My introduction to my culinary career was in the glitter-filled trenches through Southern California’s boon of the 1980’s. Creating catered events from Palos Verdes to Pacific Palisades we had the opportunity to use over 80% of imported ingredients from Europe, Asia and Mexico. It was a popular time for themed events and multiple culinary stations, each with buffets cascading artfully for the look of opulence and excess. This was a hedonistic time in our culinary history with untold waste of expensive imported ingredients. I was in my twenties, and catering clients were tipping us money and including boxes of meats, cheeses, and wine. No consciousness of carbon footprints or cancer, I danced under the moon thinking I’d arrived.
With my earnings, off on sabbatical, I filled a backpack and took off for Europe settling in Paris and Grenoble for a couple of years. Here to “unplug” with a sketchbook and chef kit, I shopped directly from the farmers and culinary artisans in the roadside market stalls of my neighborhood. I was just beginning to understand the farmer and artisan relationship to the food they produced. After experiencing my own Eat, Pray, Love culinary affair with France I returned to the Coast of Southern California ready for re-entry into the competitive culinary game of this restaurant and catering Mecca.
We continued creating culturally diverse menus and had global access to ingredients from exotic ports of call. I was working with highly creative people in a variety of venues, yet I didn’t feel connected to the food at all. Losing interest in any competitive culinary edge, I transitioned in and out of caregiving as cancer and chronic illness introduced themselves to friends and family, one at a time. A radical paradigm shift always inspires leaps of faith into unknown possibilities.
A private chef position in the Northwest allowed me to return home to spend time with a dear friend with cancer. When she passed, I took a chef position on a classic wooden yacht sailing through the San Juan and British Columbian Islands. A galley on the top deck with Dutch doors overlooking breathtaking views of whales and eagles was just what I needed to rediscover my path. We caught our own seafood or bought directly from the fishermen’s boat. Our produce was found at lavish family farm stands just feet from the docks. With each charter we discovered another local culinary artisan. Somewhere in the coves of British Columbia is a couple who converted a 10 car ferry boat from the 1920s into a floating bakery. I’d disappear into the morning fog, on our inflatable, and reappear with cinnamon rolls and fresh bread. They were angels in the mist telling their story over coffee. I felt connections with local vendors and my focus centered on nurturing our charter cliental and their guests. Our charters became popular for the healthy local foods and our simple comfort menus. My rural home was nestled in the San Juan Islands where my neighbors were introducing Permaculture farming, natural building, and bio fuel to our community. I left my eco-paradise to follow my dad back to the Southern California weather and close family.
Dad encouraged me to follow my “bucket list” just before he died so, I packed my chef kit once again and moved to the Big Island of Hawaii. All I knew was that I wanted to snorkel and body surf again. I hung my private chef sign on my car and joined the local food group supporting farmer/chef relationships. We educated locals on supporting a sustainable marketplace within the Island chain. Our goal was to create solutions for the challenges of produce distribution for local farmers, importing and exporting restrictions and fees, and the competition with Walmart and Costco’s imported produce. Creating independent sustainable food systems that could potentially support a community long term, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean became the next paradigm shift for me. I’d just settled into my new digs on a fruit farm on Maui. I was drinking my morning coffee in the mango grove when my sister called to tell me she had cancer. My care giving assistance was needed back on the California coast. Sh*t!
The oncologists’ nutritional advice was disappointing and quickly inspired us to research nutrition and the nutrient density of foods. We took responsibility to incorporate alternative treatments and energy medicine into her healing process. I became a Gerson Therapy Care Giver (a vegan protocol) & Reiki practitioner supporting clients in the self-healing process. I taught myself the art of raw and vegan food preparation and researched everything I could find about natural healing. I started teaching culinary classes to clients who were supporting their healing with nutrition. When you start to talk about nutrition that heals, the conversation inevitably expands to include organic, GMOs, soil health, water, labeling requirements, local farms, corporate pollution… and now you’re aware that everything’s connected. After five years of testing “cancer free” my sister and I set off on separate adventures.
My next adventure required only redwoods and natural building. Passionate to learn homesteading skills and everything possible about natural building, permaculture farming, and sustainability, I Googled Sustainable Building, Northern California and found the Emerald Earth Intentional Community in Anderson Valley was exactly what I asked for. As the nutritionist/alchemist preparing meals for mud builders and gardeners and learning homesteading skills from the pros, this was a dream come true. The community raises their own farm animals for meat and dairy and grow about 80% of their produce. I was given the challenge to serve primarily a Paleo diet with vegan and gluten free options. Our goal was local and seasonal and we made a conscious effort to craft the menus around the harvest. I’d been in the city for so long, this was a welcome challenge. Once again, ingredients were connected to the faces and stories of each farmer, restoring a sweet sense of accountability to the entire community. Every night we sang a gratitude song for the meal and the hands that made it. What a blessing to know the origin of every ingredient and the people who tend them. Thank you Fern the goat, Tom for the chestnuts, Tim & Renee’s basket of possibilities, and Doug for the grains.
Just weeks after I had arrived, I attended the Not So Simple Living Fair where I fell in love with Boonville and the AV locals. I feel like I found my tribe. Since then, I’ve been stalking Cindy Wilder and moved into town so I could join the AV Foodshed Group and the NSSLF planning committee. Living in this conscious melting pot has inspired new political interests in water rights and ending corporate personhood. I’d like to use my chef and event coordination skills to support some of these other projects here in Anderson Valley. We’re envisioning a self-sustaining local economy, local currency, and hearing about so many other great ideas to support one another within the AV community. My connection to local food has been in every place I’ve called home. I feel honored to have found this little “shire paradise” nestled in the Anderson Valley and I look forward to supporting the “local food movement” and supporting this community.
(To see more of Valerie’s work check it out at
In two weeks AV Foodshed’s Connecting With Local Food series will feature Bill Seekins and his homestead. At www.mendocinolocalfood.org website you can read previous articles in the series.)