Shannon Hughes: Chef, Author, Artist
by Theresa Whitehill, July 22, 2015
When she was invoked with special reverence and tenderness at Goldeneye Winery this summer during the benefit dinner for the Cancer Resource Center and she flashed her smile and waved from behind the counter at the brick ovens I thought about what is so very different about the world she creates around her with food, color, flavor, community, spice, love, longing — a sense of worldness and intimacy, vulnerability, mastery.
She has touched and changed the lives of many people in Mendocino County through the force of her food, through her commitment to the great traditions of indigenous, unpretentious cooking, and to small organic farms and farmers. Her pioneering work in Mendocino county using locally grown and produced ingredients is not something for which she is often given credit for the very good reason that it is all around us now, and so many of us have arrived at a group mind about nourishment, and destiny of the planet. At the time she arrived in 1986, there wasn’t anyone doing that or thinking that way commercially.
Her sensibility derived from the years she spent living in rural Portugal and from her childhood in Los Angeles, surrounded by her maternal Lebanese family. As a girl she was taught in the traditional manner the ways of the kitchen, the ways of prayer becoming food, by her grandmother, Alexandria Haddad, who recognized that Shannon had “the gift” and deserved to receive her mystical knowledge.
She started cooking professionally when she graduated art school in 1976, and left Los Angeles to move to Southern Portugal in 1981, remaining there for four years. In her village there was the communal oven. The produce available was seasonal, and that was usually grown in someone’s back yard or small family farm. When she returned to the states and arrived on the south Mendocino coast, she felt immediately that this place was like that village, and she wanted to create a sensibility, a regional cuisine, based on locally grown, wild-foraged ingredients within an international menu.
“When I first starting doing this, it was hard to find people growing organically, hard to get local ingredients. Nobody was growing much in the way of organic produce at the time. I could get huckleberries, wild mushrooms, and salmon. Peter & Shelley were growing lettuce in Elk. I bought produce from Hugh Brady’s Green Gorge Farm down on the Garcia River. I then began contracting people to grow things for me. There was so little, I often had to go outside Mendocino County for some things. Sonoma already had Terra Sonoma Organics, a small company owned by Susan Stover and her partner Tony brokering small organic family farms. There were a few of us opening restaurants at the time, all of us coming from the same philosophical point of view. It was cosmically wonderful and exciting.”
Developing the menu at St. Orres in the mid to late 1980s, she then continued her work at The Old Milano Hotel and was beginning to form the concept for her restaurant, Pangaea, which she opened on Earth Day in 1994 on the main street in Point Arena.
“I love this area, how quirky and stark it is, I love the cultural diversity. I wanted to cook for my town, not the tourists. The happiest nights for me at Pangaea were when locals, ranchers, the res folks would come, the high school kids on their prom dates, and Sea Ranchers. It was indeed the People’s Republic of Pangaea. It was a gathering place, a refuge for many of us and a place to connect, dine, and commune.
Of the kitchen and wait staff, ten out of twelve of them were able to buy their own homes while they worked for me. I paid them decent money. The two kitchen guys spoke no English when they started with me; now they each have their own restaurants. That means the world to me; one of the most important aspects of my work has been devotion to community. We had so many public benefits at Pangaea. There is the Cancer Resource stuff I do, and the ‘Baby, It’s Cold Out There’ project [Shannon collects warm clothing, coats and jackets from all over the south coast and delivers them to homeless shelters in the wintertime]. It is important that I can help my community; this has always been necessary to whatever I’m doing whether in my restaurants or my catering.
We were proud to showcase local artists and did not take any commission from their sales. This was an important part of who we were at Pangaea, a venue and support for local art and culture when there was very little going on in Point Arena at that time.
I had the only restaurant wine list that was exclusively Mendocino County at that time. The wineries in Anderson Valley were not yet totally discovered and there was great wine being made, it was exciting to showcase all this brilliant winemaking… Well, except for one Lebanese wine, which was in memory of my grandmother. Eventually some Sonoma County wines were added because the winemakers would come in and ask me personally.
We were so popular and there was so much buzz, other restaurants took a look and said, ‘oh, she’s doing all organic local stuff, showing artists…’ So they started doing it too. We kept making this circle larger and more conscious. Now it’s necessary and it’s awesome. We had to evolve to this place. There was no other way to go forward.
At Pangaea it was crazy. We made our own vinegar, tortillas, bread, condiments, everything by hand. Looking back, I was a little obsessive-compulsive. But all those people were able to thrive in the community at a time when there wasn’t too much else going on. I think of all the babies that were born, a whole generation of kids. My office was a nursery for many years, as the new mothers would often bring the babies to work.”
During her seven years as chef/owner, Pangaea and its community thrived; the restaurant drew critical praise and patronage both from the local community and from the wider San Francisco Bay Area and wine country. She sold the business in 2000 to return to her painting and writing.
Sustaining herself through catering and work as a private chef for individuals and professional groups, she developed a different, more informal restaurant, Lorca, in 2006 after recovering from a grueling year of breast cancer treatment. This effort was inspired by her time in art school and her work in film, creating and art directing set design.
“I loved that you walked into this crazy dive bar with the women in dominatrix outfits serving real tapas. People came in and their eyes got big; they couldn’t believe this was happening. Some Spaniards came in one night; they had been told they needed to come to this place and I could see they were wondering what the hell it was. And then they started eating and it was all over for them. Sea Ranchers would tell me it was too edgy, but I told them, ‘I’m edgy; this is perfect for me.’”
She left Lorca to move to Sonoma County for love, and became Executive Chef for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, developing menus and cooking for groups of nuns on retreat, or the board of Burning Man, or teams of scientists documenting the effect of hallucinogenic substances on themselves and others. After a year in Sonoma county she found herself deeply home sick and decided to return to Point Arena.
“My love affair with Mendocino County is huge. This place informs everything about what I do, the people, what we produce, how we help each other. We’re outlaws up here; it’s really a beautiful sensibility that I haven’t seen everywhere. It’s precious. This is the watermark of my work, the idea that food is truly nourishment, profound and sacred. “
You know this when you eat her food. You are changed. She has considered not only the human metabolism but also the human soul. People who eat her food cry more easily. They also laugh more easily and tell their secrets and seek the denouement of their loves. They lead better lives. They become larger persons. It is not wholly a matter of goodness, though much good has come of it. They are more thoroughly themselves.
I’ve seen this transformation happen in dozens of cases. She infects and inspires and nurtures so that we, her community, have undergone a change in which there is a definite and distinct shift between the prehistory of this county and the founding of Pangaea, when she pierced the heart of Point Arena in the classic stance of the Virgin of Guadalupe, with all the sass and tenderness of the Venus of Willendorf, and the rumpled smile of the Archangel Gabriel’s lost weekend.
(The Connecting With Local Food Series is organized by AV Foodshed and features local farmers and businesses that provide us with local food. Shannon often caters events in Anderson Valley — you might remember when she teamed up with Johnny Schmitt at the Boonville Hotel to create an incredible benefit dinner for the Secrets of Salsa cookbook's documentary DVD (www.secretsofsalsa.com). She will again gather and prepare local fruits, vegetables, oil, and meats for an amazing dinner AV Land Trust's Picnic in the Garden this Saturday, July 25th, at Ginger and Walt Valen's beautiful gardens (www.andersonvalleylandtrust.org). Shannon's blog is http://shannonfood.blogspot.com/. Theresa Whitehill, poet, graphic designer, and editor, can be reached at www. coloredhorse.com. Zida Borich is the co-editor. If you would like to access previous CWLF articles, please go to www.mendocinolocalfood.org.)