Heroes of Marin 2016: Community Spirit

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Heidi Krahling, owner of both Insalata’s and Marinitas, says, “Community is our stage—it is what is important and what feeds us.” Photo courtesy of Heidi Krahling.

Heroes of Marin

Community Spirit: Heidi Krahling

By Tanya Henry

With the seemingly unstoppable popularity of cooking shows like those featured on the Food Network and Bravo’s Top Chef that hungrily seek out their next celebrity chef, it might be surprising to learn that some chefs shun the spotlight and big stage in favor of something they feel is more sustaining and meaningful.

Heidi Krahling is one of those chefs. The San Anselmo-based restaurateur and owner of both Insalata’s and Marinitas is the recipient of this year’s Heroes of Marin Community Spirit award.

“Community is our stage—it is what is important and what feeds us,” explains Krahling who, along with her husband of 34 years, Mark, takes a moment to come out of the kitchen, sit down and talk with me about her work, and what it has meant for her and her family to be part of the Ross Valley community for the last 20 years.

“What do you mean you aren’t hungry? It’s 1pm—it’s lunchtime—of course you’re eating,” insists the ever-gracious chef, as I retrieve my notebook. It doesn’t take much convincing for me to give in to her pleas, especially since she plans to join me—which for the record, is the first time that I have ever seen the always-on-the-move chef sit down in her restaurant.

In between bites of Insalata’s beloved signature fattoush salad—a sumptuous medley of romaine lettuce, sheep’s milk feta cheese, olives and tasty bits of toasted pita bread, I learn that Krahling’s generosity starts close to home with her staff, all of whom she considers part of her own extended family.

“We try to do the right thing, of course we are going to help the people who have been loyal to us for all of these years,” explains Krahling, who takes some prodding when asked about specific acts of charity. Mark, however, is more forthcoming in singing his wife’s praises, and recounts the time that Krahling brought a pitcher of Manhattans over to the merchants on San Anselmo Avenue when their storefronts were flooded in 2005. The following day she showed up with hot mugs of soup for the entire block.

Perhaps one of Krahling’s biggest fans is Marv Zauderer, founder of ExtraFood, an organization that collects excess food from businesses throughout the county, delivers it to those in need and serves 40,000 people. Krahling not only donates the excess from her restaurants to the organization, but she goes above and beyond with her “planned giving” meals that reach Marin’s most vulnerable population who suffer from food insecurity. Hunger is an issue that Krahling has cared about long before she became a chef.

Growing up in Ventura in Southern California, Krahling recalls her family “cooking for everyone.” They had a large orchard and she says that they were always giving fruit away. Her parents cooked for school functions, Knights of Columbus and St. Vincent de Paul. The notions of community and charity were instilled in Krahling at a young age. Today, her sister runs Table to Table, a community-based food rescue program that delivers food to those most in need in New Jersey.

When Krahling was enrolled in Tante Marie’s Cooking School, founded by Mary Risley, she got involved with Food Runners—a hunger relief organization founded by Risley in 1987. It’s safe to say that she has quietly been feeding and nourishing her community for 20 years.

As a business owner, Krahling is frequently asked for donations, and while she accommodates as best she can, her husband points out that there is a rhyme and reason to their giving. “The cause needs to be local (within the community), food-related and will ultimately help people who are helping themselves.”

As anyone who has been in the restaurant business knows, it’s a highly risky enterprise. Krahling expresses gratitude to her loyal customers who have stuck with her and supported her through multiple economic downturns. Insalata’s will turn 20 this year, and she opened Marinitas in 2009, right when the recession was hitting hard. Today, both establishments are thriving, and the longevity and success of her restaurants (especially in a town of revolving dining options) is clearly a testament to her getting it right.

Fittingly, Krahling will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of Insalata’s in April by hosting a dinner to thank her many loyal customers. Cookbook giveaways and plenty of activities—including the introduction of 20 special wines to commemorate the milestone—are planned for the entire month.

Clearly, Krahling enjoys feeding people—and it doesn’t seem likely that that will change anytime soon. With two cookbooks under her belt—Insalata’s Mediterranean Table (2009), and Insalata’s & Marinitas: The Story of Two Restaurants (2014), a nomination for a lifetime of culinary excellence award from the Women Chefs & Restaurateurs professional organization and a work schedule that still exceeds 10-hour days, she doesn’t appear to be slowing down a bit.

When asked what’s next, Krahling, replies, “I’d like to make soup with the excess from my restaurants and feed everyone in my community who is hungry.”

Yep, Krahling is a hero alright.

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