Meet Cookbook Author Deborah Madison

Has any single cookbook author done more for vegetarian food than Deborah Madison? She brought us the acclaimed Greens Restaurant in San Francisco that put gourmet vegetarian on the map, and then brought it into our kitchens with her book of the same title. Since, she’s followed up with one award-winning cookbook after another. Here are some highlights from a  feature-length article on Madison that is running on our sister site, Calmful Living.

On the term vegetarian

“I’d like to bring everyone together, and I think the term vegetarian has sometimes been used to push people away. 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.”

Early years

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. Being a small child on a farm, it makes a difference. You feel something about the landscape of farming.”

About her first visit to Chez Panisse

“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. She would go on to work there for several years before opening Greens Restaurant.

Establishing the Greens Restaurant menu 

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.

Writing The Greens Cookbook

“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!”

What’s growing in her garden?

“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.”

On the future of food

Where will American food culture be in another ten years? “There will always be people who are working hard to do good things that are inspiring. 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?’”

For a recipe from Deborah Madison, click  here.