Like so many other chefs, Lisa K. Nakamura seemed well placed to write a book.
Allium, her restaurant on Orcas Island, has drawn committed fans and a “little sister” ice cream shop named Lily. Nakamura’s enviable experience includes The Herbfarm, serving as the first female sous chef at The French Laundry, and years overseeing a restaurant group overseas. When she did complete a manuscript, one of the world’s most respected chefs — her old French Laundry boss, Thomas Keller — wrote the introduction.
Her book, though, wasn’t the cookbook we’ve come to expect from restaurateurs. It was “Bucky the Dollar Bill,” a fable about the power of spending money locally. It’s a small-town-values lesson Nakamura has learned in spades running an island business partly dependent on the summer tourist trade.
The “family story” about the journey of a dollar bill came to her on “one of those really dreary February days” where the Orcas business world just seemed dead. “You look down the street, no one is there. All the shopkeepers were kind of wringing our hands.”
Living on the island, “you see how when you purchase from someone you see the results,” from buying a farmer’s crop to making a charitable donation.
“Sometimes, like the book says, it’s not immediate…Sometimes you never know when it’s going to pay off. You may never see it in your lifetime. But I know somewhere, there’s an impact.”
The old-fashioned story, virtually a picture book with delightful illustrations from graphic designer and food blogger Denise Sakaki, follows Bucky from his home in a struggling construction worker’s wallet to a bookstore till to a happy hour bill and beyond. A struggling mom finally donates him to an island charity, where he’s used to start a day care, giving children a sound foundation that sets them off on solid careers and “Buckies” of their own. The moral: “Generosity given wisely brings prosperity.”
Keller echoed the lesson in his introduction, sharing a photo of the first dollar he earned at Bouchon Bakery and writing that he never imagined that the handful of employees he started business with in 1994 would grow to a staff of more than 1,000. “It is a tremendous feeling to know that a simple dream has managed to provide meaningful employment to our staff as well as our partners — fishermen, farmers, foragers, growers — and the impact these revenues have had on their families and communities continue to be felt in ever widening circles.”
The tale started as a post on the blog where Nakamura bluntly chronicles everything from the true life of a chef (“It isn’t all truffles and foie gras, baby”) to Thousand Island dressing. She self-published it through CreateSpace — she was nervous about rejection from traditional publishers, she said, and she also wanted it out fast, as a timely message.
“I’m not an economist, but it seems to me things are not what they should be,” she said.
Nakamura knows there will be people who agree with her and those who find fault with the message, and that’s OK. “I’m not saying all big corporations are bad. I’ve certainly worked in corporate America, and it’s given me its benefits… I think the bottom line is, there has to be a good base behind your giving.” She’s donating a dollar from each book’s sale to the Orcas Island Family Health Center, and donating a percentage of ice cream sales at Lily to the Farm to Cafeteria program at the island schools.
The book’s not about restaurants and recipes, caramelized scallops or saffron clam chowder… but it couldn’t have been done without them.
As Nakamura tells her cooks, a restaurant is just a reflection of the rest of the world. “What you’re learning in the kitchen is really applicable to real life. It’s all about being prepared, thinking ahead, being conscientious,” she said.
And small businesses “are the ATMS of the economic world, at least in a small town,” she said. “You bring the money in, you write the checks and send the money back out.”
File photo of Lisa Nakamura by Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times