Lauren Keating – January 17th, 2009

GEDC0003I met with Lauren (of Lauren’s Restaurant in Boonville) at her home on Anderson Valley Way and after I’d received the approval of Elvis the dog, we sat down for a friendly chat – something that Lauren is very adept at, as many Valley folk can attest…
She was born in San Francisco in the mid-fifties but shortly thereafter moved north of the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. Lauren was the second of the five girls born to parents of Irish/Portuguese descent who had lived in Marin for a couple of generations and who had encouraged her interest in music at an early age – even taking her to see the hip(py) musical ‘Hair’. They were into jazz and Frank Sinatra etc and although Lauren was aware of the ‘new’ music (the Beatles etc.), which was popular amongst her school friends and enjoyed it, she preferred to listen to the jazz greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holliday.
She attended Drake School in San Anselmo and although not pushed that way by her parents she ended up in the school’s Alternative Education branch with 125 other kids – it was part of a new movement in education, S.W.A.S. – a School Within A School. It was where students and teachers jointly directed the project-based programs and Lauren was on various Steering Committees to discuss and decide on the curriculum. This was when Marin was on the cutting edge of new and various alternative, very liberal, and innovative lifestyles and this led to it being ridiculed in some quarters – “C.B.S.’ television show ’60 Minutes’ ran a famous story about the area showing people sharing hot tubs and hippies stroking each other with peacock feathers!”…
Lauren thoroughly enjoyed her schooling and this type of education, which was very suitable to highly motivated kids like herelf, and she became Student Body President at one point. “I was looking for something different, reading a lot, and wanting to know more about the world and the politics at that time”…When not at school, Lauren and her family would attend various events that connected with the ethnic Portuguese side of her upbringing of which she has many fond memories but when she graduated in 1974 she wanted to extend her experience of the alternative education system so she embarked on a college education at U.C. Santa Cruz where she studied Environmental Planning – “urban planning, not necessarily ‘saving the forests’ which was what the environmentalist were all about at that time, more a study of how the bulk of the population was going to live.”…The university was split into various colleges and Lauren attended Kresge College which had apartments for the students, not dormitories, and once again she became involved with the numerous teacher/student decision-making committees.
Whilst she enjoyed her studies it was at this time that she became involved in the food/restaurant business when she started work at the student-run café that served lunches to students in the daytime and in the evenings became a sort of ‘place to be’ and was the center of the college community’s social scene. It was not long before Lauren had become co-manager and eventually manager. In her senior year she took some time off to write her thesis about how to confront the elitist nature of the environmentalist movement and to bridge the gap between social justice and the environment. “It was a very difficult topic – ‘saving the beautiful’ was the focus of the movement and at the time the urban issues were not considered – a key issue which remains today. I wanted time away to work on this so I moved to Berkeley and then ended up never finishing it and I didn’t go back.”
It was 1978 and Lauren had no real thoughts of making a career in the restaurant business but over the next few years she worked in the East Bay at various restaurants. ‘I just thought of restaurant work as a way of paying for me to live my life at the time and tried to save some money for the future – whatever that might be.” It was the early days of California cuisine and the sustainable farming movement and by the time she was thirty she had decided that she’d done enough “armchair farming” and read enough ‘back-to-the-land’ books – “It was time to actually go and do it! I was glad not to have a career and therefore not stuck in the Bay Area”.
During her time in the restaurant business she had begun to date Gary Miller and they agreed to move away and try their hand at small-scale farming and agriculture. A friend of hers was the college roommate of Bert Cohen (Boont Berry Bert) who lived in Anderson Valley and so they’d had a contact up here for a few years and had attended The County Fair on several occasions. She was a very “urban girl” and had wondered what people did up here but now with property any closer to the Bay Area being so expensive they began to check out places to live. “We looked in Potter Valley but it lacked a sense of community. We kept coming back to Anderson Valley to look before finally, after about a year-and-a half of this, in September 1986, we bought five acres on Anderson Valley Way with a run-down house for $90K. We wanted to live as small-time farmers and we called it “Inky Dinky Farm’.“
In the years prior to this ‘The New Boonville Hotel’ had appeared in many of the ‘foody’ magazines read by Bay Area folks and the Valley had began to attract many such food-knowledgeable people. Following the mysterious, middle-of-the-night’ disappearance/escape of the hotel owners, Vern and Charlene Rawlins, the building had been empty for a couple of years before Johnnie Schmidt had taken over the building and Lauren, realizing that the farming life would not pay immediate dividends and needing to pay bills – “I would have worked at McDonalds in Ukiah if necessary” – began work at the revised ‘Boonville Hotel”. Her experiences in the Berkeley restaurant scene and her knowledge of the new food movement were a great help in her job at the Hotel, which served this kind of cuisine.
“Philosophically, the farming is great, and I now have chickens once again, but the economics did not support small scale farming and supplemental income was needed so it never really worked out as a business, although we did enjoy it very much. We sold our produce at the farmers’ market, of which I became manager in its second year, but working nights at the Hotel and then all-day on the farm was too much. Then my daughter Nora was born in 1990 and we just concentrated on making money for our little family”
After a brief move to work at The Toll House six miles out of town on Hwy 253 – “it didn’t work out – the phrase ‘location, location, location’ was never more appropriate” – Lauren returned as Inn Keeper for Johnnie but not long afterwards she came to an arrangement with The Soundbite Bar/Restaurant, owned by Jennifer Schmidt, Johnnie’s cousin, whereby Lauren would run a catering business out of there. Jennifer wanted to focus on making the Soundbite a place for music but over time this didn’t work out so it was suggested to their landlord, Ed Karsay, that they reverse roles – Lauren would take over the restaurant business and Jennifer would do some catering. Ed agreed and in February 1995, Lauren’s Restaurant was born…
“I thought the Valley definitely had a need for a restaurant such as ours, with our cuisine. Jennifer wanted to pay the musicians well but the business couldn’t support this with the audience numbers being so inconsistent. I decided we’d do much less music and pay them realistically based on our takings. With the Hotel and The Buckhorn Saloon under Ken Allen as our immediate competitors there was definitely room for something else and the community seemed to want it too…It wasn’t my dream; it was more about being here in the Valley and being able to support a life here. However I did not want to work endlessly. I decided to open in the evenings only – I was forty-one with a five year old and wanted to have a life away from work.”
