Is Deborah Madison Responsible for Vegetarian Gourmet?

You may be surprised to learn that world-renowned plant-centric chef Deborah Madison has doubts about the word vegetarian. But a lot of things might surprise you about this iconic chef and author of thousands of recipes, whose work has inspired whole generations of plant-centric cooks over the last three and a half decades. “I’d like to bring everyone together, and I think the term vegetarian has sometimes been used to push people away,” she tells Calmful Living. “I have tried to develop an approach to vegetarian food that isn’t strange and unfamiliar, that actually presents food that tastes and looks good, even without the meat.”

The daughter of a dairy farmer (later a botanist) and a painter-musician, Madison draws culinary inspiration from her family roots; but it is also the less glamorous aspects of her early food experiences that have propelled Madison forward in her career as a seasonal chef, beloved cookbook author, and culinary educator.

From the outside, Madison’s journey to world-renowned chef and forward-thinking culinary leader seems inevitable, like following a preordained path with steps just as well placed as those in any recipe from The Greens Cookbook. In reality, Madison’s entire odyssey with food has been filled with unlikely twists and turns—devastations, surprises, successes—but more than anything with lots and lots of experimentation and hard work to match her passion for good-tasting food.

From Dairy to Botany

Madison spent her earliest years on an isolated dairy farm in Upstate New York. “I was too little to milk the cows, but I do remember cuddling with the Jerseys and Guernseys—they were extremely gentle animals. I had a baby carriage and I used to wheel chickens around in it.” Although she doesn’t directly correlate the farm experience with the trajectory of her later career, she says that growing up in that environment certainly had some influence. “Being a small child on a farm, it makes a difference. You feel something about the landscape of farming.”

After the farm burned down during a lightning storm and the family lost everything in the fire, her father decided to attend graduate school in botany at Cornell. As a result, he was hired to teach at a university in California, and Madison and her siblings found themselves playing in the walnut groves that surrounded the family’s home in Davis. “In the summer, my brother and I would jump in the irrigation canals that went around the orchards and float forever.”

Although it would take decades for Madison to develop a desire to grow things on her own—“It never occurred to me to plant anything until I was thirty-five!”—she recalls her father’s passion, how she absorbed some of his knowledge of growing, and learning the Latin names for plants. “I remember him on his bicycle in Davis, riding home from work and looking at someone’s trash pile in the street and finding some plant, saying, ‘This is really a nice such and such!’ then bringing it home to put in the ground. And it would grow—it was California.”

You might imagine that this love for plants and the abundance of foods in that landscape would naturally mean Madison grew up experiencing mealtimes filled with the kinds of fresh, delectable, imaginative ingredients we find now in her recipes. In fact, it was just the opposite. “My mom had four kids and she was working—writing, painting, and playing violin in orchestras—while raising us. So food was not very high on her list of what was important.” Dinnertime was 5:30, signaled by a cowbell left over from the farm. The family didn’t eat a lot of meat and when they did, it was the cheapest kinds—“lamb burger, chicken backs and wings, and a lot of fish sticks.”

“My mother was an enigma to me,” Madison continues. “I think she was interested in food—a lot of her paintings had food as the subject, or the markets—and she actually had boxes full of recipes for things that I don’t remember her ever making. But the day-to-day care and feeding of a family was pretty intense when you added it to everything else.”

Formative Times

When it was time for Madison to undertake studies of her own, she first attended University of California, Davis, for two years, after which she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for a couple of years to be with family and friends. When the University of California, Santa Cruz, opened up, she returned to the West Coast to complete her degree and then began studying Zen at the San Francisco Zen Center. She would participate in the Zen community, becoming ordained as a Zen priest and holding various cooking positions, for eighteen years.

“I was interested in Zen, but also in food,” Madison relates. “I went there to study Zen, and while I was there I got involved in cooking. I wanted to cook, and it happened that a cook was needed at the center.” With no formal culinary training, Madison inherited a cupboard that was filled with boxes of whole grains that nobody really knew what to do with. “We didn’t use things like butter or milk—very few eggs—and the food wasn’t particularly inspiring,” she says.

