The Original Foodies : Alan Hooker, who for years has run Ojai’s Ranch House with his wife, Helen, serves up abundant helpings of culinary philosophy.
“If you begin to understand what you are without trying to change it, then what you are undergoes a transformation.”
“People say you have to get rid of the self. To hell with it. That’s the best friend I have.”
Give him an opening, and he will talk happily about the emotional aspects of food. Prod him, and he will soliloquize on a recipe’s spiritual significance. Lean a little closer, and he may even examine the personal ethics of eating.
But ask Alan Hooker to ponder the healthful aspects of food, and the man seated across the table from you will have nothing but contemptuous things to say.
“I refuse to be burdened by what is good for me,” Hooker says, folding his hands resolutely in his lap. “If I eat what tastes good to me, then everything else will take care of itself. I tell you, I’d rather die than have all that nutritional stuff hanging over my head.”
Coming from a 20-year-old, Hooker’s words might be considered the rebelliousness of youth or an inability to accept mortality. But coming as they do from a man about to celebrate his 90th birthday--a man who studied with the spiritual teacher and philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti, who cooked for Krishnamurti’s followers and who may be one of the first chefs to prepare what is now called “California cuisine"--the words take on another meaning.
“He has done a lot to change people’s food interests, mainly because he was doing all of this kind of cooking before anyone else. But I really don’t think it was ever his intent,” says Helen Hooker, Alan’s wife of 45 years. “Alan has just always wanted to do what he wanted to do.”
What Hooker wanted to do--at least in 1949 after he renounced his life as a successful jazz pianist, gave away his possessions and threw a few clothes into a friend’s old Ford and headed west from Ohio--was to be part of a spiritual center.
That center, he says, was in a small California town he had passed through years earlier, and which he later learned was Krishnamurti’s part-time home. Krishnamurti, lionized in the 1920s by the Theosophical Society as a “new Messiah,” dedicated himself to questioning the source of human problems, the nature of the mind and issues relating to quality of life. His public talks, held all over the world, have been compiled into 40 books and translated into 47 languages.
“I would literally wake up in the night in Ohio and say, ‘Ojai! Ojai! I have to get to Ojai!’ ” Hooker says, clenching a fist excitedly with the recollection. “There is such a strange thing in this valley. The energy here is enormous. I know it all sounds ridiculous now,” he adds, “but originally my ambition was to be someone big in a spiritual sense.”
Hooker may or may not have fulfilled that ambition, but there is little doubt that in the food world he is seen as something of a guru.
Today, he is the owner of Ojai’s Ranch House, a woodsy-looking restaurant complete with a bamboo forest, a wild garden and stone Buddhas sitting like patient guests beside a quietly running stream. A fixture in the north county community for 42 years, the restaurant is known as much for its meditative setting as its menu, which features fresh-picked herbs and innovative vegetarian fare. These days, says Jennifer Hoolhorst, assistant director of programs for the American Institute of Wine and Food in San Francisco, Hooker’s recipes would be called “California cuisine.” To people on the East Coast, she says, that often means “small portions of healthy food on big plates.” The institute’s definition, however, is a bit broader: Lighter fare, without a lot of heavy sauces, that uses a liberal amount of vegetables and herbs.
“Vegetarian food has changed a lot in recent years,” she says. “It’s not just sunflower-cheese casseroles anymore.” The Ranch House restaurant’s reputation--as well as Hooker’s--extends far beyond the county line.
Says Wolfgang Puck, the chef of Spago restaurant in Los Angeles: “He has cooking that is very warm and comfortable. And you talk with him and it is like talking with your father. . . . It’s not as if people come from all over the world to Ojai, but his cooking certainly had an influence on certain people.”
Any visitor who comes up for the first time, however, probably won’t get to see Hooker in the kitchen--unless he is making his way to the dining room. He gave up preparing meals himself a few years ago, the prerogative, he says, of having reached an age where “schedules aren’t important anymore.”
Hooker’s recipes are still followed faithfully. Many of them are straight out of the best-selling vegetarian cookbook he published in 1972.
Despite a mild case of diabetes (“All those rich foods I ate in my youth, probably,” he says), Hooker is a robust man who alternates between moments of intense seriousness and bouts of knee-pounding laughter.
His wife, Helen, 89, who worked through the years inside the restaurant’s dining room, is clearly familiar with his swings, sending him verbal volleys with the adeptness of an enamored Ping-Pong player. He: I wanted to become someone in a spiritual sense. She: Yes, and that’s why you ended up in a kitchen. (Pats his hand.) Seated at a corner table in the evenings, Hooker savors the meals before him and dishes out equal amounts of memory and philosophy:
* On becoming a vegetarian in the 1940s: “In Ohio, I went to a market where they had live chickens, and I ordered one. I heard this squawking, and it came out dead. I looked at it and something inside me said, ‘You don’t eat anything dead.’ It wasn’t a conscious decision. From that day, though, I didn’t want to eat meat.”
* On introducing meat and fish dinners onto the restaurant’s menu in the late 1950s: “We didn’t have any money at all, and I owed about $5,000. Helen and I lived here in the restaurant, where the dining area is now. Then, it seated 16 people. . . . A friend told me I wasn’t going to make it if I didn’t start offering meat. I went and got a big piece, held it in my hands, and I really was ready for the asylum. Here was this vegetarian person about to serve meat. But there was this great desire to survive. . . .”
* On the spirituality of food: “Spirituality has no limits, no boundaries. In food, it goes beyond taste. People prepare it with their hands. What they are, who they are, goes into the food.”
* On friendship: “When we came here, we had nothing. It was all right, though. We had a lot of friends. This garden was started by friends who brought us plants and herbs. Beatrice Wood (the renowned Ojai potter) came over and said to make a curve in the garden that sings. Isn’t that ridiculous? But she was right. . . . You sit down and share things with friends and it is like nothing else. My life has been a life of eating with people.”
* On aging: “Our lives are complicated by imitations of what and who we think we want to be. What happens is, we become the imitation. How can you grow old with that? That is a bore. The most important thing is to be happy with yourself. I am happy. I don’t know if I am at peace, but I’m not at war. That, I think, is a start.”