Vegetable mavens: Clockwise from lower left: Annie Somerville,
Deborah Madison and Dale Kent.
The influential kitchen at the heart
of the Ventana Wilderness
BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
Hidden away in our own Monterey Bay area is a place that has had tremendous influence on the way America cooks and eats today. The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the heart of the rugged Ventana Wilderness is not a cooking school, but the cooks who have worked in the Tassajara kitchen over the past 45 years have helped spark our current love affair with fresh, healthful and locally grown vegetables. And through their many cookbooks, people like Edward Espe Brown, Deborah Madison and Annie Somerville have taught us that vegetarian cuisine is not only healthy; it can also be complex, beautiful and delicious.
Like so many students before him, Dale Kent arrived at Tassajara attracted by Brown’s iconic Tassajara Bread Book, which was first published in 1970. Equipped only with a degree in philosophy and some work experience baking cookies, Kent was assigned to clean rooms for his first summer but eventually found his way into the legendary kitchen that he had read about in the bread book. There, he began learning how to work magic with vegetables.
For two seasons, from 2002 to 2004, Kent served as head cook, or Tenzo, which is an important post at the Zen Buddhist center because along with preparing three meals a day for up to 80 guests and 70 students, the Tenzo is also a teacher who guides the spiritual growth of some 20 kitchen staff.
“We have a little service every morning, offering incense and chants to remind ourselves that this is a much bigger process than just filling empty stomachs,” he says. “It is actually offering energy for the flourishing of people.”
At Tassajara, which is part of the San Francisco Zen Center, cooking is not just working on food but also working on yourself. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to attend Dale’s summer workshop called “Finding Yourself in the Tassajara Kitchen.” Getting there was hard enough. Driving that last 12 miles down a rutted, winding, dirt road at the end of Carmel Valley and into the Los Padres National Forest took more than an hour. Since I’m more of a gardener than a meditator, I was nervous about what was in store for me at the Japanese-style Zen center and hot springs at the end of the road.
IN THE KITCHEN
Anyone who was around in the 1970s probably remembers when The Tassajara Bread Book first came out. In my little kitchen up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I stood at a flour-drenched wooden table and kneaded loaf after loaf. It was fun. My friends appreciated hot bread from the oven, and it was liberating for me to discover I could make something so basic as bread, and not feel dependent on Staff of Life bakery or the supermarket.
Dale’s workshop was just as fun and empowering. Along with Tassajara’s current head cook, Graham Ross, we sat calmly in the meditation hall in the morning, discussing the experience of cooking and the Zen manuscript Instructions for the Cook, written by Eihei Dogen back in the 13th century but still oddly relevant today. Then in the afternoon, we prepared food for the staff and other guests staying at the center.
If you do not pay attention in the kitchen and “cook with mindfulness,” then the results will be meaningless, we were told—meaningless to the soup of your own soul and damaging to the community you are feeding. So trying to be mindful, we entered the fabled kitchen and began chopping carrots and slicing cucumbers under its rough-hewn beams. Graham showed us how to sharpen knives and chop properly. Dale taught the class how to make delicious vegetable sushi filled with carrots, scallions and avocado.
Talking is normally prohibited in the Tassajara kitchen—to help with the mindfulness—but the rules were bent for us novices. Even so, we tried to stay as quiet as possible and just focus on our work. Surprising thoughts bubbled up in my mind. How did my sushi rolls look compared to those made by others in the class? How could they be satisfied with their less-than-perfect products? What’s the point of making mine look good if they are going on the same plate with others that are falling apart? Hmmm…am I a competitive perfectionist? Maybe that’s what they meant by finding yourself in the Tassajara kitchen. The food at Tassajara is traditionally vegetarian because Tassajara is a monastery, but vegetarianism is not a requirement of Buddhism and there is nothing Spartan about the cuisine.
It is about 80% organic, with most of the produce grown at James Creek Farm in the Cachagua Hills, so the ingredients are top notch. The food at every meal was delicious. One morning we had Whole Wheat Ginger Bread with Orange Syrup. For lunch we slurped Broccoli Soup with Mint Crème Fraiche and the famous homemade Tassajara breads. The dinner we prepared included Sushi, Sweet Ginger Tofu, Cucumber Salad, Sautéed Daikon and Chocolate- Dipped Strawberries.
“It’s tricky to get meat eaters to feel satisfied at the end of a vegetarian meal, and I think we do a really good job of that,” Kent says. “We walk a fine line between preparing kind of fancy food, nicely presented, and offering rustic, home-style cooking.”
