Q&A With Annie Somerville of Greens, Part 1: From Zen Student to Executive Chef

Categories: Behind the Menu
Chef Annie Somerville.Farmers Market.Squash.JPG
Seth Joel
Annie Somerville, chef of Greens Restaurant.
Annie Somerville, executive chef of Greens Restaurant, came to the world of cooking through unexpected means. A Michigan native, her family moved to California when she was very young. She studied liberal arts at Humboldt State University until a small Zen group in her neighborhood caught her interest. Somerville began meditating with them and eventually decided to move to San Francisco with her boyfriend (now husband) in 1973 in order to study at the San Francisco Zen Center.

The Zen Center opened Greens in 1979, a groundbreaking restaurant that has since matured into an institution (the Zen Center no longer owns the restaurant). Somerville talked with SFoodie about the challenges, demands, and surprises of a restaurant that has both stood the test of time and continued to set the standard for vegetarian cuisine. Part two of this interview will run tomorrow, and on Friday we'll post one of Somerville's recipes.

How did you go from Zen student to executive chef?

Somerville: Let's put it this way: I certainly didn't ever think I would be a chef. I became a vegetarian as a senior in high school. The most cooking I ever did was while living in collective households in college. But everyone at the Zen Center ended up gravitating toward very different things. Some people stayed with the meditation process as the focus of their lives, while others ended up in the accounting office and now run their own businesses, and some people went on to cook.

Greens_beet_salad.jpg
Greens Restaurant
Chiogga and golden beet salad from Greens.
Where did you learn to cook?

A lot of on-the-job experience! I was never trained professionally. When I first came to the Zen Center in San Francisco, I learned to cook at the City Center at Page and Laguna. Then, out of the three years that I lived at Tassajara (the Zen Center's monastery near Big Sur), I spent two years in the kitchen.

I was asked to come to Greens in 1981. The restaurant had been open for two years, and back then everyone working here was part of the Zen Center. Greens founding chef Deborah Madison was here, so I had an opportunity to work with her for a few years until I became executive chef in 1985.

How did you feel about stepping into the role of executive chef?

I was totally unprepared for it. But that's kind of the Greens story. I don't think anyone at the Zen Center would have ever imagined, when we opened Greens, what Greens would be today. In those days, who would have even thought that Zen would be this thing that everybody knows about and is all over the place? I can honestly say I was unprepared at the time for the responsibilities of being executive chef, but I think I've grown into the job.

What was instrumental to your success?

Just being really open, I think. Trying to stay focused on what was really good about what we do and what we offer, and at the same time being open to new ideas that other cooks and pastry chefs wanted to bring into the kitchen. For me, the process here is collaborative, and while I am the one who has been here all these years, I definitely want and need that input. It's not only important, but also the way that a place like Greens keeps going and stays fresh.

How have you seen vegetarian cooking change in the time you've been in charge at Greens?

I think it's really flowered. When Greens opened, the shocking and amazing thing was that we made vegetarian food look good and taste good. The general consensus about vegetarian food at the time was that it would be bland and that it would be brown. Greens set the stage for beautifully prepared food that was totally delicious and just happened to be vegetarian.

Now what I think is so amazing is that nearly all good restaurants have good veggie dishes. There are also more and more great vegetarian restaurants, each emphasizing its own thing. Eric Tucker has his approach at Millennium, we have our approach, Café Gratitude has their approach. It's a great thing.

How would your describe your approach?

My thing with the menu is, of course, to first consider what's in season and what ingredients we are excited about. Then I think about how we can translate those ingredients into a varied menu with lots of flavors and tastes. I want people to read the menu and for it to sound exciting! It's important to me that the menu reads well - that the phrasing makes sense - and, when the food arrives, that it is beautiful. Lastly, I want it to taste the way you hope it will. It doesn't always happen, but that's the goal!

Was the menu at Greens as varied as it is today when you took over 30 years ago?

It was just different. I look back at the old menus, and they are varied, but now there's such a proliferation of ingredients, so it's hard to compare. Food culture is much further along, and what we've been doing all along is the way things are going these days. Chefs are excited about shopping in farmers markets and having relationship with their growers and purveyors. Customers want to know who is preparing their food and where it's from. Everyone is interested in food that is seasonal and fresh, and that's exciting.

Alanna Hale is a writer and photographer whose work can be found at alannahale.com. Follow us on Twitter at @sfoodie.

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Greens Restaurant

Marina, San Francisco, CA

Category: Restaurant

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Caldwell
Caldwell

OK.  Much respect to Ms. Somerville, Greens is an important institution, it was groundbreaking, it's had huge ripple effects on American cooking, etc. etc.

But... uh... have you eaten there in the past 8 or 9 years?  The food *is not good*.  Not just "not good for its high price point", but fundamentally not good.  Greens has been coasting on its importance for a long time.  If tomorrow you opened a new unrelated restaurant called "Sneerg" that offered the same food and service and decor at the same prices as Greens, it would not survive the year.

Shelley
Shelley

I totally disagree with Caldwell. We have never had a bad, or even mediocre, dish at Greens. Everything is always fresh, beautiful and absolutely scrumptious. I'm sorry that Caldwell has had sour experiences, but his sure don't jive with ours. We've eaten there often over the years and we eat out at lots of other places, too, so we have a lot to compare!

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