The Prophet Vegetarian Restaurant
Noted East San Diego vegetarian restaurant
& its remarkable founder
I won’t say that this isn’t any way to run a restaurant. Maybe it is. But I’m sure this isn’t the way most restaurants are run. I’m in the lobby of the Prophet International Vegetarian Restaurant at 4:13 pm. on a Wednesday afternoon. The front door is locked; it won’t reopen until about 5:30. All over the floor of this antechamber are Prophet employees as well as Marianne Makeda Cheatom, the Prophet’s founder, sole owner, Supreme Matriarch. Everyone’s kneeling Oriental-style, feet tucked underneath himself or herself. Suddenly they clap in unisons, once or twice, then they begin chanting in Japanese. They’re “channeling light,” one to the other. When the ritual concludes a few minutes later, some of the employees sprawl out on the pillows beneath the statue or Quan Yin, goddess of mercy. Others wander off and read for a few minutes before the dinner hour begins. Cheatom says the Prophet is as much an ashram as an eatery, and this daily scene is one of the things that backs up her words.
Cheatom also says that when she was ten she had a vision she would open a restaurant. I tried to pin her down on this; I asked if she meant she had an actual vision, or was it more of a daydream? And she gazed at me, heavy-lidded and grave, and said, No, of course it was real. The anecdote is classic Cheatom, and just when I’m about to discard it as hyperbole, I think of the other vague, spacy, New Age dreams which she’s not only had, but realized. Besides the Prophet, this city’s oldest and most venerable sit-down vegetarian restaurant, there’s also the African crafts/cultural center which she opened last summer on a formerly dead corner of Gold Hill. And also the reggae music which she’s now promoting, both on her own radio show and in a resuscitated Normal Heights theater.
This is a woman who’s not easily forgotten. When she sweeps into rooms, people turn to look at her. She’ll be thirty-nine years old this July, but you could never tell her age from her face, which is smoother than a teen-ager’s, nor her body, which is short and compact, but not vegetarian-skinny. Her skin is very dark, at least as dark as Hershey’s chocolate syrup, and it throws off glints of charcoal and blue and persimmon, depending on the light that shines on it. These days she wears her hair in “dreadlocks”, the spiky curls which are the badge of the Rastafari religion. Her eyes are set in deeply chiseled sockets and her stare is one of the most distinctive things about her. She fixes listeners with a stare so direct, so intense, so mesmerizing, that you feel as if she’s taking in all the details before her, as if they’re the most important thing in the world.
She says she was born blind, the unwanted child of a forty-five-year-old maid and her chauffeur/shoeshine husband, who themselves were the poor black offspring of Texas and Louisiana farm families. At the time of her birth in Paducah, Texas, and her quick recovery from the blindness, (Cheatom credits a folk remedy administered by the midwife: the application of her own infant urine to her eyes), her mother worked for a family of white, liberal bankers who urged the Cheatoms to seek a better life in San Diego, then pulsing with wartime industry. Cheatom’s father came her first, quickly securing a job as a stock clerk at the Naval Air Station. Soon, just a month after Marianne was born, he moved the rest of his family westward and into a rented house at 7675 Chesterton Lane in the black section of a brand-new Linda Vista.
Although her father moonlighted by buffing shoes at Fred’s Shoe Shine on E Street downtown, the family had little money. Yet Cheatom still remembers, warmly, “Linda Vista was really country then. Even though the houses were just cracker boxes, I remember there were huge lots, and peach trees. My mother was always working in the garden, and she’d have the best tomatoes and the best food.” The small community of black families all knew each other, sharing baby-sitting and other communal projects. “To bake a cake, you’d go around and ask for an egg here, butter, there.” Only Cheatom’s own acute sensitivity isolated her. “I was real different. I had psychic visions at different times. I didn’t like to eat animals,” she says.
