When a chef from the Culinary Institute went to work at the most celebrated vegetarian restaurant in the country, Greens in San Francisco, a man who introduced himself only as Ed helped her out in the kitchen.
Toward the end of the day, after he had cut gallons of onions and leeks, she said, "Gee, you're pretty good at this." He shrugged. "Why don't you make the vinaigrette for the leeks?" The man declined. "Why not?" she asked. "I don't want to get involved in matters of taste," he said. "It's all right," the chef urged, "you can trust yourself." Protesting, Ed proceeded to make the vinaigrette. The food professional tasted it and pronounced it "fine." "See, you can trust yourself," she said encouragingly.
Two weeks later the food professional came back to Greens looking for Ed. "You didn't tell me that you're the person who wrote all these books saying you can trust yourself," she said, chagrinned. As Ed explains it: "I was just trying to be an assistant and do what a new prep person would."
"I'm pretty anonymous," says Edward Espe Brown, author of two cookbooks including the cult classic "The Tassajara Bread Book." "People do show up and thank me for introducing them to making bread, but at the checkout stand where I buy my produce they still ask for identification."
In 1970, when "The Tassajara Bread Book" appeared, Ed Brown did not go on a talk show and book-signing tour. He was living, cooking and practicing meditation deep in the heart of the Ventana Wilderness, 16 miles down an impossibly steep road, at Tassajara Hot Springs. As head cook of the San Francisco Zen Center's rural monastery, Brown was in charge of preparing simple vegetarian meals for the other Zen students and richer, more complex family-style ones for the paying guests who arrived during the summer season.
As Brown tells it, he went from dishwasher (who also baked all the bread) to full-fledged chef the way chorus girls become stars on Broadway: smack in the middle of guest season, one of the cooks quit. Brown decided his food should be "artistic, creative, inventive, exciting and stimulating." And he wanted the people who ate it to fall in love with him. If the summer guests relished Brown as much as they did his cuisine, his co-workers emphatically did not.
"As the one who decided the menu and how to season things, I bossed everyone else around so much they started having meetings about me: 'What are we going to do with Ed?' Finally there was a kitchen rebellion. I remember one woman said I treated them just like the bread dough. Then she apologized. 'Actually, you treat the bread dough rather nicely.' The director at Tassajara came to me with a group of people from the kitchen and said 'Are you going to change? Are you willing to work differently with people or not?' When I realized they were saying, 'How do you think we'll develop our capacities if you never let us?' I started thinking about that."
Brown changed. And in so doing, he planted the seeds for his next cookbook. He began considering how people could learn to trust their own taste. So instead of saying "Would you cut this and this and then I'll assemble the soup" he would say "You make the soup. If you have any questions you can ask me."
"Our culture doesn't give us much space to make mistakes, to find out how to do things ourselves rather than from directions. But how do you make the shift to being your own authority if you don't just take the chance?"
His "Tassajara Cooking" was written with this idea in mind. There are scarcely any measurements given in the book, a fact he says readers find either intimidating or liberating. The book presents simple themes and multiple variations. A recipe for bean soup, for example, is a generic bean soup with suggestions for alternate vegetables and herbs. Brown's dry humor resonates through the work. "Raw beets," he writes, "are very occasionally eaten grated in salad. They taste, quite simply, like dirt, which may not be so bad, but the more usual way is to cook them first and then grate."
Brown left Tassajara Hot Springs for San Francisco in 1973. Six years later and two weeks after Greens opened its doors, he joined the staff and proceeded to work there until 1983 as bus boy, waiter, floor manager and, very occasionally, cook. No matter what the job was, he stayed the ever-unassuming Zen student.
In 1987 Brown and chef Deborah Madison co-authored "The Greens Cook Book." Their manuscript was filled with instructions such as "cook the onions until they're translucent" and "season to taste with vinegar." Their New York editor responded by scribbling, "how long?" and "how much?" on page after page. Brown and Madison finally got exasperated and Brown decided to write an introduction about learning to trust one's own sensibilities.