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People: Anthony Peterson

Anthony Peterson at work in the Linear Café. (Photo by Lauren Schenkman.)

At 20 years old, Linear Café cook Anthony Peterson might be the youngest person at SLAC, but he has the kind of deep appreciation for life's variety that you'd expect from someone much older. And, in a way, it's thanks to former President George W. Bush.

"When it looked like Bush was going to be re-elected, my parents decided to leave the country," Peterson says. His parents, both teachers, dropped their résumés into an online recruitment database for international schools. Soon the Petersons were packing up their Trout Lake, Washington, home and flying to the first country that had responded—Mongolia.

"I get there, and it's 90 degrees, dry, windy, arid," Peterson recalls. At 15, he had never previously left the United States. He found himself in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar, a city of 1 million inhabitants ringed by an extraordinary suburbia. Instead of wide, tree-lined streets and elementary schools, Ulaanbaatar is surrounded by yurts, the traditional wood-frame, felt-covered circular tents used by nomads on the steppes of central Asia.

"It was a huge culture shock," Peterson says. "There were no packaged goods. The guy at the grocery store slices meat off a giant block and puts it in a plastic bag for you." Then school started, and he realized how well he fit into his new hometown.

"I have a very social personality, but I had trouble being a conventional American 15-year-old boy," Peterson says. He found many friends among his new Mongolian, Japanese, Russian, Australian and Korean classmates, and became captain of the school soccer team, which traveled to Guam and India. Although they played internationally, the team practiced on a trash-littered dirt soccer pitch. "There was even a manhole in it," Peterson recalls affectionately.

Peterson with classmates in front of the International School of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. (Photo courtesy of Anthony Peterson.)

For Peterson, the simplicity of Mongolian life is emblemized by the blank concrete walls of Soviet block housing. "It's hard to hang something up on concrete," he points out. The cement structures are heated entirely by old-fashioned steam radiators, despite the fact that Ulaanbaatar has the lowest average temperature of any capital in the world. On a February day, -30 °F is typical. In such a cold climate, life shrinks down to the basics. "It was just food, heat, water, family," Peterson says. "I appreciate the primitive life. Not only is it easier to fulfill, it's just better to focus on that. All other items create anxiety."

Despite his original reaction to Mongolian groceries, Peterson became a big fan of buuz, a traditional pot-sticker filled with lamb or other meat. "It became a comfort food for me," he says. "You could go anywhere, to any shop at any time, and ask for it." Instead of going to the movies or the mall, on weekends Peterson and his friends would head out to the open steppe, staying in yurt camps and riding horses. "They appreciated the simplicity of nature," Peterson says of his Mongolian friends. "They didn't talk about their cars or what they wanted to do to their truck. They just wanted to ride. That was very Mongolian."

After graduating from International School of Ulaanbaatar, Peterson returned to the US. He moved to Lake Powell, Arizona, where he had vacationed while growing up. For a year he worked by day as a chef and spent his afternoons wake-boarding on the lake's turquoise water, in sight of the shore's wind-carved crimson rock. Then in August 2008, a change in the wind took him to the Bay Area, where he began working as a lead cook in the Linear Café. Peterson says the job has come with a few pleasant surprises, mostly from his out-of-the-ordinary customers.

"I like talking to the people who work here," he says. "They have a different appreciation for things. Even their answers to everyday questions are different."

While keeping the Linear Café stocked with fresh brownies and dreaming of rolling grasslands, Peterson studies at De Anza College for his next career step. Right now he wants to be a physical therapist or a doctor practicing sports medicine. But, as Peterson puts it, "the wind blows many ways."

—Lauren Schenkman
SLAC Today, February 18, 2009