Profile: Artist Rachel Fann
Rachel Fann is a very good cook. Every week on Sunday, for the last four years, she has left her house—perched like an eagle’s nest on a mountain high above the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California—and driven 15 miles south on Highway 1 to New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Roman Catholic monastery.
There, 30 hungry monks eagerly await what she has made them for dinner. This weekly meal is a special treat and a welcome change from their simple quotidian fare.
“I call it compost cooking,” Rachel said with a laugh on a recent June morning, while drinking tea in the cozy, dimly lit dining room of Deetjens, an old and picturesque hotel located in the redwoods of Big Sur. “My job is to go into the walk-in and see what they have.” Meat is not a priority, so she comes up with dishes like vegetarian enchiladas or cauliflower au gratin.
“They heard about me because of Esalen,” said Rachel. The Esalen Institute is a well-known retreat center in Big Sur, established in 1962 and snuggled between the ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains on 27 acres of sacred land formerly inhabited by the Native American Esselen tribe. Here, one can take part in body-mind-spirit workshops, skinny-dip in hot springs, and eat delicious garden-to-plate food.
Rachel spent 15 years as a chef at Esalen, cooking and baking for 300 people daily, but her road to a professional kitchen was offbeat and prompted by a fire.
She was raised in Arkansas among a large family of great cooks—Southern mom, aunts and grandmother, and a Jewish dad—eating and helping to cook tasty, homespun food: big pots of collard greens, biscuits, matzo ball soup, and pear preserves from their orchard. “Cooking was a spiritual practice for us,” she remembered.
In the Bay Area, where she moved in the late 1980s with her children, she became a busy career woman, first working as an account manager in television, and later as a marketing executive in radio. But in October 1991, the Oakland Hills firestorm completely burnt down her house.
“I lost everything,” said Rachel. “It was a powerful experience—the most present moment in my life—and it felt strangely serene.” Stuck in a dead-end job at the time, it was an opportunity to mediate on what to do next. A close friend recommended she take a course at Esalen and see what happened. With hardly any possessions, she arrived in Big Sur to participate in their work-study program, and she never left.
“I went from high heels and pantyhose to Birkenstocks,” she said, smiling about her beginnings in the wilderness of Big Sur, where “it’s really hard to live, and it either takes you in or quickly spits you out.” She started as a lodge-keeper, then moved to the kitchen to work as a prep cook. Slowly but steadily, learning new skills along the way, she kept being promoted until she became in charge of the menu and the staff.
Today, if she isn’t painting dreamy landscapes, Rachel works as a caterer and private chef, cooking for weddings, parties and monks.
Age 68 — Hometown Born in Little Rock, Arkansas. — Where do you live? I lived for quite some time in Texas and Nebraska. For the past 26 years, I’ve lived in California—three in the San Francisco Bay Area and 23 in Big Sur. — Occupation Private chef, caterer, artist (oil painter), massage therapist. — Signature dish You have my meat loaf recipe; however, some people call me the “Soup Maven”—I love a lemony chicken soup. — Who taught you how to cook? I learned from the “scratch” cooks in my family—my mother, auntie and granny—and have learned a lot along the way. — Favorite kitchen tool A very sharp knife! — Always in your pantry Cumin — Go-to snack I’m not too much of a snacker, but I do love Triscuits (which have only three ingredients) and goat cheese. — Favorite cuisine Mexican — Do you diet? NEVER. I don’t believe in it. — Food addictions Morning green tea with foamy soy milk and a little agave. — Food allergies Only one—eggplant. — Food fad pet peeve No sugar, no fat, no cooked, no gluten… I think all of these can be valid; I just believe in balance. Stay in balance, watch where the food comes from and if it’s organic. — Who’s your sous chef? I’m proud to say my 18-year-old grandson, Gabriel. He is fantastically organized, creative, amazing on the grill—and looks after me big-time! He’s been cooking with me since I could sit him on my prep table in his baby carrier. — Drinking while cooking? At home, yes—great red wine. If doing Mexican, sipping a fine tequila. Not on the job. — What’s for dinner tonight? Crispy Southern fried chicken, fresh kale from my garden, whipped potatoes, and lemon merengue pie; this is a meal for friends My favorite, just for me: baked yams with butter and sautéed kale, or a fine little rib eye steak. — Do you ever cry over spilled milk? Ok, this is really what happened: I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for Esalen Institute—16 22-lb turkeys. Five minutes before we opened for service, one of my helpers dropped a five-gallon container of milk in the main dining room—yikes. I had everyone run to the towel box, grab every towel, and sop it up—no crying! Or… Once, while fixing my meat loaf, I mistakenly poured vanilla into the mix instead of Worstershire sauce! My director came in and said, “Hey, only a culinary genius would put vanilla in the meatloaf.” I almost cried that time! Or… Once, one of my helpers threw away my entire veggie loaf mixture about an hour before service (he thought it was compost—couldn’t blame him). I didn’t cry but had to scramble to come up with something quick, for 250 people! Crying—or throwing knives, tantrums, carrots or other things—is not allowed in my kitchen. NO DIVAS! — Best meal you ever had I’ve had many. I think my favorite foods have been street foods in Mexico—hot, fresh, and cooked with soul!
Rachel’s Meat Loaf
“My grandkids ask me to make this all the time,” says Rachel about her signature meat loaf recipe. It’s an old family classic that she grew up eating at home in Arkansas and has kept in her repertoire ever since.
It is simple and unpretentious, and the list of ingredients you’ll need is minuscule. Good beef is key, obviously—if possible, aim for grass-fed and organic with 20% fat. And covering the roasting pan prevents the meat loaf from drying out.
Serve it on its own or with mashed potatoes. It is totally satisfying the next day, too: cold, with mustard and pickle, on a slice of nice crusty bread.
- Serves 6–8
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- ¾ cup medium yellow onion, peeled, finely diced
- ½ cup celery, finely diced
- 2 eggs
- 2 pounds ground beef
- ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper, freshly ground
- 1 14-ounce can tomato sauce
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and line a large, rimmed roasting pan with parchment paper. Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the celery and sauté until tender, about 4 minutes. Turn off the heat and set aside.
- In a large bowl, whisk the eggs lightly, add the beef, and mix. Add the onion and celery, Worcestershire sauce, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper, and blend well. With your hands, form the meat loaf, about 10 inches long and 4 inches high, and place it in the roasting pan. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil, and bake in the oven for 60 minutes.
- Remove the aluminum foil, and pour the tomato sauce evenly over the meatloaf. Continue baking in the oven for another 20–25 minutes, until glossy and evenly brown. Let cool for 5 minutes, slice and serve.
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