Making Every Day Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day, I chose a collection of previous blog posts as a tribute to the connection we all have with the planet.  A small reminder that everything we do can be a celebration of the earth.


How to Shop at the Farmers Market








Locavores Do It Fresher









Topsoil Tales …or Nourishing From the Ground Up







A New Victory Garden


































Topsoil Tales… …or Nourishment from the Ground up

weed it and reap

Discovering life in earth…
Growing up, I often noticed my father’s dog-eared copy of Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening laying about in handy locations with scraps of paper marking pages.  He was a devoted organic gardener who discovered the earth at the age of 30 and incorporated it into his life from then forward.  The key to his bountiful gardens was soil development.


In the beginning, most of his prospective plots were full of weeds and clay, allowing no drainage. Within a year or two, each garden would become resplendent with vitality, full of color and abounding with supportive wildlife.  Early on, I enjoyed the simple pleasure of plucking herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini flowers and discovered the tremendous difference it made in the food.

scan0085Beyond the surface…

My father saw his gardens as something more than a source of food.  He interacted with them personally and even believed that a weed has the same beauty (and right) as chosen species and used them decoratively throughout his gardens.  Perhaps this was inherited from his mother who scoured the neighborhood every spring for wild dandelion greens and young tender grape leaves.  He encouraged bees, butterflies, frogs and other denizens of the land to join his garden community.  He planted food for foraging animals, such as rabbit and deer, to provide an alternative to his plot without denying their natural hunger.  Over the years, his gardens turned into lush havens and he could often be found admiring the beauty and life of the plants.  Sometimes he would speak to a plant, coaxing it along in a welcoming manner.  Most often he just enjoyed the contrasts in his cultivated spectacle, between light and color or scent and sound. In the last couple of years he was unable to maintain his own garden, but could often be found in my garden, picking weeds and waxing romantically about a flower, bird or flavor.  His legacy continues in my own gardens and my approach to food.  He taught me how to coax life from the earth and those residing upon it.

Picking weeds NJ 1991 Top of the soil to you…
Soil development is critical to growing  healthy food.  Decomposition,  side by side with fermentation,  are  how food products change through production of enzymes, thus creating compost.  Living organic soils contain key nutrients and minerals which are passed on to us through the food grown in them.  History has demonstrated time and again when civilizations over-cultivate the land, it becomes depleted of nutrients and results in societal decline.  Over the last 200 years in the USA alone, the average topsoil layer has shrunk from twenty inches to six.  The current rate of depletion is one inch every sixteen years.  At this rate, local production will not be able to sustain the population in a few short decades.  At its own pace, it takes nature 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil.  As long as we maintain methods of growing that strip the land of nutrients, healthy organic food will become an expensive commodity only the select few can afford.

For the love of compost…
Not long after purchasing Inn Season Café, I was able to buy the house across the street from the restaurant.  My parents moved into it to help with the restaurant as well as care for my son.  From the start, my father saw the challenge of a neglected yard and began plotting the gardens.  Excited by the source of nutrients nearby (my restaurant), the first thing he built was a giant compost facility with two side by side bins, each holding four to five yards of soil. Healthy development of soil relies on recycling food products back into the earth, primarily through some form of composting.  There is a direct link between nutrients and how the soil is tended. Consulting his Rodale book, he developed an ideal “recipe” for compost and requested buckets full of kale stems, lettuce trimmings and orange peels.  Soon, his bins were “cooking” and the following spring he began  hand-feeding the garden, turning compost into the soil one shovelful at a time.  The plants quickly responded and soon the ragged yard became a lush paradise resplendent with ever changing colors and plentiful herbs.  Years later, they moved out and I moved in, dismantling the compost bins, spreading them and re-landscaping with defined plots, patio, paths and two ponds.   The soil was so rich it did not matter what I planted, everything grew resplendently.  It was indeed my “secret garden” (see article below).

San Diego 12 2007 062

In loving memory of Spyros Vutetakis

1921 -2009



Transition to Summer


Springtime in Michigan is a spectacular seasonal occurrence.  Fragrant and colorful blooms burst from trees and bushes after the long dormant winter.  Here is a sampling found around the Rivenoak house.

lilac.jpgcreeping-phlox.jpgblue-clematis.jpgpeonie.jpgdouble-tulips.jpg  clematis.jpg

Staging and the Garden Walk



It was the final stretch to get the project house ready for market. Long hours were spent tweaking, touching up and staging the home.  The idea is to make a person feel invited and at home when they walk in without cluttering it with the personal effects of ownership that we all strew about in our own homes. This is not necessarily clutter, but often the result of our animal nesting tendency.  When a client walks into a home, they should be able to identify with the decor and feel good about the space.  To accomplish this, one must look through the eyes of the perspective client.  Feng Shui also does this on an emotional as well as subliminal level.  Every color, each placement and architectural feature trigger cycles of cause and effect.  For great staging, an intuitive understanding of such factors is a valuable asset.


