Big Sur author brings Bohemian tales to Berkeley

my-nepenthe

It’s always tricky to write about a pal’s book, you don’t want to come off sounding like a fawning friend, frankly.

So, in the case of My Nepenthe by Romney “Nani” Steele, I’m going to let others hand out the praise. Sunset describes Steele’s cookbook-cum-memoir as “a valentine to one of the most beautiful places to eat in the world.” Michael Pollan calls it “a very special book about a very special place.” And epicurious just named it the best American regional cookbook of 2009.

If you know Big Sur, home to the iconic Nepenthe restaurant, the area and the eatery need no introduction. (It’s also home to an assortment of Boho characters, not unlike a certain other town.)  If you’re not familiar with this small, Central Coast enclave perched on a spectacular cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean then you should add it to your list of places to visit before you die. Really.

For 60 years, Nepenthe has served comfort food with a view to locals, travelers, and tourists. And so much more: for the artists, nature lovers, spiritual seekers, writers, movie stars, and wanderers who stop by, this magical spot transcends what comes out of the kitchen. As legend has it, Steele’s grandparents purchased the property from Orson Welles, who planned to move there with actress Rita Hayward. He never did. So Bill and Lolly Fassett hired former Frank Lloyd Wright student Rowan Maiden to build the restaurant for $22,000 (original budget: $3K), and opened their doors in 1949.


In My Nepenthe, Steele, 44, a writer, chef, and food stylist who now lives in Oakland, reveals the colorful back story to this family restaurant, including the unorthodox life they lived, the eclectic community they cultivated, and her own foray into running Cafe Kevah for three years as a European-style eatery with slow food sensibilities, located on the same site as the “House of No Sorrow.”

This richly visual book exudes a warm patina of archival images, vibrant tapestries, and artfully arranged food photos accompanying 85 restaurant recipes tweaked for the tastes of today’s home cooks. Above all, My Nepenthe pays homage to a place, a time, and a family, especially Steele’s grandmother whose generosity and compassion permeates its pages.

Steele sat down for a chat with Berkeleyside in advance of two local appearances:

Friday, November 13 @ 7:30 p.m., Mrs. Dalloway’s bookstore,
2904 College Avenue, the Elmwood

Saturday, November 21 @ 10 a.m., Freight & Salvage, West Coast Live
2020 Addison Street, downtown Berkeley.

DSC_3972Photo of Romney Steele by Doug McKechnie

Big Sur is a special place. How is it special to you?

It’s home to me in every sense of the word. It’s shaped who I am today — good and bad — and even though I haven’t lived there for many years, it draws me back. I grew up on the edge of the world, it was like an island really, the world came to us. We had the ocean at our feet and I spent much of my childhood outdoors. So I’m very physically and spiritually connected to the place. Everything shifts for me when I go back there; I can breathe and sleep better.

Nepenthe is known for its fantastic ocean outlook and its somewhat ordinary food. Is that a fair assessment?

No, I don’t think that’s fair, though I would say you don’t go to Nepenthe just for the food — you go for the whole experience of soaking up the ambience of the landscape, the place and the people, and its history as a gathering point for bohemian America.  That’s what I tried to convey in the book. In its day, Nepenthe appealed to creative types like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Kim Novak, Elizabeth Taylor, and Richard Burton, as well as dancers, poets, and artists.

If you go there with a Bay Area sensibility about eating architectural, all organic, locally-sourced food, then it falls short. It’s not the kind of cooking I eat at home. I like peasant food, brown rice and beans, and rustic Italian fare. But you can get a good steak, burger, fish, or chicken dinner and the desserts are delicious.

You handle some intimate family matters with diplomacy and discretion. For instance, you detail the arrival of your grandfather’s mistress with care. Was it a challenge to write about such things?

I have incredible memories from growing up there, in a public way, and some of them are painful.  So much was allowed to go on there and your private life was never protected. One of the beauties of writing the book was reclaiming some of the story as my own. But I make no claim to telling all the stories of Nepenthe, I’ve presented a selected version of events.

What kind of reaction to the book have you gotten from family members?

So far, so good. Everyone says it looks beautiful. I wanted to honor my family, both my grandparents for creating this community, and my cousin Kirk and my aunt Holly for making the place financially viable while keeping its spirit intact.

My Nepenthe details your grandmother’s kindness and hospitality. What was her legacy to you?

My grandmother believed that Nepenthe had a mystical higher purpose and belonged to all who came to Big Sur. She instilled in me the virtue of gathering for a meal and sharing food around the table that has stayed with me to this day. She fed me, and many others, in so many ways.

Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and become a fan of Lettuce Eat Kale on Facebook.