06/15/2012 05:11 pm ET Updated Aug 15, 2012

Bay Area Food Guru Cooks Up a Benefit for City Arts & Lectures

Farro, chicken, kale and sheep's milk cheese. These are the foodstuffs (one item from each food group) that Michael Pollan would take to a desert island to eat in perpetuity, were he to find himself regrettably, but unavoidably, marooned.  It goes without saying that the chicken would be pasture-raised and the cheese from sheep nurtured on a sustainable farm, because Pollan has made his name by selling people on one seemingly straightforward concept: eat thoughtfully. In acclaimed books like The Omnivore's Dilemma and Food Rules, he makes clear that his idea of thoughtful eating isn't neurotically counting calories or obsessing over antioxidants, as we Americans are wont to do. Rather, he means just plain old giving some thought to what goes into our bodies, and to the agricultural process that got it there.

On Monday, Pollan brought his seductively simple message to an audience of rapt foodies gathered in City Arts & Lecture's new home at the Nourse Auditorium. After decades at the Herbst Theatre, the beloved lecture series is moving just a few blocks from its former digs, prompted by the Herbst's extended closure for renovation. The new space, which is rather -- er -- raw at the moment, is in need of around $1 million worth of work before it will make a comfortable venue for the City Arts enterprise. So Executive Director Sydney Goldstein brought Pollan in for a one-night-only event to benefit the Nourse renovation. Pollan, a City Arts veteran, was delighted to oblige.

"I've been working with City Arts & Lectures almost as long as I've been publishing books," he said. "I think I've done six or seven events. They have been really supportive of my work, and in turn I'm happy to support them. I think it's an important cultural institution in this city."

Pollan would know from institutions, as he has become one himself. His massively influential books on food, health and the American food chain -- what Pollan dubbed the Nutritional Industrial Complex -- have prompted his fans to take a closer look not only at the food they eat, but at what constitutes "food" in the first place.

"The main thing is to eat whole food," he advises. "It just needs to be real, simple food that starts with a single ingredient or two, rather than something that's been cooked by a corporation. What we see so far is that corporations don't cook very well. They use way too much salt, fat and sugar. If you start by making a clear break between real food and what I call 'edible food-like substances,' you're already way ahead of the game."

In the echoing shell of the Nourse -- only recently emptied of boxes and mere days from having its floor torn out -- Pollan and host Patricia Unterman held forth on those suspicious food-like items, and what we should all be eating instead. In an enjoyable hour of free-range conversation, the pair touched on topics from genetically modified crops (Pollan says they're mostly hype) to where to get the world's greatest steak (Spain, apparently -- sorry, Argentina). And when the conversation ended, they and the audience adjourned to Unterman's restaurant, the Hayes Street Grill, for a meal of real food: sustainably produced, thoughtfully prepared and thoroughly enjoyed.

This post originally appeared on SFWIRE.