To be finished for Mission Hills Garden Walk was the goal. The tour path went right by us, making the house an unofficial stop on the walk.  Up to the last minute, Sara was touching up with paint and I was fine tuning the garden.  The whole family was involved in errand running, cleaning and primping.  We continued right until the first people walked in, unaware of the flurry preceding their arrival.  The weather was another glorious day in San Diego and almost two thousand people took part in the walk.  It was estimated that up to a thousand people traipsed through the house and the comments made were overwhelmingly positive.  We welcomed the good cheer as the reward for the grueling months of work. 


Here is a photo album link for our Mission Hills project: garden-walk-japanese-garden.jpg

Creating a Sacred Space

fort-stockton-sunset.jpg In the thick of sawing, sanding, plastering and painting, I often take advantage of the meditative opportunities. During these moments, I find inspiration in the Bhagavad Gita, where a pro-active form of spirituality is recommended: Yoga, not as an escape or retreat, but a linking action between the person, earth, sky and cosmos.  

So, I let thoughts form, not as the doer, but as part of what is going on.  In the midst of crafting a home my thoughts peruse preparing food, feeding people and teaching others.  Installing the kitchen while meditating on its function helps to gain a feel for the house and how it works.  Of course, there are frequent interruptions, often comic, as deadlines approach and Sara and I have some of our more romantic moments as walls are plastered and ceilings are skim-coated. Each house has its own personality and we are participants in how it evolves.  

A home as a sacred space is evident in how well it enables nurturing for those who reside in as well as for visitors. Some of the traits to look for are how the welcoming the home is, what role does the kitchen (the heart chakra nurturing center of a home) play, the flow and ease of movement as well as light and how it moves through the house.  One red flag that most of us do not think about is too much storage.  This encourages organized clutter and unnecessary attachment—big distractions to the unimpeded flow of energy. It is better to find a good home for that unused Nordic Track, than to store it for years. Recycling and sustainability encourage movement and flow Stagnation and clutter in a home is the energy flow equivalent to a blockage of an artery, creating potential for a stroke or a heart attack in the nurturing department.  Why the emphasis on nurturing?  It is a primal function of all life giving relationships.  To nurture is to encourage growth, whether it is spiritual or material and the Bhagavad Gita teaches us that the difference between spiritual and material is the purpose, not the element. Thus, a sacred space is a facility that encourages growth, flow and purpose, enabling whatever path the dweller follows.  In the bigger picture, the home should also add to the community through encouraging interaction and flow among all who pass by. Now, back to making that cabinet level and plumb.


New Paint



The squib came out in last weeks Presidio Sentinel, the neighborhood newspaper.  As we have discovered, the green color had evoked strong opinions among all who passed by.  A few asked what the color was and loved it—most thought it was hideous. 

We had looked into using color expert Robert Schweitzer again  ( and he confirmed the green was not part of the historic palette in this area.  We had used his services on the last house ( as well as consulting his book for the previous house  (425 east fifth, see links).  (Check out his articles in Cottages and Bungalows magazine) The budget was tight for this house and we had marvelously discovered many of the original 1925 colors in our excavations.  The decision was made and we forged ahead, changing what many believed to be the eyesore of the neighborhood. 


The entire feel of the home has morphed to upbeat and inviting.  The body color, very similar to the original, plays off the sun and compliments the newly revived stained gum wood.  Every day people stop and compliment us, instead of the usual under the breath mumbling.  Dogs have stopped taking liberties on the front lawn and there is no more rain…well, maybe. 🙂

Days of Food and Shelter


Mission Hills is from a previous era. A “front porch” neighborhood where people walk the streets with or without canine companions.  Greeting and conversing is one of the joys of living here and neighbors often stop by to discuss our current project. On this day, we tore into the kitchen, removing decades of additions, changes and paint layers.  Like archeologists, we learn the story of the home and the personalities who lived there.  Often, long forgotten pieces of paper and personal mementos are stuck under counters. Today we found a 1930’s ad from a local dry cleaner which we shared with the neighbors George and Marien. 


Tearing out is a dirty, dusty job and eye glasses, dust masks and ear protectors are a must.  We marvel at the quality of old construction, time consuming methods used and also often find odd upgrades from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  Dust floats through the air in clouds and there is an underlying scent of old wood being cut.