So Madison read cookbooks and Gourmet magazine. She took on the task of transforming the typical menu of rice casseroles and miso soup into vegetarian menus that would nourish people and be delicious and inspiring to eat. The Zen Center started Green Gulch Farm to supply fresh foods to the center. And then it happened: Madison had a serendipitous encounter at Green Gulch Farm with Alice Waters, famed chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. That fateful tour of the farm resulted in Madison’s first meal at Chez Panisse, a meal that would change the trajectory of her cooking—and her career—forever.

“It was the food I always thought French cuisine should be; it was beautiful and so delicious that we ate until we were literally doubled over—we ate every crumb, every drop of oil,” recounts Madison. “It was nothing like the Zen Center.” At the end of the evening, back at the center, she approached the abbot and told him, “I have to work there. I just have to.” This was a gutsy thing to do, she explains. “At the Zen Center, you don’t say what you want to do—you wait to be assigned a position or task.” But the abbot agreed, and Madison went to work for Waters “practically the next day.”

Establishing Greens Restaurant

As Madison worked at Chez Panisse, the thought of opening her own restaurant never occurred to her; but the abbot of the Zen Center had inklings of Greens, which would become the first farm-to-table vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. Madison’s Chez Panisse experience would be key. “We didn’t know if opening Greens would work; but it was very expensive to build, so it had to work.” For the menu, Madison realized that the “vegetarian cliché of dishes with bean sprouts and slices of orange on the side” wasn’t going to cut it. “The food had to be bright and sophisticated—it had to work as vegetarian food for people who weren’t vegetarians.”

Greens opened its doors in San Francisco at the Fort Mason Center, overlooking the marina, in 1979. In that era, everything was rich and full of cream, she recalls. “We cooked that way too, because it gave the dishes substance. We made complex entrées that were rolled or stuffed or stacked, with sauce—all placed in the middle of the plate: eye catching.” With a glowing review in the San Francisco Chronicle within three weeks of opening, Greens was packed in no time.

But behind the scenes, the effort it took to launch Greens was tremendous. On top of the normal challenges of stocking and managing a kitchen, ensuring that three hundred diners during lunchtime rush got their food efficiently, and so forth, Madison was assigned a crew of fellow Zen students to staff the kitchen. Few of them had training; some had little interest in cooking. She had to teach them the basics. “We just did it. We worked hard, but we always took time to bow in each morning and go over what was going to happen that day.” The twenty-five-minute drive from Green Gulch Farm in Marin to the restaurant, loaded with fresh vegetables that bumped along in the back of the car, was the only time Madison got to plan, alone.

It was exhausting but also exhilarating. “It was a very exciting time to be cooking in a restaurant because everything was changing,” Madison says. Everybody was waking up to fresh foods. “We grew seven varieties of cucumbers on the farm, and I’d do a salad to feature them all.” Arugula and fingerling potatoes weren’t staples at stores. “Before we opened Greens, I went to Europe and brought back a lot of seeds, like golden beets—things we now expect to find at Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods but which were just being introduced here at the time.”

The Greens Cookbook

After several years at Greens, Madison was ready to move on, and her culinary expertise led her to Italy where she cooked for the director of the American Academy in Rome. About a year later she got a call from Bantam Books, wanting her to write a cookbook of Greens’ recipes. “I was ready to stay in Rome, but I knew I had to write the book; so I went back to Berkeley to write it,” she says.

Madison found that just as Greens the restaurant had been a challenge to create, so too was the process of crafting and writing out her recipes. “I didn’t know the first thing about writing a cookbook!” she confesses. The mission of the book was to create recipes that would result in food that tasted like the food you would get at Greens, Madison explains, but she had some doubt about how the recipes would translate when cut down to serve just four or six.

For The Greens Cookbook, Madison drew a lot of inspiration from Greens restaurant. She would work and work on a recipe to bring out the flavors, to perfect the balance of elements, until it was ready to write down.