When she was about thirteen, her two brothers (both in the service) scraped up enough money to purchase a house hear Central Street in East San Diego, which at the time also hadn’t lost its rural character. But family troubles were building. The senior Cheatoms had never fully adjusted to being transplanted from the South; now drink began to devour the best part of them, and a few years later the family moved to a rented apartment in Logan Heights. The immersion into the world of the concrete urban ghetto “totally freaked me out,” Cheatom recalls. “It was terrible. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to get into that black jive. I saw fights all around me. I used to shrink myself down in the size to escape.” Eventually, however, the change forced her to become more extroverted, witty, even glib. By the time the family left the apartment to move to a rented to-story house in Logan Heights, she had already begun a attract a coterie of loyal followers.
“I started mediating and I forgot all about black consciousness and the whole original trip I was on”
She now idolized the beatnik poets. While her classmates at San Diego High boogie to rhythm and blues, she nursed an avant-garde taste for jazz, and she installed the first stereo system in the neighborhood into a spare room in the house, which she decorated with “lots of rattan, lots of cane, lots of brass” and that unique, quasi-Oriental style now in evidence at her restaurant. She named the room “The Den,” and soon teen-agers from all over the neighborhood were joining her there. As her predilection for the foreign increased, she began to dream about becoming an astronomer or an anthropologist.
Pragmatism prevailed. When she graduated from high school, she had no money, no hope of attending a four-year college. But “I thought there would always be room for black people in the kitchen…. Also, I come from long line of excellent, excellent cooks – several of my aunts and my mother.” Ironically, her mother had always figured that Cheatom enrolled in Mesa College’s culinary arts program, and before long she was getting into trouble for ignoring recipes and improving. She also studied restaurant management at Grossmont College, and she finally secured a job as a cook at Scripps Hospital.
“Then my consciousness began to change,” she says. The year was about to 1966, but when she recounts these facts of her life, you know that if she’s master cook and mystic, she’s a sorry excuse for a historian. She sheds details as loosely as she flings spices on work full of some exotic sauce. It may have been 1965 or 1968. Who knows or cares? What she remembers – what was important – was that the sixties were ripening and change was in the air. Black people (no longer Negroes) were on the march, and the Beatles were singing about an expansion of mind which was to hit this charismatic young woman from Logan Heights with the force of religious conviction.
Not that she had ever been unreligious. Raised a Southern Baptist, she had converted to Catholicism while a teen-eager and was contemplating a further switch to Judaism when friends urged her to visit the home of Transcendental Meditation ™ initiator Beulah Smith in Coronado. “By this time I’d gained this cool ghetto front. And I didn’t believe it. Didn’t believe it.” She went, and wisecracked, but attended another lectured on TM by an El Cajon chiropractor. After that it didn’t take her long to leap to the faith of the East. “I started meditating and I forgot all about black consciousness and the whole original trip I was on.” Soon other friends introduced her to the (Indian) Vedic literature and she became a full-fledged hippie. “I was a love child! And you got remember that there were no blacks being hippies except for Jimi Hendrix.” She grew her hair into a natural, became a total vegetarian. She quit job at the hospital because she could no longer stand to cook animal flesh.
Instead, she returned to school to study photograph and finally landed a job at the Ortho Microfilm Company in Kearny Mesa. It turned out to be a garden of building flower children. “Just by chance, there were a lot of high-consciousness people there,” she explains. Together, they trekked to love-ins, traded gurus. Cheatom began studying Zen and about this time she had her second “vision” of operating a restaurant. She says she was sitting under a tree in the back yard of the house she was renting in Encanto. Suddenly she saw “everybody coming over to my house and eating. I just kept feeding everybody. And I realized that there should be a place where all people of the New Age can come in and get charged up.” This time her thoughts kept returning to the vision like a well-used mantra.
It was a vision which clashed with the plans she had loosely formulated up to that point. She and her Aquarian gang had read about communal living in Life magazine and had resolved to join the action. They had more or less pooled money to buy some land in Oregon, and Cheatom says, “I was practically gone.” Still, this restaurant thing... it fascinated her. Her pals thought she didn't have a prayer of getting it off the ground, but they cheerfully agreed to help. And one day in the darkroom at the microfilm company, she changed upon the name. “Most people think I named it after Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. But actually, I was in the darkroom, reading this book by a Sufi master. It talked about 'the prophets and the messengers in the new age.' And that's how the name occurred to me.”
