Stars Come Down to Earth: An Interview with Odessa Piper

By Drena Griffith

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“I hold a personal philosophy that food doesn’t begin in the soil or end in the gut. It is a circle, passing through the sun and conspiring in a hand-off of chloroplasts and pollinators on a journey of gratitude to power our hearts and season our thoughts to put more love in the world.”--Odessa Piper

Odessa Piper understands the compelling power of a vision. Following her own inner thread, she has actively explored connections between nature and community, local sustainability and artful cuisine culminating in the enhancement of one of the most intimate of all cultural experiences--mealtime. Along the way Odessa carved out a career as an award-winning chef and proprietor of a cutting edge “farm to table” restaurant--long before an ecological approach to food was considered possible, much less marketable!

All throughout her life Odessa has embodied a spirit of openness, innovation and willingness to travel far into unexplored territory in pursuit of deeper connection and wholeness. Now, semi-retired from the restaurant business, Odessa continues actively advocating for the “re-enchantment of food” and exploring the sacred connection between the individual and the community of roots, herbs and stars that shapes our human experience.
 
An active sponsor of Lorian Association, I connected with Odessa to explore how her nearly 45 year exploration of an Incarnational Spirituality has supported her life’s odyssey.

OP: I’ve had a rich history with Lorian and David and I’ve been reflecting on some of the ways it’s been important in my life. I find that the usefulness of Lorian definitely is very broad and wide, and includes and transcends different particular chapters it has had. Incarnational Spiritualty has really been with me for my entire adult life in different forms, helping me as a perennial resource.

DG: Tell me more about your life’s work.

OP: I was living in Madison, Wisconsin and started my restaurant in 1976 at a young age, 23. I named it L'Etoile, which means "the star" in French. I intended our name to evoke stars that are hidden in nature, in the apple, in the galaxy; stars that come down to earth that we can eat. I named it in French because I wanted an old world-culinary mother tongue to guide our very amateur cooking techniques. I wanted to evoke the patience of centuries (or at least decades!) that establishing our own culinary networks would require.

The restaurant very quickly became a platform for sourcing locally and taking those resourced foods and presenting them in beautiful and attractive ways to the dining public. It was early days for that idea. Actually, in many circles people thought, “Who would want to eat plain old Wisconsin farm food when we can have the wonders of industrial agricultural food so cheap and flawless looking?" There weren’t a whole lot of obvious opportunities available (to eat) locally grown ingredients.

Because of my background and experiences growing up in New England and living in a commune my last year of high school/first year of college, I learned how to wild gather, keep food in a root cellar and live off the grid without plumbing and electricity. Comfortable with these ideas, I started conversations with local farmers.

One of the things that was so important was sourcing locally and following the connections of life, honoring beauty and co-creating in a lot of ways. That’s what we were doing, following the connections and those connections led us to ingredients that became part of our menu and meaningful jobs for the people who came to work with me. It was not just the food, but the workplace, the right livelihood, the entirety of the effort.

DG: How did you first connect with Lorian?

OP: Lorians had come to Madison in the 80s. Now Madison was and is a forward thinking town. It had a spiritual center that I had already spent some time with, an organization for spiritual advancement called Phoenix.

I worked under the guidance of Jo Annae Guthrie, a psychic who had an extraordinary vision that farm and restaurant could be interdependent. She provided a wonderful genesis for my work, but unfortunately she mentally cracked under the pressure. And Phoenix kind of fractured a bit because of that.

So when Lorians (arrived) there was a lot of healing to do. Even though I don’t recall how much or if David directly addressed (the situation), I do recall that his perspective was exactly the healing that I needed on a spiritual level.

Lorian began to hold classes and David talked about the Gaia Hypothesis. It was a revelation to me and yet it was something I already knew intuitively…we’re all so connected. It was basically that Gaia insight and strength that had been guiding my attempts to source locally, to choose foods with relationship, connection and connectivity to where we lived. It was absolutely such a wonderful refuge of these insights that rang so true.

DG: What happened with your restaurant?

OP: I ran L’Etoile for 30 years. It was wonderful inspiring work--and also a struggle. I took some cracks in my own concrete in the process. But by 2005 I had a network of strong, regional relationships with farmers and employees built up and I was able to sell the restaurant to my Chef de Cuisine who’s continuing to work with the same staff and many of the same farmers.

So around that time I began looking for my new mission and I entered into a wonderful debate about the distance of local with Eliot Coleman, a venerable vegetable farming colleague. For Eliot, local is found within the 25 mile circumference of his farm. Others declare it is 100 miles, while still others argue it's a day's drive--or even an entire region. They all have something in common. 'Local' is code for the power of connection that ultimately resists being limited to 4 dimensional measurements. In fact, local is a distance best gauged by our hearts. Then and there I realized that my mission was to explore how that insight can activate the connection we have to everything we eat and become better stewards of all the world’s food.

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DG: What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from Incarnational Spirituality?

OP: One of the many wonderful lessons that I’ve learned from David and Lorian is about the sacredness of the ordinary. David used to sometimes eat at my restaurant and in a conversation David described a bread machine he got a kick out of. It was one that sits on the counter, stirs up your dough and bakes a loaf of bread. Still full of myself for having discovered this idea of cooking homegrown food from scratch, I pooh-poohed the idea. Having a bread machine was not the real deal!  David very gently explained how much pleasure he took in interacting with this wonderful machine and the smells, aroma of baking bread. He taught me something very important.

Things can be deceiving; what is the high and mighty path? Sometimes the spirit of a thing lies in the relationship you form with it. There’s something alive, a real affirmation of life and spirit in the relationship we form with things. The most useful, applied lesson is that these are real, practical helpful tools for living in the world. It’s about co-creation and our connectedness and interdependence. And it's about learning to be both singular and sovereign as well as conjoined. And how to do both/be both;  again that’s something that David has written about that I just cherish.

Incarnational Spirituality is a wonderful resource for how to nurture and cultivate the person, the personality, the part of ourselves that really is the vehicle for spirit. Like a house, a personality needs lots of love and nurturing energy.

DG: Why do you support Lorian?

OP: It’s been a life-long friend, a life-long resource. I’ve barely tapped the goldmine that it is. It’s all to me just delightful that it’s there, and I think particularly on David’s writing, but I know that that comes from the glowing center of a whole community of people who are working this expression in their lives.

For more information about Odessa Piper, please visit her website