“I was really unsure about the book. Then the woman who had been my sous-chef made a dinner party for me the night before I went on book tour—which was terrifying to me—and her dinner was all from The Greens Cookbook.” It was the first time Madison had tasted her recipes cooked by someone else, “and it was really good!”

Moving to the Southwest

The world fell in love with the book, and Madison would eventually go on to write thirteen more cookbooks. But somewhere along the way, she had fallen out of love with the Bay Area. She longed for a change of scenery—new flavors, new influences. So she moved to the Southwest, eventually to northern New Mexico, where she lives now with her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin.

Madison’s most popular books include Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, first published in 1997, with a fully revised and expanded edition—The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone—released in March 2014; Local Flavors: Cooking and Eating from America’s Farmers’ Markets (2008); What We Eat When We Eat Alone: Stories and 100 Recipes (2009); Seasonal Fruit Desserts: From Orchard, Farm, and Market (2010); and Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Families from the Edible Plant Kingdom (2013).

The last is based on her experience as a gardener, growing herbs and edible plants at her home in New Mexico. “I have ten raised beds of different sizes, plus my garden where I keep my herbs and lettuces. It’s really rewarding, but I don’t try to do everything. I don’t grow the big brassicas. I stick to vegetables and herbs that are quick growing, that are lovely, and that maybe I can’t get at the farmers’ market. I leave a lot of things for the farmers to grow too.” Vegetable Literacy recently won awards from the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals. What We Eat When We Eat Alone features beautiful illustrations done by her husband. As the daughter of a botanist and a painter, there is remarkable consistency in her life and work—plants, art, living with the seasons, and cooking.

If Greens were opening for the first time today, Madison says that she would develop the menu differently—with lighter, simpler dishes—“because the world of food has changed.” Changes just over the last decade and a half are reflected in The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. “There are 150 new recipes, which feature an updated palate with spices like smoked paprika, shichimi togarashi and curry leaves; ingredients such as farro, frikeh, forbidden rice and Asian vegetables; plus milks and oils from coconut, hemp and almond. There is also an emphasis on tempeh and other fermented soy foods—which we now see as more beneficial than we thought.”

The Future of Food

Where will American food culture be in another ten years? Madison is hopeful that the wide availability of so many ingredients and the upsurge of interest in farmers’ markets will help inspire more people to love cooking fresh, seasonal foods. And yet factors like climate change and GMOs could change everything, she says. “We have wonderful markets here in New Mexico in the summer, but our farmers are thinking they can’t go past June because there was no water this year. What is it going to look like?”

It’s a question that she doesn’t necessarily have an answer to. “I get really discouraged,” she admits. “There’s the impulse to flee, to get out of here and go where it’s wet, where food will grow.” Many climate-change scenarios paint a pretty grim picture, she says. “We had four oils spills in April, and yet we are going to keep building pipelines despite what is happening.”

Nevertheless, there will always be people who are working hard to do good things that are inspiring, Madison concludes. “We do try, and we often succeed. We find a way: cultivating drought-resistant plants, mulching, protecting them from wind . . . We have to ask, ‘What did our ancestors do?’”

When asked about her own role in helping fuel the eat-local movement, respecting soil and the earth and plants, Madison says she often feels that she hasn’t done enough. “But then I receive a letter and somebody will say, ‘Oh, this is really helpful, what you did,’ and I feel good again. If what I have done has helped people in some way, that is great.”

Madison says she is satisfied with what she has accomplished as an author and doesn’t have plans to add to her impressive list of books. “I have to figure out what the next thing is. I’m working on a co-op right now that would incorporate greenhouses and different ways of growing.”

What’s certain is that there’s wisdom to be gained from contemplating Madison’s journey—from eating fish sticks as a child to inspiring millions of readers and eaters who hungered for a different approach to plant-based foods. And we can take comfort that Madison’s wisdom and her many recipes will inspire and guide us for decades to come.


To learn more about Deborah Madison and view a full list of her books, visit www.deborahmadison.com.