The name was about all she had; she lacked any savings or credit. Still, she and her roommate, Richard Van Natta, trudged down to the office of the San Diego Business Outreach. “They looked at me like I was crazy. We looked different. Richard had long hair and I had a short natural.” Nonetheless, two young bureaucrats helped the would-be restaurateurs apply for a loan from the Small Business Administration – only to have the SBA promptly reject the application. “The only places to eat vegetarian food in San Diego at that time were the House Of Nutrition cafeteria downtown and Harpo had something at the beach. But the SBA said there was no market in the city for vegetarian restaurants. You know they just didn't want someone young and hip and black to do it.”
Undaunted, she tried to improve her credit rating. “I did all these establishment things that I was really against.” Her landlord agreed to sell her the house in Encanto and even told officials at the Federal Housing Authority that she had put a big down payment on the property (she hadn't). But although she got the FHA loan, the SBA rejected her a second time and Cheatom began to turn to alternative sources of financing. A friend's mother lent her $2000 and from other friends and relatives she collected enough to bring the total up about $5000. At the same time, she and Richard searched for a location. They found a grubby storefront in the 4400 block of University, a sad stretch of gun shops and liquor stores. “It had been a barbecue pit, and it was ugly. It was one little building.” As 1971 drew to a close, she and Van Natta quit their microfilming jobs and began to work full-time at painting and cleaning the uninspired shelter.
They finally decided to test the waters on New Year's Eve. Somehow word of new vegetarian alternative had leaked out, despite Cheatom's firm intentions to keep the unpublicized event quiet. When they opened their doors for business that first night, patrons were lined up in the street. “It was chaos”, remembers Patricia Arpajou.
Arpajou is a statuesque, very blond young woman who first met Cheatom seventeen years ago, when Arpajou was just fourteen. They became fast friend, and Arpajou toiled in the kitchen on that first night of the Prophet's operation. There, the inexperienced love children frantically jammed the dinners into the kitchen's one conventional oven. Those first costumers had to wait for what seemed like an eternity, but Arpajou recalls that they remained cheerful. “Marianne is just such a good cook that they didn't seem to mind.”
For about three months, Arpajou continued to work her job in the post office and then to hasten back to the Prophet to work for free during the evenings. She was one of the several young people who did the same thing. Cheatom says the restaurant stayed open until ten o'clock and the young people then have to wash all the dishes by hand and clean up, a task which not uncommonly took until four or five in the morning. “Sometimes we'd sleep there. We never got to go home. We worked like Dogs at that place.”
“Sometimes we'd come out and say, hey, all the dinners are free!' We were stupid hippies.”
In the beginning they experimented wildly. “We served a lot of Balinese food, like gado-gado. Also we were really into Japanese cooking. We did a lot of tempura.” Near the cash register they sold herbs and – for a while – shoes. “Yeah! We introduced Birkenstocks to San Diego. It was great. But after a while it got too hard to stop and measure people, particularly when the restaurant was busy.” Bookkeeping was nightmare, so the staff didn't do much of it. They preferred their own eccentric system of accounts. “We used to give half the food away. Sometimes we'd come out and say, 'Hey, all the dinners are free!' We were stupid Hippies.” Cheatom laughs. “We didn't Believe in making money.” They also believed in communing with nature, so periodically they would shut the restaurant doors for several days or even longer, pile into their half-ton International van, and head for the mountains or Mexico.
After several months, the SBA finally came through with a loan of about $15,000, money which instantly evaporated in payments for the building and to the restaurant's creditors. Still, Cheatom says she never lost sleep over the threat of the restaurant closing. “There were a lot of tight times. But since I never had anything to lose in the beginning, I don't panic too easily. Plus if you put everything in the hands of the Creator, you know that even if it did have to close, it would be the right thing.”
