An Original: Mary Kay Smith and The Winds Cafe
My youngest son earned a place in family lore when he noted as a 5-year-old that my parents’ golden anniversary represented a “long, serious time.” That phrase comes to mind when considering the 40-year anniversary of chef and owner Mary Kay Smith and her Winds Café in Yellow Springs, Ohio—40 years is a long time, and like any restaurant, demands a serious amount of hard work.
As serious as Mary Kay is about her life’s work, the flip side of serious is the deep joy and fulfillment she finds in cooking and serving delicious food to both the neighbors in her community and the many tourists who pass through (and often return to) Yellow Springs each year.
“I’ve been coming here since 1982,” says customer Patty Hicks of Columbus at a recent lunch at The Winds. “It’s where I learned about fine dining—about how important fresh food was, and the use of spices and herbs.”
From quirky beginnings . . .
The original Four Winds Café, an experiment in fresh food (think homemade yogurt and sprouts) and cooperative ownership, began in February 1977, the same year that 20-year-old Mary Kay moved to Yellow Springs from Beavercreek. Her partner, Kim Korkan, worked at the restaurant, and that December Mary Kay came on board as a dishwasher.
“I already loved to cook and eat, and then when I worked there I got the bug,” she says. The café’s Japanese cook, Iko Wright, “had lived and cooked all over the world. She started teaching us everything she knew.”
Mary Kay found that the life suited her. “I’m not an office person. Restaurant work is for adrenaline junkies, which is me. I love the hurry-up panic of the kitchen, the don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen rush.”
As the appeal of restaurant life faded for others in the co-op, Mary Kay and Kim bought up their shares. Iko departed after four years, and eventually the restaurant belonged solely to Mary Kay and Kim, and finally to Mary Kay alone, its name officially shortened by then to The Winds Café, because “everyone always shortened it” anyway
“People today don’t realize in the late 70s and early 80s there was no food culture,” she says. “There were no fresh herbs unless you grew them.”
For several years the restaurant did grow vegetables, “but that was so much work. It was easier to network to buy local food.” Now the restaurant deals with about 10 local farmers. “Like Doug Seibert at Peach Mountain, and we have Orion Organic Beef in town.” A luxury, considering that back in the day, “we had to drive to Cincy and go to a huge Italian store” just to purchase olive oil and San Marzano tomatoes.
. . . to fine cuisine
In addition to food that comes from producers who are, according to The Winds website, “humane, ethical and environmentally friendly,” Mary Kay keeps the menu seasonal, and as local as she can. “No tomatoes in winter.” might serve as the kitchen’s motto.
Dining in a restaurant used to be a more leisurely experience that included check-writing, adding the bill by hand and looking at a sales tax chart.
“The speed of life now speeds up people’s perceptions. But,” Mary Kay says drily, “you can’t speed up food. It still takes a certain amount of time to roast a chicken.”
She notes that today’s dining trends toward small plates, more of a “sharing community” approach. “And protein is not so much at the center of the plate, although we still sell our pork chop like crazy.”
Mary Kay employs 32 and is now older than nearly all her employees. “I don’t buy into the idea that when we were young, blah, blah, blah, everything was better. I think millennials are awesome.” She praises her kitchen staff, saying that they still show her new things in the kitchen.
The Venn diagram of Yellow Springs: food, art, community
You may remember Venn diagrams from a long-ago math class: circles that overlap to illustrate relationships. In the case of The Winds Café, the three overlapping circles are art, food and community, and their intersection is the restaurant.
“My original fantasy was to be an artist,” Mary Kay says. “Now I have a different kind of artistry where I create dishes, not paintings. The restaurant is the closest I get—I can hang out with artists and choose art for the restaurant.”
The iconic salt shakers that grace each table come from the hand of Naysan McIlhargey of Miami Valley Pottery. (See sidebar about Naysan’s upcoming exhibit at the restaurant.) “Naysan is one of my favorite artists,” Mary Kay says. “He was one of my bussers when he was in high school.”
And Mary Kay does pursue one other creative art: writing the menu descriptions. For example, a dish of beans called “Field of Sunflowers:”
Don’t you love the field of sunflowers on 68 just north of town? Driving by always makes me think of Van Gogh, which led me to try these creamy, lavender-colored beans from heirloom bean and legume producer, Zursun. Stewed slowly with white wine, garlic, dark leafy cooking greens and the famous French herb mixture known as herbes de Provence, the rustic beans are served with hot rice, a dollop of whipped goat cheese and a spoonful of our house-made tapenade.
Who could resist? The field of sunflowers she references is planted on the Tecumseh Land Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization founded in 1990 by citizens of Yellow Springs. To circle back to the Venn diagram metaphor, The Winds Café is a supporter of that local nonprofit, a conscious decision on Mary Kay’s part to support charities “that affect Yellow Springs and that I really believe in.”
A long, serious time
The Winds Café’s 40 years may be a “long, serious time,” but Mary Kay is surprised at the idea that 40 years of the same basic job (which, for a restaurant owner, includes tasks as diverse as cooking, bussing, serving, hosting and unclogging toilets) could be boring.
“We change the menu all the time, and there are always new customers and new vendors,” she says. “And new projects.” Like moving the restaurant to a building across the street in 1990, constructing a pleasant, shaded patio and establishing a wine store next door. (See sidebar: The Wine Cellar.) “And we have wine tastings and dinner—those are nice, because you can do a small-scale set menu.”
She finds real satisfaction in her work. “I’d have a hard time working for anyone else and I know that. I like calling the shots. I like making really good food that people love. I like working with my hands, and I like welcoming everybody to the restaurant.”
Mary Kay isn’t yet considering retirement—“I would have to figure out what to do”—but she does think about writing a couple of cookbooks. One of them would talk about life in a restaurant in a small town.
“We couldn’t survive in a town of fewer than 4,000 unless it was also a tourist town,” she says. But a small town offers “an allegiance to people.” When bad weather strikes, “people in Columbus and Dayton stay home. That’s when locals come out to every single business to support us. That’s why I love it so much. It’s a quirky town, but we put up with each other’s quirkiness.”
The Winds Café, 215 Xenia Ave., Yellow Springs, Ohio (937-767-1144). Reservations recommended.
A Persian Delicacy
The Winds Café hosts new art shows every two months within the café. Starting in November and running until January 1, local potter Naysan McIlhargey of Miami Valley Pottery will share his newest body of work in a show titled “Persia.” Inspired by traditional ceramic art from Iran, Iraq, the Persian Empire and Syria, the show features hand-painted pots by Naysan inspired by the ancient drawings and patterns of Persia, dating from 900 A.D. to the 14th century. The Winds Café will also feature a special Persian dish on the menu, to be served in Persian dishware created by Naysan. A must-see event and a must-taste experience.
- Colleen Leonardi