A native Washingtonian, I was born in Seattle and our family later moved to the college town of Bellingham. When my twin brother and I were in seventh grade, my parents decided to shake things up a bit by taking a sabbatical from their city lives and jobs (my mom was a public health nurse, my dad a sign language interpreter for deaf students).
They packed us all up for Stehekin, a tiny mountain village at the far end of Lake Chelan in central Washington, trusting they’d creatively find work (in fields other than their own) in order to support the family. My mom took a job at the village bakery. Although she was an accomplished home cook and baker, she had no professional experience; but she proved to be a quick study. So did I, when, at age 14, I started my first job at that very bakery as a dishwasher. I became curious about the baking, gradually dabbling in small baking tasks, and eventually starting to tinker in the kitchen at home.
That one-year sabbatical to a magical mountain village quickly became a life-changing dream from which none of us wanted to wake! But after two years in Stehekin (where the one-room school served only through the eighth grade), we had to leave to go to high school. So once again, my parents left their jobs, sold their house, and committed themselves to an even more rural lifestyle (albeit one with a high school). We moved to Lopez Island, just off the coast of Washington State, where my parents still live today. It was the first of many times that my parents would teach me the value of following your heart, living in a place that inspires you, and trusting that earning a living is always just a matter of how brave and creative you can be.
My informal culinary education continued on Lopez with a summer job as a prep cook at Vita’s, serving up gourmet prepared foods for locals and tourists. Vita’s chef/owner, Joyce Brinar, became my mentor, teaching me the basics of cooking and instilling in me a passion for feeding people. Her open kitchen and the way she engaged her customers about the food they were eating inspired me; these would later be guiding principles in the concept and design of Iris Café.
While in college, I studied in Mexico and Brazil and had the pleasure of experiencing life abroad through the eyes, nose, and taste buds of a young cook. Every sight, sound, and smell gave me clues into culinary traditions that informed my eager palate, introducing me to an ever-widening array of flavors and textures. After college, I helped manage Finch’s Coffee and Tea House in Vancouver, Canada, another formative experience that guided me in the early days of opening my own café. Then I had an opportunity to be the sous chef for a friend at his little resort restaurant in Bahia de Kino, a town in northwest Mexico.
While living on the beach was dreamy, after six months I was ready to head back to the States and step out of the kitchen for a time. I drew upon my international politics degree and earned an internship with Slow Food in New York City, doing event planning and development work—a natural intersection of my political studies and food. Through connections at Slow Food, I landed a front-of-house job at Centovini restaurant in SoHo, and later did event planning for Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan magazines before returning to a desk job, working with a non-profit that sponsored work visas for international students to find tourism jobs on their summer vacations. It introduced me to exceptional people and took me on unforgettable travels, but this was when I knew that life behind a desk was not for me. I wanted to get back in the kitchen.
Drawing on my café experience in Vancouver, as well as my bakery days, we opened Iris Café as a high-end coffee shop with an edited selection of house-baked goods, simple sandwiches, and hearty salads. It was meant to serve the immediate neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights and perhaps the occasional visitor to this historic area. The resulting flood of publicity and customers surprised no one more than me; the café’s success over the next three years grew rapidly, along with its menu, hours, and offerings.
As my clientele expanded, I began thinking more (and critically!) about our modern diets. It wasn’t that I ever dieted or suffered from allergies or intolerances (though many of my friends and family do); I just began to realize that (for my whole life) the media has been telling us things like skim milk is better and low-fat yogurt is best. The concept of whole or unprocessed foods was relegated to a “hippie” or “health food” niche. Even the medical community has been pushing reduced-fat, low-calorie, heavily processed diets (and diet foods) that don’t do much to feed our bones, muscles, and minds. The more I researched “traditional diet,” the more inspired I became about the wisdom in the ideas behind it.
I started to see theory in action when I visited my childhood friend Ethan, his wife, Judy, and their two-year-old son, Milo, in Berkeley, California. Meeting Milo for the first time, what struck me the most, besides his bouncy blond curls and big blue eyes, was how happy and calm he was. Wasn’t he smack in the middle of the so-called “terrible twos”? Wasn’t this the age of picky eaters and frequent tantrums? Milo would happily sit at the dinner table, in his high chair, and—consistently—eat a varied meal of whatever we were eating: small bites of pork chop, green vegetables, dark, dense bread with a thick spread of butter. In their house, there were no frozen chicken fingers (organic or otherwise), no colored, sweetened yogurt in a squeeze tube, and no boxes of macaroni and cheese with powdered cheese product.
Clearly, Ethan and Judy were doing something right. They told me that friends had given them the classic cookbook, Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig. It reads like a bible for the “back-to-the-land” set; a how-to guide to nourishing yourself, mind, heart, and body. The tenets are very common sense; consuming whole grains, lacto-fermented foods, and moderate amounts of fats, whether they are animal or vegetable, is important to a healthy, nutritious (not to mention delicious) diet.
I believe that it’s time to return to our traditional methods of nourishing ourselves and our bodies. In the recipes that follow, I offer a tasty introduction to some of these ideas, including lacto-fermentation (which is not only a cross-cultural traditional preserving method for vegetables, but has also been used to aid in digestion for centuries), bone marrow, fresh raw eggs, thick, rich chicken broth, dark maple syrup, cream-top yogurt, and lots of vegetables. I hope my recipes inspire you to learn more, as well as begin to fit these ideas into your daily eating habits.