She certainly never let the demands of business obscure her attention to the Creator, although at times it seemed like His incarnation changed from month to month. Today the Prophet has a room of individual dining cubicles (“private meditation dining room”) next to the main (original) room full of tables, and on the walls of that first room hang photographs which could illustrate a text on the world's religions. There are picture of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Swami Prabananda and Rama Krishna and Madame Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society. Next to them is a photograph of Cheatom and a Chinese master (Mr. Liang) with whom she studied T'ai Ch'i (today she knows about seven martial arts). Here's Sai Baba (“I learned about him from one of his top disciples, Indra Devi, who had a yoga institute in Tecate”) and there's Swami Sachitananda of the Integral Yoga Foundation. “I was searching , man!”
Cheatom doesn't now degrade any of the various religions which she has embraced. She simply sees them as variations on the central truth of love and unity, variations wrought by the geographic and cultural differences of their adherents. She says her only reservation, as she skipped from Hinduism to Buddhism to Taoism, was that those religions didn't reflect the cultures of black people. So it was inevitable, after scaling the religious pinnacles of Japan and China and India, that she would eventually turn her sights toward Africa.
First she studied Yoruba, an African back-to-nature religion which flourished upon transplantation to Brazil. She even began a pilgrimage to Africa, but on her way she stopped in Rio de Janeiro and simply stayed near the Brazilian city for several weeks. (She returned to infuse Brazilian cookery into the Prophet's menu.) Then about four years ago the creed of Rastafari came to her attention. It was devotion at first sight.
For here was a religion, the Jamaican born sect of black visionary Marcus Garvey, which not only included big dollops of the kind of mysticism which fired Cheatom's soul (a lost tribe of Israel, promised escape from sinful Babylon, a goal of universal oneness). Rastafari also was a celebration of (primarily Jamaican) black culture – and one of its chief tenets was the advocacy of “natural living” and the consumption of natural foods. It might as well have been tailor-made for the restaurant owner.
If the body of Rastafarian dogma also included one or two sticky wickets, Cheatom found ways to sidestep them gracefully. Take the Rastafarian use of marijuana-smoking as a sacrament, for example. On the one hand, here you had Cheatom – teetotaling, jogging, fasting Cheatom – who was never believed in taking any drugs, not even those as commonplace as aspirin or cough medicine. Since the inception of the Prophet, she had prohibited diners from smoking anything there. And on the other hand you had hypnotic-eyed, Medusamaned Rastamen, swaying to their reggae, wrapped in clouds of herb and puffing at their huge ganja (marijuana) spliffs and passing them on to their children. Inconsistent? Not at all, Cheatom says. She says she's never passed judgment on the sacraments of other cultures. Plus, few real Rastas use ganja in its correct sacramental form. Instead, she says a lot of contemptible urban Rastas wear the distinctive “dreadlock” hairstyle but don't take the Rastafarian message to heart. Finally, she adds, “People in Jamaica can handle marijuana. It's their way of life. But Westerners get a hold of something and we don't know how to handle it. We're excessive with everything we do.” Besides, the whole question of ganja is peripheral. “The real high is love and you don't need anything to get to that.”
And so her natural disappeared; she grew her own dreadlocks. She acquired a Rasta teacher, a Jamaican holy man and musician named Ras Midas. Touches of Rastafari – a photograph of the worshipped former Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie; a Rasta bumper sticker – began to appear in the University Avenue restaurant. Along with them came increasing signs of respectability and even acclaim: restaurant awards, nationwide publicity, visits from vegetarian luminaries. “Lot of stars have come here over the years,” Cheatom says. “George Harrison has been here, and so has Gloria Swanson. Her limousine pulled right up to the curb one day and she had lunch. Dick Van Dyke eats here from time to time, and who else? Oh yeah, Dyan Cannon.” She shows off a activist Dick Gregory. “We’re really, really tight…. Hey! I’m in with some heavy people. Heavy!”
