Thursday, April 23, 2009
It’s a request rarely heard at restaurants: “Can I bury my mom’s ashes here?”
At Nepenthe, though, it keeps with a theme: The personalities, parties and natural perspective it proffers are similarly unheard of. (Same goes for the ambrosia burger and the South Coast margarita.)
The characters go well beyond the big names that brought the buzz – Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Henry Miller, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor prominently included – because Nepenthe grows and sows their own (besides, one-time property owners Welles and Hayworth stayed here nary a night before selling the property to the current family in 1947, and Burton and Taylor weren’t seen much after the filming of 1965’s The Sandpiper). Late matriarch Lolly Fassett rocked huge Asian-styled smocks and a larger-than-life personality that helped attract arty eclectics from all corners; now her grandkids are just as warm and eccentric – disarming Erin Gafill, who lives in Fassett’s original old log cabin on the property, runs to Highway 1 every time it’s closed to paint it in affectionate purples (“I’ve really become enamored with the road. It’s our lifeline.”).
Past personalities like the Russian refugee and longtime Nepenthe host Chaco, who rode a motorcycle with his cat and wore a beret and all white every day, preceded current characters like Chef Todd “Toddio” Williamson, who might bookend any given shift with a kung-fu lesson in the parking lot, a jam session in his nearby sound-proofed employee housing, or a surf set at an obscure and beloved Big Sur break (steer clear, out-of-towners).
The parties need less extrapolation. They inspire sudden grins and slow shakes of the heads – “the dancing!” – and still send flocks scampering to Nepenthe in obsessively crafted costumes every Halloween, as they have for more than four decades. Many of them will attend Friday’s predictably raucous 60th anniversary party (see sidebar, pg. 18).
The South Coast setting, with eye-of-the-condor views tumbling from poppy-crowned peaks and swooping some 50 coastal miles south, does more than take visitors’ breath away; it pulls them close to Pacha Mama’s Big Sur bosom, where her elemental heartbeat might better thump its way into their spirit.
These qualities make Nepenthe a reflection of its muse, partner and powergiver: the South Coast. They make it a destination. And they make it a place worthy of remains’ final resting place.
“They tell us it is what their parent wanted,” says Lolly’s daughter, Holly, who helps run Nepenthe today, “that it was their favorite place in the world.”
When they do, somewhere Fassett – who founded Nepenthe with her legend-in-his-own-right husband Bill – is smiling: According to her granddaughter Romney (“Nani”) Steele, who will read from her forthcoming book, My Nepenthe: Bohemian Tales of Food, Family and Big Sur as part of the 60th celebration, Lolly saw the place as “mystical.”
“It’s too good not to share with everyone,” Lolly’d say. “We don’t own the view.”
The restaurant she envisioned would seize this view and the energy that came with it. She sought out an architect in Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, who got that – wide decks, a big fire-pit and built-in concrete bleachers outside, maximized windows, high ceilings and open lines inside. With Maiden on board, Lolly rescued old lumber from Fort Ord, helped gather redwood planks from nearby canyons and shaped adobe batter into bricks for famed local builders Frank and Walter Trotter.
She had another way she would remind people that it was greater than a building made from native materials that served fries called golden plumes ($.35 in 1949) and coffee called “nectar” ($.10).
“Nepenthe,” Lolly would often say, “is more than a restaurant.”
Willie Nelson doesn’t want to talk to the Weekly (“I don’t do good with interviews,” she says). A minute or two later – not long before she adds, “I see what you’re doing, you’re trying to get the interview” – she says, “I’m not a mystical person… I think [Nepenthe] is just a restaurant.”
For a woman who has worked here for half a century (since her parents were the first day chef and bartender), who doesn’t think she could work anywhere else, who has seen the stars above the boho bacchanalia do disco balls much better, this seems a little surprising.
Upon closer inspection, though, it also seems real. Mysticism doesn’t cut her a paycheck. And beneath the ethereal interpretations of Nepenthe’s past, less romantic realities lurk.
Running a restaurant and building it at the same time took heroic amounts of sweat and stress (recalling afterschool afternoons spent yanking nails from recycled Fort Ord boards at age 5, Holly grimaces, “Everyone worked”).
Staying afloat took numerous loans: The restaurant didn’t pull in a profit for decades. “They weren’t making any money for years and years,” Steele says. “It was very, very hard the first 30 or 40 years. They borrowed every winter to stay afloat.”
The fabric of the tight-knit family behind Nepenthe was further tattered by strife between the principal pair; while they avoided divorce, Bill tried unsuccessfully to convince Lolly to sell and ultimately moved out. Somehow, though, Lolly held it all together.
“She maintained a sense of calm and refused to sell it regardless of how difficult it could be,” Steele says. “She kept a place where the larger community could be.”
Therein lied her greatest power – greater than her prodigious ability to bake, handpick the exotic goods that she traded and sold (laying the groundwork for the Phoenix Shop), or sculpt the vision which hatched an icon – her ability to welcome in the world.
“She celebrated people’s idiosyncrasies,” Holly says. “Where other people may have seen off-the-wall wierdos, hobos, flamboyant characters, she saw what she called ‘rugged individualists.’”