Workers come and go all day, some restoring woodwork, others hanging drywall and a few in the gardens as well.  I still tend to the hummingbird feeders, making sure these very active and fascinating denizens are fed and part of the local community.  As the day winds down and sunset colors the horizon, hunger beckons.  We return to the main house to prep and cook with wonderful fresh market vegetables.  Since Dave has a guest staying with us in the canyon suite, I start a main course risotto with roasted yams and mixed greens (turnip, cavolo nero and sorrel). On the side, eggplant pesto casserole and a salad with romaine lettuce, arugula, calendula flowers, toasted pistachios and honey-poppy-seed dressing.  We enjoy the relaxed dinner and good company until bedtime is imminent.  Crawling into the covers rarely feels this good as we get ready to reset for another day of working on both food and shelter.


Our 2008 Restoration Project


Mission Hills was designed at the zenith of the Arts and Crafts movement in America. Kate Sessions, the designer of Balboa Park, lived in the neighborhood and operated her nursery there.  Embracing the philosophy of building homes and neighborhoods to work with nature, she laid out the streets without grading to follow the terrain and lined them with red sidewalks because of a personal distaste for concrete grey. The streets of Mission Hills are lined with beautiful Craftsman and Spanish Revival homes evoking the charm of yesteryear while vibrant with life of today.  The 1915 Pan-American Exposition in San Diego started the Spanish Revival movement in American architecture and a number of the homes in Mission Hills were built using salvage from temporary structures constructed for the exposition.  As one tours the area, each home is unique and they collectively exude atmosphere and charm to make Mission Hills one of the most desirable neighborhoods in San Diego County.


Our current project, built in 1925 is on palm tree lined Fort Stockton Boulevard.  Local home tours often point out architectural features on the home such as the cement vase and bell.  Not only is it one of the most charming areas of San Diego, but it was originally chosen for, and still has the best weather in the area.  Neighbors take great pleasure walking through their well landscaped neighborhood where flowers bloom all year and the sun vibrantly highlights architectural features.  In the next few weeks we will be working to bring out original character, update it and present it to the community.

Food and Shelter

Discovery and anticipation have been the basis of my culinary journey.  From apprenticeship, following mentors, discovering my innate perception of taste, to entering the public arena of restaurants, the journey has been immensely rewarding.  After many years, I realized food was a language, a form of expression which transcends external perception and enables us to engage meaningfully with just about anyone.  After selling the restaurant, I experienced life outside of a fully stocked kitchen for the first time in almost 20 years.  Sure, there was time spent away from the restaurant kitchen, but it was always there in the background.  During the last 4 years of restaurant life, we lived in a historic restoration project, a 1924 Tudor home.  For a full year and a half we did not have a proper kitchen during renovation.  Of course, it was not so bad because of the restaurant kitchen.  Since then we have done a number of projects and, in each one, we have had to live without a kitchen inside and outside of the house. 

Finding quality food in restaurants and grocery stores is often difficult as the food is most often geared toward taste and presentation, not toward sustenance or vitality.  This trend is changing slightly as large companies recognize the profit to be made with health directed marketing.  With profit as the motive, good health and high quality are only used to market the food and shortcuts are present in most products.  We are fortunate to still have some small producers who maintain traditions of quality and who produce food using standards which pre-date the industrialization of the food industry.  We operated our restaurant, the Inn Season Cafe, this way (and it still operates this way through the current proprietor, my good friend and culinary associate Thomas Lasher). 

Restoring life to a home is similar to preparing a traditional meal.  First, there is a period of discovery, where we get to know the personality of the house.  This includes the way it is designed and built along with who lived there and how they cared for the home.  With traditional cuisine, one must learn the cultural attitude of the cooks and the reason for each dish, as food was the primary souce of preventative medicine before the age of drug related medicine.

Second, we often see when home prepared food is not readily available, most people throw caution to the wind and depend on commercially prepared (often fast food) products to nourish themselves.  So, during renovation and construction, the body goes through deprivation and de-construction.  When restaurants such as Inn Season Cafe are not readily available it is a real challenge to have good food without the facility of a kitchen.  This a challenge I relish and have enjoyed. 

As a chef, everyday we had to adjust to unpredictable circumstances in food, labor and facility.  While under construction, things like parchment paper, a blow torch and disposables come in handy.  In the latest project, we were able to connect a drawer fridge and a convection/microwave oven.  The convection oven allowed me to roast, bake and reheat.  The refrigerator space was limited, so shopping was combined with runs to the lumber yard, a reminder of time spent in India and Greece where procuring food was a daily event.

Recipes included here are from this time of easy and quick meals prepared to nourish in between skim coating walls, stripping paint and finishing wood surfaces.  These recipes are not refined and the instructions may be inadequate, therefore we invite comments to correct any inconsistencies.  Enjoy!