily].
Back then, who were your clients, mostly locals?
Mostly regulars, and a lot of the regulars who were there then are still coming in.
What''s with the cowboy theme?
It was here when I moved in. I just added to it. My wife and I had six horses for several years, and I accumulated a lot of stuff. Then I traveled the antique circuit for a while, and whenever I saw something like that, I''d pick it up. A lot of the cowboys brought stuff in to us. They''d say, "Here, hang this up--I found it in the field." So I''d hang it up. Kevin Mooney, the local silversmith, supplied me with several things. He''s no longer doing silver work. He''s been very, very generous about a lot of stuff that''s hanging up in here.
Has it always been breakfast and lunch only?
Always been breakfast and lunch. We tried dinner a couple of times, but it''s a different thing. It didn''t work out--we don''t have any ovens, so there''s no way we could do things like dinner.
When did you stop cooking? Or do you still cook?
Nooo, I don''t cook anymore. I cooked for about three years.
So you got smart right away?
Yeah, yeah. We bought it in ''76. We opened Katy''s Place in ''82. We opened Katy''s Cottage in ''84--the one down on Lincoln. We sold Katy''s Place in ''86 and we sold the Katy''s Cottage about five years ago.
You can feel the energy in here, it''s so positive, so loving.
Well, everybody that isn''t in this business criticizes me for the way I treat my employees, but I don''t yell and holler at ''em. I just sit down and talk and we air things out--which I rarely have to do--and everything''s fine. I treat them like they treat me. It really has been rewarding. Katy showed me just about everything in cooking--she was a gourmet cook. The girl was just marvelous with food--food and people--and I learned an awful lot from her. She graduated from Carmel High in 1951 and she always wanted to come back to Carmel and have a little restaurant. I took a page out of her book: When I buy, I buy the best I can buy. If you cut it, you lose the flavor. You just can''t do that, you''ve got to have good quality.
When your wife passed away, did you think about packing it in?
Nope. This is my home, and the day-to-day work kept me going.
Are you in here every day doing stuff?
I''m in here every day but I work like, two days a week--Saturday and Sunday--those are my days that I go on the floor and work.
So how have things changed as far as clientele and tastes?
Oh, you always get new people. Some of the old ones disappear--they move away or get married and their wife''s cooking for ''em at home. But, basically, they keep on coming back all the time.
What do you want to say about your 25 years here?
If I had it to do over again I''d do it--it''s been great. It really has been wonderful. Once I got into it myself, because my wife did a lot of it for many years, I just took over and started working. Then it became: "Hey, this is fun." I like the people, putting the food down in front of them, walking around and talking to people, finding out if everything''s OK. I love it.
When do you think you''ll retire?
When they carry me outta here feet first [laughing]. I figure as long as I enjoy it and I have fun with my customers--which is what I do every day--I''ll hang on to it.
Wagon Wheel Coffee Shop is located on Carmel Valley Road and is open from 6:30am-2pm daily. For reservations or more info, call 624-8878.