“I have always enjoyed the restaurant and continue to do so, but in recent years it has become harder. The demographics of the Valley have changed and with most of our business coming from a gradually ageing Anglo population, who come out to dine less frequently, coupled with the current economic climate, I worry sometimes. I really want it to work and will continue to do my best to achieve that.”
“Meanwhile, I shall continue to support local produce even if it’s a little more expensive. I try to do organic too when I can but I’ll take local over organic – to do both is tough sometimes. I see the restaurant as a place where people can feel comfortable, sometimes with some music, and always affordable I hope. I am social and I think of it as an extension of my living room, providing more than just food, although the food is important of course!”
I now began to ask various questions about her life in the Valley. First was what she most liked about life here…”I know others have said this but the sense of community here is wonderful. The fact that it’s a gorgeous place too makes it easy to live here…One of my favorite things to do is go to the Farmers’ Market where I see many friends; I have fun there, and then I like to just hang out in downtown Boonville for an hour or so.”
“What I don’t like about the Valley is the high property values that are keeping young people from making a life here…I also wish that more of the wineries were owner-operated.”
Next up I put my usual button-pushing issues forward for Lauren’s thoughts…The wineries? – “ Well, I just gave you one thought in this regards…They are important as they do provide a vital economic base to the Valley but their presence has meant that there is little room for agricultural diversity here. That’s too bad.”…KZYX & Z Public Radio? – “A good asset and I support the station in numerous ways but with my schedule and by only listening to the radio in my car, I do not listen to it very often.”…The A.V.A.? – “Again, a good asset and it’s important in that it provides us with a way to communicate with each other. To me it’s an appealing part of the Valley, one of its attractions in fact. I do like its ‘edge’ but Bruce has certainly “mellowed” – I’m sure he won’t like yet another person saying that about him! He used to be so hard on people – those who were often just trying to do their best… It is important to have someone asking questions and to induce alternative opinions and ideas and I hope he continues to do so but when he was so harsh he turned many off and thus eliminated them from joining in.”…The School? – “They perform a very difficult job admirably, particular in bringing an immigrant population into a different culture. There is little room for alternative ‘stuff’ as a result but even as a Mum myself I still accepted that a school system has to take care of the majority first and there are not enough kids to support some of the arts programs that might be good to do. There has been such a dramatic change in the Valley demographics over the past fifteen years or so, this was inevitable to some degree…I was involved in setting up the Art Program at the Elementary School and it has worked out really well and I’m proud of being part of that.”…The modernization of the Valley? – “It’s never going to be another Napa around here despite what some may think. We are too far from S.F. and remain not enough of a destination. The change in property values has made differences but ‘Little Napa’ is not going to happen, I’m sure.”…Law and order in the Valley? – “I’m glad we are getting that second sheriff – I’m sure many people are not aware of what goes on around here at times.”…
I asked Lauren who she would vote for Mayor, if there was such a position of authority in the Valley – “I think Bert Cohen would be good but he’d never do it…Judy Long would be excellent, just as she was on the C.S.D. She’s smart and good at getting people to see other’s points of view”…As for Lauren being Mayor and making changes around here? – “I’d have to be God to change things like property values and so being Mayor just wouldn’t cut it for me. I would not want to be Mayor but thanks to Turkey Vulture for suggesting it some months ago. Despite the fact that so many people are here for the same reasons, getting agreement in this Valley is difficult – even amongst like-minded individuals. We are great at coming together as a community at times of death, or fire, etc, but when it comes to agreeing on change or the way forward it is very tough to get a consensus”…
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Lauren from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What is your favorite word or phrase? – “Empathy – it’s a pretty word; it sounds good and is a good sentiment.”
What is your least favorite word or phrase? – “I don’t like the phrase, ‘I don’t care’.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Music – being able to sing”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Rudeness”
”What sound or noise do you love? – “Silence – I really like it. At home I often like to relax in complete silence even though I do love music”
What sound or noise do you hate? – “People talking on cell phones at inappropriate times or in inappropriate places”
What is your favorite curse word or phrase? – “I’d like to say it was ‘fiddlesticks’ but it isn’t. It’s the other F-word – ‘fuck’. Don’t tell Eva!”
What is your favorite hobby? – “Gardening, reading, music.”
What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted? – “I wish I could have been a writer of history – twentieth century history books. I would love to research something and then write a book. As others have said, an awareness of history is extremely important if we do not want to make the same mistakes over and over.”
What profession would you not like to do? – “A door-to-door salesperson; or these days I suppose that would be a job involving telephone solicitation.”
Do you have any words to live by? – “Like many people, it would be ‘to do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ – if we all really thought about that and acted on it then things would be better everywhere.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “Just kidding, Lauren!  – You get to go back, we don’t want you yet.”

Published in: on January 21, 2009 at 7:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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