“However imperfect our achievements,” went the mission statement of sorts Lolly wrote, “our purpose is to radiate the principles of love and service to others.”
When she died, the Nepenthe family fabric was torn. The isle of no care – and its very real feeling of freedom – lost its ambassador. Kirk Gafill helped his mother Holly fill the void. Displaced employees predictably chafed at the conscious reorganization Gafill orchestrated.
Today, though, there is consensus among staff and Holly, who shares the reigns with her son – “I read recipes, he reads bills,” she says – that his leadership was what Nepenthe needed. In 2007, Nepenthe set records for gross revenue and profits (and were tracking that way in ’08 before the fire took a $600,000 chunk out of peak season). Even this year revenue is good.
“It didn’t always operate as business with a lot of people coming and going,” Steele says. “That paved the way for people to have jobs that couldn’t work elsewhere. When she died, that shifted; there were new rules.”
“Thank God for Kirk,” Nelson says. “He keeps us on straight and narrow.”
“You never thought it would happen, but you always got the feeling with the financial troubles that at any moment – if grandpa succeeded – it would be gone,” Steele adds. “Now you know it will be there for future generations.”
Federal emergency-grade fires notwithstanding, of course.
When a split-second of silver in the summer sky and years of golden-brown on the ground collaborated to stoke a fire hungry enough to gnaw up more than 160,000 acres – and to chew within 30 feet of Highway 1, right up the road from the old restaurant – it wasn’t Nepenthe’s first folk dance with disaster.
El Niño (1983 edition) shoved mudslides down the Santa Lucia range and onto Highway 1, closing it in both directions for 10 weeks (and south access for months longer). Its ’98 reincarnation did much of the same. Meanwhile, Kirk Complex, Rat Gorda Complex and Marble Cone fires sufficiently rattled Big Sur’s soul (and infrastructure).
The chaos brought them closer, which isn’t easy. Nepenthe and Big Sur have been indecipherable since Bill Fassett coined its early motto when ambrosia burgers were still 60 cents: “In Big Sur it’s Nepenthe – ask anybody.”
“It’s hard to imagine Big Sur without it,” says Stan Russell, Big Sur Chamber of Commerce executive director. “It’s such a critical part of the heart of Big Sur. If it didn’t exist it would have to be invented.”
“A rare structure, a rare family, a rare approach in this rare place,” Big Sur Lodge guide Jack Ellwanger says. “They’re really at the heartbeat of the coast.”
Meanwhile the Nepenthe Phoenix Corporation prioritizes Big Sur environmental, health, safety and youth causes as it funnels 10 percent of its net profit back into the community. The Big Sur Health Center and the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade depend mightily upon Nepenthe’s annual support. On this particular peninsula 800 feet above the Pacific, it supports a community unto itself – “People have no idea how much Nepenthe sustains,” Steele says – which includes an average of 100 people, a couple dozen who live on the property in provided housing tucked into gorgeous coastal forest behind the old log cabin.
Still, natural nemeses have a way of unifying friends in ways good food and grant money cannot.
“In ’83 we had to close the restaurant,” Holly says, “so we decided to make it a commune – tend the garden, everybody can pitch in every night – people were foraging mussels, we used stuff from the freezer.”
In ’98 it happened again – “it was a rollicking party,” Holly says. “We emptied the freezer, just went through one food after another.” Free beer flowed; spirits recouped. At the same time, to fill the educational vacuum caused by three months of closures, Holly’s daughter, Erin Gafill, co-founded the Big Sur Arts Initiative, which has grown into a community-wide nonprofit arts education organization dedicated to nurturing art and culture throughout Big Sur.
In the chaos that trembled toward anarchy in the wake of the Basin Complex, there was little legal movement allowed by an abrasive sheriff; Nepenthe staff, Kirk and his fellow chamber leaders helped locals set up a South Coast-style self-reliant communications network that disseminated updates on closures and evacuations and later negotiated roadblocks to distribute food, fuel, water and ice.
“Had there been resources to care for each threatened property,” Kirk says, “we would have gladly removed ourselves from the smoke. Instead we tried to be part of the solution.”
“They are their own down there,” says Office of Emergency Services’ Sidney Reade. “There’s no government structure. They’re continually learning lessons on what needs to be done in terms of mitigation and recovery.”
Down in Mule Canyon Creek across Highway 1, Edmund Kara found the oak for the iconic phoenix on the Nepenthe pavilion. The sculptor said the bird emerged from the wood; the way the rippling grains harmonize with the contour of the wings supports his case. He carved it in one piece and added bronze talons that now grip the stump of a noble oak tree that once honored the deck, rising from a ring of red-tipped aloe vera that laps at its base like flames.
On the hill above the Nepenthe Phoenix, not far from where the Basin Complex inferno snapped to life, wildflowers have risen from fertile ash. Pools of vivid blue lupine wash renewal over the steep marine terraces; poppies splash patches of California orange.
Below, Nepenthe is as packed and popular as ever. A family of service workers hustles from table to table, pulls recipes from old, thick binders, applies new paint on the deck in preparation for a party.
And around them, the accomplishments and ashes of past generations settle into the earth, inseparable from a promising future rising from the coast.