WHEN ANNIE Somerville arrived in the late '70s at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center Retreat in the Carmel Valley to study Zen Buddhism, she was immediately drawn to the kitchen where she prepared meals based on monastic precepts of vegetarianism for 60 students and their guests.
Today the 34-year-old chef of Greens, a vegetarian restaurant in an old World War II warehouse on San Francisco Bay that is run by the Zen Center, is among the handful of world-class women chefs in the United States. Her vegetarian focus has not changed, but it has expanded beyond its religious boundaries.
"I feel that the cooking we do at Greens still comes out of the feeling of generosity and integrity upon which Zen vegetarianism is based. But what we are doing is in keeping with the times, with a focus on using the finest fresh, seasonal ingredients one can find," Somerville says.
Greens' style of cooking is largely international, with an emphasis on Mediterranean. It uses products developed experimentally at the Zen Center's Green Gulch Ranch, a farm in Marin County that supplies Greens and other local restaurants with produce. "The areas where Southern Italian, French and Middle Eastern come together seem to work well for vegetarian cooking," Somerville says.
Somerville works closely with her kitchen staff and gives her lunch chef, Donna Niccoletti, and night chef, J. Kenyon, credit for many of the extraordinary creations on the menu. Somerville herself is responsible for the weekend dinner menu and oversees the entire kitchen. Somerville is among several women chefs who are making a positive contribution to Bay Area food: Barbara Tropp of China Moon, Katherine Pantsios of Zola's, Joyce Goldstein of Square One and Quadro, Judy Rogers of Zuni Cafe and Cindy Pawlcyn of Mustards in Yountville, among others. "I guess we're following a tradition started by women like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Greens' founding chef Deborah Madison (co-author, with Edward Espe Brown, of the "Greens" cookbook), who helped pioneer California cuisine "long before women chefs were fashionable," Somerville says.
Greens has been described as serene in spite of its airplane-hangar dimensions. Its floor-to-ceiling windows frame San Francisco Bay, and there are fine paintings, sculptures and artworks by Willard Dixon, J. B. Blunk and Edward Avedisian, who was also one of the restaurant's designers.
Greens' recipe for spinach linguine uses several types of tomatoes to offset the noodles.
GREENS' SPINACH LINGUINE WITH TOMATOES, PINE NUTS AND OLIVES
2 medium vine-ripened tomatoes, blanched, peeled, seeded and diced into 1/2-inch pieces12 yellow pear tomatoes, cut into halves12 cherry tomatoes, cut into halves1 cup fruity olive oil1 bunch basil leaves, thinly sliced4 medium cloves garlic, minced1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar1 pound fresh spinach linguine cup toasted pine nuts cup pitted small black Nicoise olivesSalt, pepper1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, preferably Reggiano Marinate medium vine-ripened tomatoes, pear and cherry tomatoes in half the olive oil and half the basil. Add garlic, balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Cook linguine in boiling salted water about 2 minutes or until al dente . Drain. Toss with tomato mixture. Add pine nuts, olives and remaining olive oil and basil. Correct seasoning with salt and pepper and a few splashes of vinegar to taste. Serve in warm pasta bowls. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Makes 8 servings.
Photo: John Reed Forsman / food stylist: Lynn Ellen / linens from Gift Garden / flowers from Bloomsbury