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A Philosopher's Food

Michael Krohnen, cook for a famous Indian teacher.

June 04, 1997|BARBARA HANSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OJAI — It was like old times for Michael Krohnen. There he was, baking eggplant Parmesan on the same vintage O'Keefe & Merrit stove he first used in 1975. Through the window of this peaceful ranch house kitchen, he could see the same orange groves, loquat tree, pepper trees and flowers that had been his view for more than a decade.

Krohnen was once chef for the Indian philosopher and educator J. Krishnamurti, who came to this Ventura County city in 1922, established the headquarters for the Krishnamurti Foundation of America and died here in 1986 at age 90.

The food Krohnen prepared in those days was always vegetarian, in keeping with Krishnamurti's diet. Each day the philosopher was in residence--he spent a good deal of his time traveling the world giving lectures--he would walk to meals from a nearby cottage and engage his guests in conversations that Krohnen found fascinating, so much so that the cook has compiled his reminiscences in "The Kitchen Chronicles: 1001 Lunches with J. Krishnamurti" (Edwin House, 1997; $22).

On this day, Krohnen set out an elaborate buffet of dishes like those he prepared when Krishnamurti was alive. Lunch was served in the Krishnamurti Library next to the kitchen; it is the room in which Krishnamurti used to eat.

Along with the eggplant, there was wild rice flavored with currants, pine nuts and sun-dried tomatoes, served with mushroom sauce. Broccoli was steamed with a sauce containing hickory-smoked yeast. The sauce recipe originated with Krohnen's culinary mentor, the late Alan Hooker, founder of the Ranch House restaurant in Ojai.

Salads included lettuce and sprouts with a choice of three dressings, green beans with browned almonds and parsley, a Greek salad and a Greek-Indian cucumber-yogurt mixture. For dessert, Krohnen made brownies to be eaten with apricot sauce and a dollop of sour cream touched up with maple syrup and vanilla.

Some of these recipes appear in a booklet that goes to foundation donors. Many more will appear in a cookbook that Krohnen plans to write. Meanwhile, he's busy receiving accolades for "The Kitchen Chronicles" and preparing for a workshop he will conduct this summer in Saanen, Switzerland, (where Krishnamurti lectured each summer for 25 years) on food as art and the art of living.

Krohnen left his job with the Krishnamurti Foundation in 1988 but stays on the library grounds when he's in California. Closely linked to Krishnamurti circles, he spends part of each year at a Krishnamurti school and center in Brazil and goes to another center in England in the summer to pinch-hit for a vacationing chef. He also participates in annual Krishnamurti conferences in Switzerland in July.

The book, which Krohnen began to write in 1988, is being translated into German, Spanish and Japanese and will be published and distributed in India by Penguin. It's a delightful read, blending the chronicles of a budding chef and spiritual seeker with an intimate view of the philosopher. It also captures an interesting phase of Southern California history with its account of the Krishnamurti movement here.

Krohnen's recollections of Krishnamurti are detailed, right down to the jokes the philosopher delighted in telling over lunch. "I took a lot of notes while I was working here," he says.

Menus from the lunches start the chapters. There are no recipes, but some dishes are described so minutely that an astute cook could re-create them.

"Having lunch here with Krishnamurti every day was a cultural event encompassing the whole beauty and subtlety of human interaction," Krohnen says. "Krishnamurti had a very clear, perceptive mind that he was able to share with other people."

In addition to being vegetarian, the philosopher avoided dairy products, except for yogurt, because they didn't agree with him. He drank herbal tea and bypassed rich desserts such as chocolate mousse for fresh fruit.

"He didn't eat much because he liked to be last [to be served]," Krohnen says. "He would be absorbed by the conversation and forget his food."

Krohnen never expected to be a chef. Born in Germany, he was a poet, world wanderer and self-described "full-time seeker" until he came across the writings of Krishnamurti in the 1960s. In 1971, he went to Madras in south India to hear the philosopher in person. From then on, he followed Krishnamurti to lectures in India, England, Switzerland and the United States.

While he was teaching English in Japan, Krohnen heard there was work in California, where a Krishnamurti school was being established.

"I had been traveling intensively for four or five years," he says. "I felt it was important to settle down for a bit of work in a more creative concept. I didn't care what it was."

The openings were for a gardener, maintenance man and cook. Krohnen expected to become the gardener. Instead, he was assigned to cook. "I was deeply shocked at first. It came as a real surprise," he says.

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