How many Buddhists does it take to open a restaurant? The Buddhists are the restaurant. And how many Buddhists does it take to transform vegetarian eating from brown and bland hippie chow into fresh, exciting, and nationally respected cuisine? Though she’s not going to take all the credit (unselfish sharing is a principle of her religion), Deborah Madison is largely responsible. With the founding of Greens restaurant in San Francisco in 1979, Deborah Madison gave high-quality, delicious meatless food a place at the table, and expanded consciousnesses around what it means to eat plants and eat seasonally.
“I was interested in food and cooking and in the restaurant scene. Even though I was a Buddhist and living in that community and even ordained, I was very interested in food and cooking.”
And though she’s no longer with Greens, Deborah is still in the food scene, albeit much more quietly (she hasn’t cooked for the Dalai Lama in a few years). Author of 11 cookbooks—most notably The Greens Cookbook and Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, which has become a bible not just for vegetarians but for anyone who loves vegetables—Deborah is also a local food advocate, working to educate kids in her Santa Fe, New Mexico, community about food and gardening, to preserve rare plant varieties, and to promote the production of grass-fed livestock.
Hungry Beast caught up with Deborah to talk about Buddhism, vegetarianism, and what she eats when she eats alone.
How did you come to found Greens?
I was part of a Buddhist community in San Francisco called the Zen Center. We had a monastery, which we ran as a resort in the summer near Big Sur. A lot of our guests were from San Francisco. They’d come down and they’d say “Oh, why don’t you open a restaurant in the city?” And an opportunity came up with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to have a restaurant. But it had to be run by a nonprofit—not a non-profitable restaurant, which they mostly are, but run by a nonprofit, which we were. So we had that opportunity and we took it.
What are the tenets of Buddhism that make their way into your philosophy of cooking?
Certainly [at the Zen Center] our decision as a community to be vegetarian and make Greens a vegetarian restaurant was very influenced by being Buddhist. And for me there’s definitely a sense in my cooking of using everything, of not being wasteful or frivolous with food.
When the restaurant was just staring out, there really was no upscale vegetarian cuisine recognized on a national scale. Before Greens became a destination, what was the reaction to a vegetarian restaurant?
I didn’t even know of vegetarian restaurants. The sense about vegetarian food was that it was heavy, it was brown, it was good for you; not a particularly culinary experience. It just wasn’t anything that you thought of as being exciting, contemporary, colorful, bright, delicious. None of those words would apply.
But Greens was well received.
Oh, Greens was instantly received well. We were given an amazing review within the first three weeks. It was wonderful, but it made it incredibly difficult to [run the restaurant] well, and we were really amateurs. My only restaurant experience was at Chez Panisse and those in the kitchen pretty much didn’t have any restaurant experience, so we were really figuring it out hour by hour.
You figured it out, though.
I was interested in food and cooking and in the restaurant scene. Even though I was a Buddhist and living in that community and even ordained, I was very interested in food and cooking. I was informing myself along other lines, perhaps, than one might have normally in the vegetarian world: working at Chez Panisse and seeing how food was put together and tasting amazing things. I traveled. I bought interesting seeds in France that I bought back to plant. I was interested in food. It was a very exciting time.
What food would we be surprised to find out that you eat?
Lamb shanks. Pork belly. I wouldn’t say I habitually eat these, but when offered, I’ve been known to indulge.
So you’re not a strict vegetarian.
No, I’m not. And I feel really strongly about clarifying myself on this. I think that for people who are vegetarian there’s no “I’m a vegetarian sometimes,” or “I’m a vegetarian, but I eat fish and chicken.” I think it's kind of all or nothing. And since I’m not in the “all” camp, I can’t call myself a vegetarian. I never wanted to be on the vegetarian soapbox particularly, because I found that when I first started really going out in the world with The Greens Cookbook I would always be asked questions like, “Do you get enough protein?” I still get those questions. And I just decided right from the start I don’t want to spend my life answering that question. I was so much more interested in things like varieties of plant foods: how they’re grown, where they’re grown, their origins. And also, from very early on I was concerned with how we raise and treat animals. So many vegetarians just say, “Well, I have nothing to do with that.” I really want to be able to take a position where it was possible to change things in the world.
Your most recent book is What We Eat When We Eat Alone. For you, how does eating alone change the experience of eating?
Actually, the book changed my experience of eating alone. This project started because my husband and I were traveling with this group called Oldways Preservation and Trust; it’s a food think tank. He’s not a food person; he’s a painter, an artist. He started asking people what they ate when they ate alone. It became a sort of icebreaker for him. Because the people on the trip were generally well-known, he knew who they were, and you couldn’t really ask them what they do because you already knew that. So it just became this little question he asked. And he found that people loved to answer it. And he kept notes. A few years after that, I found this notebook with these strange jottings. I said, “What is this?” And he told me and I said, “That would be such an interesting project to pursue, to ask lots of people [what they eat when they eat alone].” So we did.