Vegetarian food isn’t always easy to make pretty, so garnishes are especially important at Tassajara. There’s a flower garden that supplies nasturtiums, lavender, calendula, bachelor buttons, grape leaves and roses. “Lots of our food is brown, but put a few flowers on it and it sparkles and people are excited to eat it,” he says. “Just putting one rose petal on a bowl of yogurt, for example, is a nice touch and makes that yogurt seem even more special.”
Kent’s own Tassajara Dinners and Desserts, lusciously photographed by Patrick Tregenza, is the latest in the series of influential cookbooks to come out of Tassajara. It reflects his love of Asian flavors and current tastes for lighter vegetarian meals. The book includes lots of amusing parables from the kitchen and makes Kent the latest in a long lineage of cooks who’ve contributed to the Tassajara mystique.
Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara’s first head cook.
Photo by Deborah Luhrman.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Edward Espe Brown, Tassajara’s first head cook and author of the bread book as well as The Complete Tassajara Cookbook and many other volumes, is now 66. As an ordained Zen priest, he still lectures and leads meditations in Marin County. I tracked him down one sunny morning in his writing studio at the back of a weathered wood house on Tomales Bay. As seagulls squawked overhead and ducks paddled by, we talked about his early days at the center and some of his cooking secrets.
“Some things end up speaking to you, and bread certainly spoke to me,” he says. “Wheat is earthy, it’s sweet, it’s hearty and substantial, but on the other hand you can do things with it that are fairly delicate and light.” He attributes the tremendous success of The Tassajara Bread Book to drawings that actually demonstrated, for the first time in print, how to knead dough. He also credits the book’s attraction to a primal need people have to do something “real.”
“There’s a deep longing to produce something with your hands, so you have something to show for it and share with other people. It makes you feel you have some way of taking care of your own life,” he says. Tassajara’s Japanese founder, Suzuki Roshi, once told Brown and other students, “I don’t understand you Americans. When you put so much milk and sugar on your cereal, how can you taste the true spirit of the grain?” It was a turning point in Brown’s cooking style. Instead of making things according to recipes or the way the dishes were supposed to taste, he started experimenting with ways to bring out the best in each ingredient.
In Zen, this is a life lesson as well: “Why don’t you taste the true spirit of yourself?” Brown explains. “Why don’t you know yourself instead of trying to make yourself over the way you’re supposed to be?
By carefully tasting each ingredient, Brown started to develop the Tassajara style of cooking. “It turned out I liked a sharp knife,” he says. “I liked cutting up the ingredients, and I found out over the years that small pieces work best. Cut surfaces release more immediate flavor and it is especially true with vegetables.”
Brown also likes to use fresh herbs, peppers and lots of lemon. “At one point I put lemon in every dish,” he says with a laugh. “Lemon gives a floral, fresh, tart flavor and that tartness is important to me in cuisine; it’s so good.” Peppers warm the palate. “The food seems to fill up the mouth more,” he says.
Brown, who was the subject of the award-winning 2007 documentary How to Cook Your Life, says one of the key lessons he learned as a cook at Tassajara was that “you are only as good as your last meal,” so cooks should just put their hearts into their work and try to ignore complaints.
“Certainly if you are cooking for a group of people, somebody will not like it. So if your self-esteem is based on your performance, your self-esteem is always going to be shaky,” he says. “But if you know that you’ve put a wholehearted, sincere effort into something, then you can let go of the other part.”
A wholehearted connection with the true spirit of ingredients is easier nowadays, he believes, because of farmers’ markets and the farm-to-table movement. “If food is local, it’s more likely that you may know the producers, you may have visited the farm and it’s more likely that it speaks to you. Then you have much more connection with the food, the people and the earth.”
“I’m more interested in what speaks to your heart, rather than if it’s local or it’s organic…but what’s local and organic tends to speak to me more,” he says as we munched on a tasty apple from the tree in his front yard, cut into very thin slices.
FROM SIMPLE TO SUPERB
Brown and Deborah Madison, who followed him as head cook at Tassajara in the 1970s, took vegetarian cuisine another giant leap forward with the opening of Greens restaurant in San Francisco. A graduate of UC Santa Cruz, Madison spent a year working at Chez Panisse in Berkeley—a noisy kitchen where the radio was always turned up loud—before opening Greens as part of the San Francisco Zen Center. At Chez Panisse she was exposed to the cooking style of Alice Waters, and the cuisine at Greens reflected that influence. “When Greens started, the food was pretty sophisticated,” Madison recalls. “It didn’t have meat but it had enough complexity that people didn’t miss it.”