The photograph of her and G Gregory hangs next to the religious figures in the room just off the Prophet’s main dining room. In the restaurant’s first year or so of existence. Cheatom and her cohorts acquired this extra space and used it primarily as a yoga center, but soon needed the extra room for waiting customers. So she abandoned the yoga center, added the first of the private dining cubicles, and used the extra space for waiting area. When she also acquired the adjoining storefront on the side of main dining room, she converted that entire space in current lobby. Now its atmosphere is replete with lushness, eccentricity, the exotic. An enormous red satin dragon named Uplifting hangs from the ceiling along with a pair of negative ion fountain burbles amidst feather and plants and icons and tropical fish. Gorgeous kimonos are pinned outstretched on the palm-matted wall.
“I’ve always liked to create environments,” Cheatom says. That’s why she conjured up the idea for the dining area. Visitors ushered into the, doff their shoes and sit on the floor. Each cubicle has a different personality. There’s the chakra room adorned wit a large batik covered with the India chakra symbols. There’s a room named after Bilal, the first Muslim, complete with an ancient prayer rug (point east toward Mecca), Ethiopian basketry, and the game of wari, the national game of Antigua.
Cheatom says that same urge to transform drove her to look twice at the squalid, empty building at the corner of Thirtieth and Beech streets in Golden Hill. She leased the property several years ago and for while just used it as storage space. But the thought of how the building might be reincarnated tantalized her, so she would steal spare hours to work on it, usually alone. “Sometimes I would take carpenters down there with me, and they would just laugh.” And as the building shaped up, so did Cheatom’s dreams for what it might become, “ an expression of Africa culture.”
“I figured if those other cats could organize themselves, why can't we?”
When she finally saw an exhibit of Nigerian terra cotta and bronze art at a San Francisco museum, she resolved to open the store in Golden Hill as an African import center. She named it the Baobab, and it opened last August. Now woven reeds cover ceiling, giving the room the feeling of a breezy hut. Wood decorates the walls. Among the wares for sale are African baskets and other ornaments, reggae music, books such as The Holistic Handbook, Aloe Vera Heals, and Tissue Cleansing Through Bowel Management. A juice bar and a roof-top eating area are scheduled to open this summer, and Cheatom says in July she'll help stage a community festival in front of the store.
These days, the Baobab also is often strewn with notices for one of Cheatom's upcoming reggae concerts. Rastafarians regard the popular Jamaican music as a way of spreading the word of Jah (Jehovah), and by last fall Cheatom decided San Diegans weren't being exposed to sufficient quantities of reggae. So she donned the additional cap of promoter. She staged her first concert last November at the International Blend in North Park, where the response was warm enough to encourage her to continue.
At the beginning of this year, though, one apparent setback befell her. In preparation for a major concert, she decided that the International Blend was too small, so she rented the larger Bear State Theatre at Tenth and E streets downtown. But after heavily advertising the event, she discovered that Christafari, a local reggae record store proprietor, was planning to stage another reggae concert at the theater just one week ahead of her event. Outraged at the near-conflict of scheduling, Cheatom called Christafari. “And you know what he said to me? He said, 'Now Marianne, why don't you take a deep breath?' I told him, 'Why don't you take a deep fart!'” she snapped. But it didn't take long for her to regret and feel mortified by the shattered good vibrations. “You can't talk love and not live it. I salute Chris and I wish him the best,” she says. She says she expressed sympathy rather than glee when the fire marshal stopped Christafari's show, mid-concert, and cited a lack of the proper fire permits. That development also forced the panicky Cheatom to scramble for an alternative site for her event. She had recently leased the Adams Avenue Theatre in Normal Heights, and although the interior was a shambles, Cheatom decided, with less than a week left, to relocate her concert there.
