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In the Kitchen at the Headlands Center for the Arts

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Headlands Center for the Arts kitchen
Kitchen at Headland Center for the Arts

Sometimes, being a single, freelancing, non-home-owner with an old car and no kids can have its benefits. Like the opportunity to move into a tent in Santa Cruz to be an apprentice farmer at the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems at UCSC for six months; couldn't have done that with a mortgage to pay. Or now, my latest adventure, being a live-in cook-intern in the kitchen at the Headlands Center for the Arts, just across the bridge in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

For those of you who haven't made the fifteen-minute drive over the water lately, the Headlands Center for the Arts is an artists' residency program occupying a collection of former military buildings in the Marin Headlands. Built in 1907, the buildings were abandoned by the military in 1972. In the late 1970s, an intrepid group of local artists began to renovate them for use. By 1982, the Center had a board of directors, and by 1985, it was granting commissions for renovations of everything from the latrines to the Mess Hall to the storage depot. Now, nearly 30 years later, the place is a well-recognized part of the Bay Area art scene, attracting artists from all around the world for its residency program.

Headlands Center for the Arts Mess Hall Dining Room
Mess Hall Dining Room

There are lots of good things about being an artist in residence here. Time, unfettered time, time to breathe and think, look and hear and create. A studio for work, an airy room for sleep, the folded, elephantine hills of the Headlands and the whole Pacific ocean laid out at your feet. The rattle of the eucalyptus leaves and the shriek of the wild turkeys at night, the deer browsing under the fog-dripping cypress branches in the early morning. Support and appreciation for your work and its whims, wherever it takes you.


And, of course, you get fed, an organic, made-from-scratch, sit-down dinner cooked for you, your fellow artists, and your guests four nights a week, plus a mid-day brunch on Sundays, cooked and served in the Mess Hall, itself designed into a particularly warm community space by artist Anne Hamilton. Nearly everything on the table is local: those frilly, multi-colored little lettuces picked yesterday at County Line Harvest in Petaluma, the whole-wheat sesame-sourdough bread baked in the kitchen twice a week by Eduardo Morell in the wood-burning brick oven designed by Alan Scott. When you get peckish, or bored, in need of coffee and conversation (or wifi), you can dawdle in the Mess Hall, foraging for last night's leftovers (mmm, salmon! Mexican wedding cookies!) and chatting up the kitchen staff: myself, fellow intern Damon Little, and head chef Keith Mercovich.

Headlands Center of the Arts wood-burning brick oven designed by Alan Scott
Wood-burning brick oven designed by Alan Scott

We'll probably be chopping huge piles of chard, skinning halibut, shucking oysters or hulling strawberries for tarts. We might be making things from scratch that you didn't know could be made from scratch, like macaroni, or hot dogs, or bacon. We might be laying out sides of salmon on a bed of fennel for gravlax, kneading dough for Tuesday's pizza night, slicing multicolored, palm-sized tomatoes, or stirring up caramel gelato. Whatever we're busy with, you'll be having it for dinner in just a few hours.

Stephanie Shares Pizza-Making Tips from the Headlands. Video: Laiko Bahrs

Of course, I feel a little guilty writing about this, since the artists' dinner at the Headlands isn't open to the public. Only artists, staff, and a limited number of their guests can attend a typical weeknight dinner, much to the chagrin of the hikers and hostel-stayers who wander in, draw by the smells and conviviality. But there are ways to get a seat at the table. You can become a member, which gets you invited to the quarterly members' dinners with the artists. You can come to one of the Headlands' public programs, which often include an optional dinner or brunch. You can do what I did, and volunteer during one of the public programs, which earns you a meal. (Naturally, I volunteered in the kitchen, but there are always varied volunteer slots open for any given event.) This Sunday, in fact, I'll be one of a group of artists leading a series of hikes, each with a different theme around the area, followed by brunch in the Mess Hall.

Such will be my Sunday: up early to make Jonagold apple coffee cake for 75, lead my hike for an hour, then return to the kitchen, put my apron back on, help finish cooking and serving, eat, then wash dishes and help clean the kitchen, getting it ready for dinner prep the following day. In between, deep breaths of the clear, ocean-scented air, particularly lovely now that our equinoctial summer has arrived, banishing (most of) the brooding fog at long last. It's part supper club, part dinner party, part co-op (dessert doesn't appear until after everyone has pitched in to help with the dishes), but it all comes together to make a community.

Stephanie Rosenbaum will be leading "Plants of Pleasure, Plants of Pain," a visual foraging hike about the area's edible and poisonous plants as part of the Desire Trails program on Sunday, Sept 25, at 1pm, followed by brunch at 3pm. The hike is free; brunch is $15 for Headlands members, $20 for the public.

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