“Lots of our customers were not vegetarians. They were food people coming to a beautiful restaurant with a beautiful view. The food happened to be vegetarian, but it wasn’t the drab, heavy food of the ’60s. It was light and bright and attractive and delicious,” she says.
Madison and Brown collaborated on The Greens Cookbook and since then, she has gone on to author 10 more books about food, including the celebrated Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone—which she envisioned as a kind of vegetarian Joy of Cooking. Because of that book and her role as founding chef at Greens, Madison is sometimes considered the goddess of vegetarians, a role she bristles at. “You know what, I really don’t care about vegetarianism, and it’s not my purpose to advance it,” she said in a recent telephone interview from her home in New Mexico. “When I wrote the book, I had other more important concerns, like what do we do about organics? What do we do about how meat is raised? Eating local food and seasonal food and looking at heirloom vegetables, things that people weren’t talking about so much back then.”
Madison thinks eating meat is fine as long as people do it in the best possible way—for their own health, for the environment and for the welfare of the animals. She sums up her beliefs like a Zen master at Tassajara: “My philosophy is to be aware and know the consequences of the choices we make, paying attention to what you are eating, to how much, to where the food comes from and how it connects to the rest of your life.”
“If you are eating food that is harmful to other people to produce, grown with a lot of pesticides that poison rivers and groundwater, and is therefore hard on wildlife…well, then you need to know that,” she adds.
Ever the teacher, Madison is hard at work on a 12th book called Vegetable Literacy, due out in 2013. The book will profile individual vegetables and plant families and should help cooks improvise and create new dishes. Judging by excerpts from the book that appeared in many Edible Communities magazines around the U.S. last year, it will also make fascinating reading.
GREEN-ING OUR TASTES
Annie Somerville served in Tassajara’s kitchen in the late 1970s, and like Kent, Brown and Madison, became head cook during her time there. Later, she worked with Madison at Greens, and since taking over as Green’s executive chef nearly 30 years ago, Somerville has gained a national reputation for her imaginative approach to vegetarian cooking.
A sparkly woman with a pixie haircut, Somerville loves to see how excited chefs and home cooks are about using vegetables nowadays. “Tassajara has really influenced the way people cook, and I think we’ve had a sizeable influence, too. Particularly in the early days, what we were doing was so unusual because it was hard to find a restaurant that prepared really delicious vegetarian food,” she says. “Now almost all restaurants have good vegetarian dishes.”
Over the years, Somerville has adapted the menu to suit evolving tastes and to take advantage of the increasing variety of fresh ingredients available to chefs.
“Early on we used dairy products more heavily than we do now, lots of cream, and we sautéed with butter and used a heavier hand with cheese,” she recalls. “Then we went through a low-fat period, but now we’ve reached a happy medium. We find the right places to use really good cheeses, a touch of cream here or there, a nice butter sauce—a brown butter pasta or Meyer lemon cream, that sort of thing.” Somerville thinks it’s important that a vegetarian meal feature distinct and diverse dishes, including vegetable appetizers and both standout entrees and side dishes. Otherwise, the items on a vegetarian menu can all sound the same.
The goal is “really nice dishes that stand on their own but just happen to be made with all vegetables,” she explains. “People come to Greens and have a great salad or a great vegetable ragout, a tagine or a delicious pizza or pasta. All of these things can be made with vegetable ingredients, and they are delicious.”
She delights in going to the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market twice a week and watching the seasons change through the produce that’s available. “It’s probably the main thing that keeps me engaged and excited about food,” she says. “Some people might really get tired of this after 30 years, but I love those direct connections with farmers and experiencing first-hand the moments of the seasons.”
Somerville, along with gardener Wendy Johnson, will return to Tassajara in June to teach a workshop on vegetarian cooking from harvest to plate called “Dragon Greens: A Cooking and Gardening Summer Solstice Celebration.”
Since the San Francisco Zen Center still owns Greens, it will probably always remain a vegetarian restaurant. Along with the former cooks of Tassajara and cooks to come, it will continue to set the pace for American vegetarian cuisine and shape our continuing passion for vegetables.
Deborah Luhrman was once the Santa Cruz County bureau chief for Channel 46 news. She has been traveling the world and spending too much time on airplanes for the past 25 years. So she returned to Santa Cruz to grow a garden and write about local issues.
Grahm Ross, Tassajara’s current head cook, at work in the fabled kitchen. Photo by Kodiak Greenwood.