California Chefs Open Up About Wildfires and COVID-19

A new book spotlights Californian chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, farmers, and purveyors who've battled the dual crises of natural disaster and global pandemic.

Food People Cookbook Cover

When the Bay Area shut down in March, local food photographer Kristen Loken felt like she needed to do something.

With every passing week of the pandemic, Loken became more and more hopeless—both for her own livelihood and for the fate of her friends in the restaurant world, who were struggling to figure out how to stay open and support their staffs. So, she decided to take pictures of her food clients and friends. The project began as nothing more than a desire to capture the restaurant world in this moment, and give them the photos as gifts—as a way to say thank you.

But when Tanya Holland, chef/owner of Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, agreed to be photographed, Loken "realized this could be something bigger."

She expanded her concept into a book, Food People (Are the Best People), and it’ll be released on December 1. The book shares stories of Californian chefs, restaurateurs, sommeliers, farmers, and purveyors who've battled the dual crises of the pandemic and wildfires.

Holland was the first person Loken photographed, in late June. Alice Waters was the last, in late August. She photographed 127 people in between. Each of the 129 profiles in the book were inspired by the same six questions, in which Loken asked about the setbacks and possible silver linings of this year. Many shared stories of hardship: of laying off employees and pivoting to a take-out-only model within hours. But some also shared stories of small, good, unanticipated moments: a husband and wife restaurant duo who hadn’t eaten dinner together in seven years are now cooking together every night.

In the beginning, the book was about the impact of the virus. But when the fires started ravaging the west, the focus shifted and expanded, and the book took on new meaning.

“I think it’s really easy to get caught up in all of the scary, nasty things that are happening. The fires, racial injustice, the political situation, the virus,” Loken said. “It’s so easy to feel isolated, and I think these stories can help people feel more connected.”

A portion of the proceeds of the book, which Loken says is 100% women-produced, will be donated to No Kid Hungry. The title is a nod to the famous Julia Child quote, “People who love to eat are always the best people.” (Loken was originally going to call it Cooking Through COVID, then decided that nobody wants “COVID” on their coffee table.)

“I had an aha moment where I was like, you know what, nobody’s okay right now," said Loken. "And somehow feeling that I wasn’t alone in my non-okayness made it okay.”

Loken hopes that the book offers a similar kind of solace for readers. “People shared such vulnerable stories, so I hope that people who buy the book and read the stories feel less alone in their experience though this time," she said, "and maybe find their own little glimmers of joy.”

You can pre-order your copy of Food People (Are the Best People) here.

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