RIP Marion

Marion Cunningham, local eat-at-the-table-together advocate, goes to the great kitchen in the sky.

Marion Cunningham has made her way to the great, wonderful, perfect kitchen in the sky to be with family and friends who got there before her. I love my life but the thought of that kitchen up there does keep the fear of death at bay for me.

Marion was an internationally known chef and author, having been friends with Julia Child and James Beard, and was known and respected far and wide for her revamp of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook. But she was also a local gal who lived in Walnut Creek and mentored lots of us budding chefs in the area in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I was fortunate enough to be one of them.

When I bought my restaurant, Haute Stuff in downtown Martinez from Kate Miller and Jeff Jelton in the late 1980’s, it was Marion Cunningham who gave me the nerve to branch out on my own.

I had done my much-anticipated week at Chez Panisse after graduating from the California Culinary academy in 1987. Having had that week on my dream list since it had opened in my teens, I was beyond excited and nervous to do it. It was not a good scene for me. I was relegated to a corner in the basement shelling beans and actually had my tool box lifted before being told that I was not a fit for the French place because I had not been to Europe and did not have any knowledge of that kind of cooking, even though I had been cooking professionally for 13 years before graduating as a classically trained French chef from CCA. I was instructed to go next door to the new American, down-homey type restaurant where I would probably be a better fit.

I was devastated for about 10 minutes until I went down the street and interviewed at said restaurant. It was Marion Cunningham’s along with others, and she and I hit it off immediately. I hated to drive on freeways and over bridges and she said that she did as well but if you got drunk enough it was easy. Then she joked about overcoming alcoholism as well as phobias and that I could as well. I related to her deeply, jokes aside, and was grateful for her personal insights. She instructed me to “not let anything stop you dear, life is too short”.

A year or so later I bought the restaurant I was working in, Haute Stuff, in Martinez. She came in and then her friends started coming in. She told me things I should and should not do. She told me I had talent and was a born cook. She brought the Contra Costa Old Guard Culinary Brigade in, Ken Wolf, Narsii David and Maggie Crumm, who were all equally supportive of our little venture in a refinery town and opened many doors for me that previously were shut tight to young women chefs at the time.

Years later I worked as a special events person for farmers markets and she was always the first to sit in the market and sign copies of her books when I asked her to. Anything to help the farmers markets succeed and linger. She was adamant about teaching people to cook and getting them to sit down together. In writing her Learning to Cook book, one of her last, she told me that she brought people into her house every day to have them learn what a kitchen was, what a knife was and how to use it, how to work an oven, how to follow a recipe and how to sit down and eat with each other. She did it with patience and a single-minded drive to get people back to the table together. She felt that it was going to save our species if we all ate at least one meal a day together. She was right about that and many other ideas and opinions she held.

Marion will be missed by the culinary community as a great contributor to the art but she will also be missed by me as a great gal who encouraged me when I was down, and will always be listed fondly as one of the few amazing cooking mentors I have had in my life. Happy cooking, doll, and I vow to keep doing my best to get people to cook and eat at a table together. Carry on.

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Harriett Burt July 17, 2012 at 05:44 PM
Fabulous story' Leslie and an apt description of the personalities of the leading Bay Area good food heroines. I am a bit charged just to know Marion might have been in Haute Stuff when I was eating lunch. Am a bit disappointed you didn't introduce me so I could have interviewed her for the Gazoo food page :)
Gigi Walker July 17, 2012 at 08:30 PM
Nice story.....heartfelt and warm like hot bread out of the oven.....Mentors are so important ..as the story shows with Lesley...
Donald Pallotta July 17, 2012 at 11:34 PM
Leslie, Thanks for your warmth here. I admit not knowing much about Marion til now, and learned a bit more today about you...Sheila and I have always loved your kindness, abilities and food whenever we can get it!
gayle goldblatt July 18, 2012 at 04:33 AM
Leslie -- thank you for sharing your memories with all of us.


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