“I slept and lived for a week in that theater. We just had to paint and paint and paint and disinfect. We would lose people in the bathroom for hours!” Although the paint was still wet when the band arrived, the concert went on, successfully. Since than Cheatom has presented such groups as Steel Pulse and the Rebel Rockers there. “It's no smoking. It's not a bar or a club. It's really a temple,” Cheatom says, “It's a place where you can go and get healed by music.” And more, she promises. She's just bought the movie screen from the doomed Roxy Theatre and she plans to show African and Jamaican films, and to produce dance in the theater, along with feminist happenings, choral music. And she's combining all that with one final form of diversification, a weekly two-hour radio show called “Reggae Fever”, sponsored by the Prophet, hosted by Cheatom, and aired Sundays on XHRM radio (92.5 FM).
Now she's sitting in the station's studio on Market Place, taping the show to be aired on Mother's Day two days hence. Her co-host is a member of the production company she formed to help her stage the concerts, a friendly young man in dreads named Damaja-Le. Their ad-libbing is so loose that it seems almost completely unstructured. Now, while a song plays, she reminds him that she wants to give away some dinners on the upcoming holiday.
“O.K. We'll do that next. How many do you want to give away? One? Two?”
She reflects for about three seconds. “Make it tow to the first caller, and two to second. Or would four to the first be easier?”
“O.K. Four to the first caller. Then we'll give four more away right at the end of the show.” A moment or two later, she has a new thought. “But yeah, they have to work for this.” She decides that, as an educational exercise, the meal winners will have to come up with the answers to two questions. Brow furled, she scribbles down: What was the name of the organization that Marcus Garvey started in Harlem back in the early part of this century? Who founded the cradle of Rastafari on the Pinnacle estate northwest of Kingston in 1941?
Of course, all the new activities often take her from the restaurant. To some extent they've also removed other key employees, who now schedule their time between working at the restaurant, tending the store, and assisting at the theater during concerts. “I figured if those other cats could organize themselves, why can't we?” Cheatom asks. But Cheatom's presence still completely dominates the restaurant, according to one of its managers, Cynthia Morris. “She can come walking in the place for five minutes and know if something is off. She can walk by a wok and say, 'That's missing.' Or she can walk by a drink and say, 'Did you put that in?' At a glance, she'll notice if there's honey missing from one of the tables or if one of the candles is off. She knows this place like the back of her hand.”
Morris is a tall, quiet woman with a wide, serene brow who was eighteen years old when she first met Cheatom back in 1968. “She knew so much. She cooked. She meditated.” In short, Cheatom bowled Morris over. Morris subsequently left San Diego for a few years, but when she returned in 1973, she joined the bustling crew at the vegetarian restaurant and she's been there ever since, cooking, acting as hostess, managing the books, functioning as Cheatom's private secretary. Morris says as long as the restaurant exists, she won't be able to conceive of leaving. When I ask her why, she points outdoors, at the street. “I've been out there, and I'd much rather be in here. I've worked as a secretary for seven years. I picked fruit for a while; I cut trees up in Oregon. But I've learned so much here, spiritually and intellectually. This place is ours.”
Legally, it's still solely controlled by Cheatom, although she formed the Baobab and the concert production company as corporations in which key employees hold some stock. Cheatom says, however, and employees seem to confirm, that all the businesses function like one large family venture, one with all the subtle complexities of family life.
Indeed, most of the employees have been there long enough to feel like relatives, and many are actually related. Cynthia Morris's brother Rob, who works the juice bar, has worked at the Prophet for seven years. Pat Arpajou, who helped Cheatom on opening night, still works there, along with two nephews of Cheatom's. Cheatom claims employees basically run the Prophet. “They tell me what to do,” she asserts. Yet they seem to defer substantially to her judgments; when I asked to borrow a menu, for example, Morris told me politely but firmly to ask the boss. Furthermore, they seem to screen Cheatom from outside annoyances, to form around her a gentle but effective phalanx.
This particular morning they're cooking, as usual, without her. They've arrived about 10:30 to start preparing lunch; just before the doors open at 11:30 they kneel down in the lobby for a short version of a Japanese prayer. The ritual insures that all the in-house vibes are good, Morris explains. When the doors open at 11:30, two customers already are waiting in the street. Within a few moments, orders are rolling steadily into the kitchen.
