Before living in Barcelona, Madagascar or Alaska, writer Jeff Koehler called DeSmet home.
Tuesday night in Cataldo, the class of 1991 graduate returned to his alma mater as a guest speaker for the Visiting Writers Series.
Koehler is an award-winning food and travel writer. He’s published four cookbooks about rice and the food of Spain and Morocco.
His most recent book, “Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea,” has already received critical acclaim, including the International Association of Culinary Professionals award for Literary Foodwriting. The book is a microhistory that examines the culture, context and character of one of India’s most distinctive products.
As a guest speaker, Koehler read from his book about Darjeeling’s origins and addressed his own origins as a Zag.
Looking back, the last thing Koehler expected himself to become was a writer.
“I was never a natural writer,” Koehler said.
After graduating from GU in 1991, Koehler spent four months as a tour bus driver in Alaska. He credits this experience as his crash course in storytelling.
Koehler drove 80 hours a week and had to fill each hour with entertainment for the tourists. With the money he made, Koehler bought a one-way ticket to London with the intention of spending one year traveling from London to Cape Town.
That one year transformed into four as Koehler then attended graduate school, studying drama at King’s College in London where he focused on playwriting.
During his time at King’s College, Koehler met the woman who would become his wife of 19 years. At the end of their studies, the two returned to Koehler’s eventual wife’s home in Barcelona. To avoid immigration violations, the two married in 1996 and Koehler became a legal resident of Spain.
Koehler found his purpose through experience rather than intentional searching. After years of trying his hand at playwriting, Koehler decided he needed to change his content and medium. So he started freelancing in 1999.
Koehler discovered that food inspired his creativity and he became a food and travel writer.
“Food is the lens of looking at anything,” Koehler said, “because it allows everyone to have an equally valid impact on your work.”
Koehler wrote articles for magazines and eventually his own cookbooks. After writing four cookbooks in seven years, Koehler set out on a radically different project in 2013. That project would eventually become “Darjeeling.”
At the reading, Koehler read three passages from Darjeeling: one that describes the taste and texture of the last tea harvested in the year (Darjeeling harvests are known as “flushes”), one that chronicles the importance of gin in the British imperialist culture that is intertwined with the history of Darjeeling, and one that stresses Darjeeling’s continued importance in India.
The lecture concluded with Koehler emphasizing how you never know where life will take you.
“I never set out to write about tea or any of those things as I left from Gonzaga,” Koehler said.
Koehler’s talk wasn’t just about writing or books or the creative process. It was about using the world to learn about others and yourself.
“I liked seeing how GU alumni are able to travel the world and immerse themselves in culture and foreign countries,” freshman Jack Van Tuyle said.
Koehler’s next book, about coffee, is expected to be released next year.