Photos and video by Wendy Goodfriend
Who says spring cleaning is just about organizing closets and washing dirty windows? The change of seasons can also inspire us to take inventory of ourselves, pausing to purge some of the junk from our diets and clutter from our minds. Whether it’s a matter of curtailing your bacon intake or releasing stress pent up from sitting in traffic, a good way to kick-start a personal renewal process is to spend an evening eating, chanting and losing yourself in hypnotic rhythms at Open Secret Bookstore in San Rafael.
A Saturday evening at Open Secret might begin like mine did: seated at a supper club-style table, relishing every bite of food on my “Radiance Plate,” the vegan sampler dish served at the in-house cafe. It’s the kind of good-for-you food that makes me proclaim, “If all my meals tasted like this, I’d go vegan!” But the food was just the start of my nourishment. It was the preamble to a night of kirtan, a form of call and response chanting derived from ancient Indian scriptures that’s gained popularity thanks to “kirtaneer” superstars like Krishna Das and Marin County based Jai Uttal. My own interest in kirtan was sparked by scientific studies that point to its therapeutic benefits, including the power of chanting to calm the nervous system and elevate our moods.
Dinner and chanting events are among the many offerings that have helped Open Secret survive while other independent spiritual bookstores have been forced to shut down. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer, Robert Calef founded Open Secret out of a desire to create a space for people of all spiritual persuasions to engage in what he calls “sacred leisure.” Besides browsing the overstuffed bookshelves that seem to line every wall of the labyrinthine store, other activity options include meditating in a lofty backroom filled with Himalayan art, tarot card readings (courtesy of Granny Rainbow) and an ever-changing roster of classes, talks and performances held in an adjoining space.
Calef knew from the start that the store would have to function as a multi-faceted community center to thrive, and offering food would be a critical part of the formula. “It had to be a space where we could feed body, mind and soul,” said Calef. Although their slow-cooked chai became an instant hit, they struggled to get the cafe part just right until four years ago when Calef invited local caterers Radiance Cuisine to set up shop inside the bookstore, elevating the culinary offerings to new heights.
Everything on the Radiance Cuisine menu is organic, vegan and gluten-free. Ingredients may change daily depending on what’s available at farmers’ markets, but the roster always includes varying combinations of salad, vegetable curries, soups and grains.
One section of my plate held crisp lettuces laced with radish, avocado, golden beets, roasted almonds, and a tangy-sweet dressing made with things like dates, capers, oranges and “more herbs than I can imagine,” according to one of the chefs. Next to that was a scoop of Massa Organics’ brown rice studded with currants. The rest of my plate was filled out with a curry of asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, squash and potatoes. To make the curry, each of the vegetables was cooked separately and folded into a rich sauce made from a blend of tahini, cashews and caramelized vegetables.
I also gobbled up every last bite of a fragrant bowl of dal; a staple Indian soup. In this version, two forms of traditional dal were combined, resulting in a hearty brew of lentils, carrots, celery and fresh ground spices like cumin and coriander. Adding to my enjoyment of the dal – and the curry – was something that might disappoint others: no fire in my mouth except maybe a hint of pepper, enabling me to detect the diverse infusion of flavors.
I washed it all down with a “lemon cooler” made from fresh squeezed lemons, spearmint, and ginger and finished my meal off with a nibble of “Choco-Laddu.” This dense, lightly sweet treat – known affectionately by customers as “radiance crack” – is made from toasted chickpea flour and swirled with dark chocolate. It’s essentially a much healthier take on traditional laddu, an Indian confection typically made with loads of sugar and clarified butter.
If you think all this seems like a complex culinary undertaking for purveyors of a tiny bookstore café, you are right. Jerry ‘Radhanath’ Alvarez and Kilimba G. Alvarez are the husband and wife team behind Radiance Cuisine and they take cooking seriously, to say the least. Both are devotees of the deity Krishna (also written as “Krsna”), a branch of Hinduism dubbed “the kitchen religion” in the 1960s because of its emphasis on food as a means of connecting to the divine. The chefs take inspiration from a wide range of eastern and western traditions, but what guides their approach to making any dish is a perception of food preparation as an act of love and offering to Krishna. As Radhanath explained,
“We cook everything the same way a loving grandmother would for her grandchildren—from a place of love, using only the best possible ingredients.”
Long before they met each other, Radhanath and Kilimba honed their cooking skills while living at different west coast ashrams where they had to earn the privilege of entering the sacred kitchen. Radhanath later made his way to another ashram in Hawaii, and eventually opened his own restaurant in downtown Honolulu. Kilimba continued to nurture her culinary creativity and other artistic pursuits at international retreats and festivals.
As part of their devotional practice Radhanath and Kilimba also cultivated their musical talents, which brings us to part two of my evening. On the third Saturday of every month, both chefs exchange their aprons for instruments and sit on the stage floor along with a group of master musicians who join them for an hour-long kirtan jam. Guitar, bass, violin and percussion combine with the ethereal tones emanating from Kilimba’s harmonium to create a complex tapestry of sounds. But it’s the hypnotic and passionate drumming by Radhanath on his two-headed Indian mrdanga drum that really got under my skin and let me lose myself in the music.
Song sheets are passed out to help audience members repeat the Sanskrit chants. As someone whose vocal skills leave much to be desired, I usually shy away from public singing. Relief washed over me when I saw that some people were just listening, eyes closed while moving their bodies to the beat. I did dare to join in at times (quietly), spurred by the promise of those benefits to my brain and emotional well-being.
Most of the songs are about Krishna, but as Kilimba explained, many of the words and stories invoke universal themes relevant to people of all faiths. The same goes for the food. “Although the food is vegan, about 80% of our customers are omnivores,” said Kilimba. “After having lunch here, they may go home and eat a giant pork chop for dinner – and that’s totally fine.”
There are no prerequisites or judgments here, just an open invitation to enjoy some good food and music to help loosen the cobwebs in our bellies, hearts and minds.
Radiance Cuisine at Open Secret Bookstore
923 C Street
San Rafael, CA 94901
Phone: (415) 686-3442
Hours: Wed-Sat 12pm-7pm
Facebook: Radiance Cuisine
Facebook: Radiance Kirtan
Next Radiance Kirtan at Open Secret:
Radiance Kirtan with Radhanath, Kilimba and Friends
Saturday, May 17, 7:30-9:30pm
Kirtan including Radiance dinner $20
Kirtan only $10- $25 donation at the door
(Come early for dinner with Radiance Cuisine. They sometimes run out of food on kirtan nights. Dinner is served from 5:00-7:00pm)