It's a crowded but organized space; clean but stripped of any of the offbeat ornamentation to be found on the other side of the Japanese curtain. At the wok stove, Adesina Ogunelese, who has cooked under Cheatom's tutelage for the past five years, is stirring up a large batch of sauce for the vegetable-nut loaf to be served this evening. Around the corner, another worker is lovingly assembling one of the Chinese salads. She lays a bed of Chinese greens in a red enamel box, then shreds daikon (Japanese radish) over them. She deftly extracts Chinese cloud ears, forest mushrooms, snow peas, water chestnuts, green pepper, and carrots from various plastic containers, then she arranges the vegetables in beautiful symmetry on the green and white foundation, garnishing the finished product with red cabbage, green onions, sesame seeds, parsley, sprouts, radishes. She tops it off with sweet miso-based dressing and a flower. Flowers go on every dish served here. “Makeda believes you eat with your eyes first,” Morris explains. “If something is presented to you really nicely, you want to eat it.” Morris looks at the food in front of her and sighs. “To work with these gorgeous fruits, with these wonderful fresh foods, is like a work yoga. It's like a karma meditation,” she says happily.
Indeed, Cheatom marshals supplies for the restaurant as carefully as one would for a holy feast. “I try to deal with people who are in alternative businesses,” she says. Much of the produce comes from Sunburst Farms, an organic Santa Barbara operation, and she also buys some fruit and vegetables locally: lettuce and artichokes from one La Mesa gardener; papayas, jicamas, bananas, coconuts, and pineapples from another man who buys them in the Tijuana markets. Cheatom uses no sugar in her cooking; instead she acquires some honey from her own hives and some from other local beekeepers. The Prophet uses eggs only for souffles (“I haven't gotten together how to do a souffle without 'em yet,” Cheatom says ruefully), but those eggs come only “from local ground-scratching chickens.” Goat and soy milk, and rennetless cheese come from the Altadena Dairy. Prophet workers bake the restaurant's distinctive beet-herb bread from flaxseed, beets, and whole wheat stone-ground flour from the Deaf Smith mill in Texas. And those workers boast that the Prophet was the first vegetarian restaurant in town to serve pita bread; the staff talked the owner of the Middle Eastern Bakery into producing a whole-wheat version for the restaurant.
Sometimes after twelve, Cheatom finally bursts through the back door. She's just returned from her cabin retreat in the Cuyamaca Mountains and she's dressed casually, in khaki shorts, a camouflage-patterned T-shirt, and thongs. But true to form, she gives the simple garb a weird elegance by combining it with a bright red and yellow knitted cap, with necklaces and hair ornaments and bracelets and beads. “Hey, everybody! How's it going? God, the mountains were so beautiful. And the flowers were out. I meditated, then I jogged, then I meditated, and I be going along and catch these whiffs of the lilacs. And I saw this bi-i-i-i-g red-tailed hawk. It was eating some smaller animal. It was great!”
Someone presents her with a tall frosty glass filled with a thick, emerald-green smoothie made from spirulina plankton (rich in protein and vitamins). Two dewy, perfectly shaped mint leaves adorn the top of it. Then Cheatom leads me to one of the private dining cubicles where she plunks down on one of the floor cushions.
I ask about her nutritional philosophy. The Prophet's menu today runs the vegetarian gamut, featuring everything from a “Dr. Benesh Hygienic Combination Dinner” (featuring only food combinations approved by the San Marcos chiropractor and nutritionist) to a $5.95 “raw dinner” (freshly cut vegetables stuffed with such things as nut butter) to special drinks like the Wheatgrass Hopper (“a celestial way to drink wheatgrass”) to more standard meatless cookery. She answers that she thinks it's difficult to prescribe one path for everyone. Some bodies can take more abuse than others. Even meat-eating (by other people) she seems to regard tolerantly, “although it's always seemed to me that anyone with any intelligence would know that if you cut a potato in half you get another potato. But if you cut a goat in half you don't get another goat. It's dead.” Her only absolute, the bottom line, is “real basic,” she asserts. “People should know you should eat a natural diet – one that's not processed, devitalized, stripped, canned, demineralized.”