What did you find? Were there trends?
One thing we found is just when you think there’s a pattern, it gets broken. A man who did all the cooking in his household said, “My wife’s been gone all week. And I cooked my usual food but instead of making enough potatoes for leftovers I made just three. And the house was quiet and I noticed the sound of the spoon on the pan.” For him, eating alone became this sort of revelation. And he said, as do a lot of people, “It’s for me alone. I didn’t have to compromise. I could do it how I wanted.” We found that people, especially women, would cook something that reminded them of somebody like their mother or their grandmother. When they were alone they might make the salmon cakes that their grandmother always served. Both men and women would often mention choosing something to eat that they enjoyed that their spouse didn’t, which was very considerate, I thought. For a lot of men it was blood sausage. But then one woman said, “Kidneys, I love kidneys!”
What do you eat when you’re alone?
I generally braise or sauté vegetables. Braising really pulls out flavors and mingles them. I love to make a big vegetable ragout. I toast a piece of bread, rub it with garlic—this is very simple stuff—maybe shave a nice piece of aged gouda over the warm toast and spoon vegetables over that and I love it. It’s a knife-and-fork food: You have to sit down to eat it. It’s different than having a sandwich over the sink. It’s a little bit civilized, but it’s also very easy to manage.
What are the five things you always have in your refrigerator/kitchen?
Avocados. Olive oils: all kinds, from everywhere. Great vinegars, also many kinds from different places. Broccoli rabe. Garlic.
What is your favorite comfort food?
Avocado on toast with crunchy sea salt, lemon juice, and a drizzle of olive oil. That’s also usually my breakfast and often my lunch.
What's one dish you think everyone should know how to make?
I’d have to choose three, actually: An omelet. A good, simple tomato sauce, and vinaigrette. There’s no excuse for bottled dressing when it’s so easy (and makes such a difference) to make a simple vinaigrette. An omelet is effortless, fast, and wholesome, and it can cover meals for all times of the day—add a salad and you have dinner. And a good tomato sauce is endlessly useful, but mostly it still makes a great plate of spaghetti.
What is your favorite dish—or meal—to cook for your family and friends?
Sunday supper. It’s not such a pull-out-the-stops event as a Saturday dinner. It feels more relaxed and that makes it more enjoyable. You sit at the kitchen table. You have a good bottle of wine. You pass food. You don’t worry that it’s simple, or experimental or one of your old standbys. The pressure is off. It’s all about having dinner with the neighbors. I love it. On the other hand, my other favorite meal would be a late Sunday lunch and that would be the opposite—a carefully orchestrated meal served in the living room, many courses brought to the table over as many hours, a tablecloth on the table. I might even polish the silver.
What do you serve at Sunday lunch?
You’re talking to a person who never does anything twice, so…I can see a Sunday lunch following an Italian theme of doing many courses, of having a risotto course or opening with pasta. And I might do a meat dish or I might not. But something that would unfold over a period of time. This Sunday, I made lunch for 30 people. I made little radish butter sandwiches, I sautéed shishito peppers, and I had these beautiful Misato Rose radishes, which I had sliced on a mandolin, put in ice water—they kind of curled—and I tossed them with quartered lemon cucumbers; it was beautiful. Then because it’s so hot out we had very cold extremely herby cucumber soup; I put some farro in it so there’d be a little texture. And then for the main dish I made a roulade with ricotta that I had flavored with saffron so it was a beautiful rich orange, and cooked chard. And we had an array of green beans and yellow beans and purple potatoes and tiny, different colored cherry tomatoes. It was a very pretty plate. And for dessert I did a meringue. I had picked a lot of pie cherries last month, which I had pitted and frozen. So I made a zabaglione and I folded the cherries into that.
What a lovely, seasonal meal.
Winter, of course, is totally different. I’d probably do a slow, long-cooked leg of lamb until it falls off the bone, like cooked 11 hours. Or a pot roast. Really hearty food is delicious. And people love that thing, like chicken and dumplings. I think its fun to do those kinds of dishes because it really strikes a note for people. It’s like part of who we are. On the other hand, it’s fun to say “I’ve never had this before, how interesting.”
What’s the best thing you’ve ever made?
After a lifetime of cooking? There are many dishes I’ve loved, though—big, gorgeous platter salads, a simple dish of lemon cucumbers and watermelon radishes from the garden, a memorable celery-root gratin with black truffles.
What person—living or not—would you most like to cook for in the world?
I actually did get to cook for one of the people I most revere, the Dalai Lama, and I’d love the chance to do that again. And I’d love to cook for Michelle and Barack Obama.
Sarah Whitman-Salkin is an editor at Cookstr.com. She lives in New York City.