“I love my employees, and they love me in return... sometimes I take them out jogging with me after work.”
If she hasn't found the one true food over the years, she sounds like she's learned some crucial lessons about management. “When I first got into business, I had a really bad attitude,” she says. “I thought money was the root of all corruption. Then one day I was with this hip person who was really against money. And he lost his toothbrush and he almost went off.” It made her rethink her premises and she says she concluded, “When you start thinking universal, you realize that money is just energy. . . . So I decided I'd channel making money in a New Age way. 'Cause you're taking care of your family. You're creating employment at a time when jobs are really tight.”
Working out pay schedules for the young people who started off as volunteers apparently required careful thought. Now Cheatom says Prophet employees who live with their parents earn the minimum wage, while those on their own need more, and get it. She indicates that more important than the monetary compensation is her attitude toward those employees. “There's no hierarchy. There's no division,” she insists. “I love any employees, and they love me in return.” She says that's why she provides a small gym in back of the restaurant. “Sometimes I take them out jogging with me after work.” That's why she insist on closing the doors between lunch and dinner to allow for prayer, meditation, recharging. “They don't know the difference if I'm the boss or not. If they do something wrong, and I glance as it or taste, I'll correct it. But I don't put that fear in 'em.”
Indeed, when she breezes into the kitchen that evening at dinnertime, the workers do seem happy to see her, though to me it looks as though they don't exactly treat her like any old workmate. When she asks for something – an ingredient, a spatula – two or three people eagerly hasten to search for it. At the moment, she tastes the rich vegetarian stroganoff cooking in one of the two huge woks. The kitchen has run out of sherry, and the missing element plainly annoys her. She tries to compensate by tossing pinches of several powdery spices into the caramel-colored sauce, but she grumbles that there's no real substitute for sherry.
“How about Chianti?” her fellow cook offers.
“No, never use red wine in the place of white wine. They taste really different,” she instructs.
Finally Morris offers to drop everything and go out and buy the sherry, to which Cheatom happily assents. She has changed now, into white slacks, a fiery cloth blouse, and a bright orange bandanna. Characteristically, she hunches forward slightly, her weight on the balls of her bare black feet, like a runner ready to burst forth from the starting line.
Adesina Ogunelese transfers the finished stroganoff to other containers, and Cheatom prepares to cook the African ground nut soup, so popular with Prophet regulars that the staff hasn't been able to rotate it off the menu in a year. “Bon Appetit has begged us to give them the recipe. Do you know you're the first person outside the staff that I've shown this to? God, you're really special,” she tells me with that blazing, direct charm, and meekly, I agree not to reveal the exact ingredients to anyone.
So I won't, but I couldn't describe how to make it even if I listed the component foods, not give the way Cheatom works. She cooks like an artist splashing colors on a palette, not like some plodder painting by number. She never measures out ingredients. She stirs, and she adds things, and she simmers them, and she tastes. She says it takes her years to teach an apprentice this process which she calls “physic cookery.”
“It's a heavy process,” Ogunelese concurs. “Because it's by feel, by taste. It's internal cooking.”
Cheatom continues, “Cooking is the highest art, and if you cook with spirit, you're cooking for the soul of that person. 'Cause you have to be a conscious cook. That's what I want, conscious cookery. You can kill people with the way you cook, or you can change their consciousness. It's soul-to-soul. The vibrations are heavy.”
Reggae music fills the bright busy room. The smells from the steaming entrees and potatoes and vegetables commingle and waft around the kitchen and scent the various members of the Prophet family. The rich, heavy mixture of peanuts and liquids and spice in Cheatom's wok is ready. In a few minutes, Cheatom will rush out the door, off to tend to another project. But first she offers me a bowl of the soup. And to me it tastes like she has created something quite extraordinary.