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The Queen of Greens

The life of Deborah Leafy Madison: cooking teacher, ordained Buddhist priest, writer, cookbook author, and chef.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #15: The Plant Kingdom. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

The town of Galisteo, New Mexico (population 250) is cinematic—all sand and low shrubs punctuated by adobe architecture, and vast clear blue sky. And it is, actually, literally cinematic—where 3:10 to Yuma was filmed. That’s what Deborah Madison is telling me, maneuvering her Jetta, while Dante, her labradoodle, pants in the back seat. Dante has brown curly fur and looks as if, at any time, he might pipe up and tell a joke.

Madison points out the fire chief’s house, with a police car parked out front. “We have a dummy that we dress up as a policeman talking on his cell phone, and it actually slows people down,” she says. “One of the truckers that came through complained to somebody that our policeman wasn’t very friendly. If you look closely, you’ll see he’s not real.

“Gary Snyder said you live in a place for the scenery, the people, or the work,” she says. “You decide what’s most important to you.” She and Snyder met in the Bay Area, where Madison lived for a few decades after college; she’s called northern New Mexico home for more than twenty years now. Sixty-nine years old, Deborah Leafy Madison has been a chef, cooking teacher, writer, and ordained Buddhist priest. Her middle name was prophetic, it seems. She’s authored twelve cookbooks—eleven of them vegetable-centric. Her first, The Greens Cookbook, published in 1987, is a collection of recipes from the San Francisco vegetarian restaurant of the same name, where she was founding chef. Her most recent, Vegetable Literacy, was published in 2013. And then there’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, her standard-setting encyclopedia of more than a thousand vegetarian recipes. When it was published, in 1997, there was nothing else like it. Its antecedents were books like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking—exhaustive approaches that demystified entire cuisines, sans photos. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone did the same for vegetable cooking—shedding light on all the things you’d find in a grocery store that didn’t happen to be meat.

“I looked like a vegetarian dominatrix,” Madison says about the cover photo: she’s wearing a serious look, wielding two large wooden spoons over her shoulder. It’s a strange choice for a cover; the book, she insists, was intended to be comprehensive—not necessarily reflective of Madison’s personal tastes. She eats meat; she doesn’t care for soy milk. “I never felt comfortable about the vegetarian label, because it’s not who I am,” Madison says. “I don’t want to push things away! I don’t want to say, ‘I don’t’ and close doors. I wanted to open doors.” This spirit of curiosity and experimentation is evident in all her books.

Madison grew up in Davis, California. Her mother, Winifred Madison, was a writer who wrote young-adult books. Her father was a botanist and professor at UC Davis. Madison doesn’t volunteer her past readily—particularly information about her eighteen-year involvement with the San Francisco Zen Center, a network of Soto Zen retreat and practice spaces, and the organization that started Greens restaurant. “I always like to just leave that part blank because—I don’t know,” she says. “It’s just the past.”

She joined the Zen Center after college, early in her twenties, and was soon cooking for the other students at their City Center on Page Street in San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood. “I was just learning to cook, and cooking for sixty people—sometimes more—and having to cook for people in such a way that they would still feel comfortable in meditation,” she explains. “You have to think about that: you can’t just put a lot of rich food on a plate and then send people off to sit zazen. It has to be nurturing.”

This was the late seventies and the word vegetarian conjured uninspired, dense, soy-loaded fare and macrobiotic cooking.

“I have so little memory of any of this,” Madison said, ” but I do know this: one of my responsibilities, I felt, was to make food that looked familiar. So that when people saw it, they said, ‘Oh, that’s lasagna,’ or ‘That’s an enchilada.’ It was really hard, I think, for people to have miso soup for breakfast and lots of stews with daikon and seaweed. That food [the macrobiotic stuff] was delicious, but it wasn’t for everybody. I mean, we were a very mixed community. One guy came from New York, and I remember we had a tofu dish, and he said, ‘That was the most tender chicken I’ve ever had.’ He didn’t know!”

She’d been fascinated with food since high school. To teach herself to cook, she says, she “got Gourmet magazine; I got Larousse Gastronomique. I don’t even know how I did these things because I didn’t have any money. I remember when the New York Times International Cookbook came out—I had to have it. I almost never looked at vegetarian cookbooks because there weren’t very many, or they were about nutritional yeast and soy, which just wasn’t that interesting to me. I just looked at regular cookbooks and studied them and kind of deduced parts of recipes that I could turn into vegetarian recipes.

“I hadn’t eaten a lot of meat growing up, but I had eaten enough to know what it brought to a dish, so when I tried to make a dish, I wanted to bring some of the quality that made it so satisfying. Now we have umami as a word. We didn’t have that word. So I had to figure it out. Kelp goes a long way toward doing that, or making a mushroom stock or reducing things and really getting rid of the water so you’re just left with the flavor elements and sugars. I was kind of grabbing at straws, to tell you the truth. There was no model.

“There was always feedback. Usually the feedback was ‘a little more cheese.’ The Zen Center, in its very early days of community, was macrobiotic; there was no dairy. So I started to order butter and milk and cheese and eggs, all these foods we didn’t have. Pancakes, instead of being like shoes, suddenly were a little bit fluffy. It made a big difference—it made people happier, it was more familiar, and it meant that they stayed around to eat instead of going out, which was a little like having a family.”

At Green Gulch Farm, the Zen Center’s farm and practice center in Marin County, Madison met Alice Waters. She and Lindsey Shere, Chez Panisse’s founding pastry chef, were visiting, and Madison was asked to show them around.

“I showed them around and I started asking questions like, ‘Well, have you ever heard of Richard Olney?’ And they said, ‘Oh yeah, Richard was just here, he was just cooking at our restaurant last week.’ I said, ‘Really? How about Elizabeth David?’ ‘Oh yes, we love Elizabeth.’ ‘Do you ever make tarte tatin at your restaurant?’

“Finally Alice said, ‘Have you ever been to our restaurant?’ I said no and she said, ‘You have to come. Come tomorrow night. Bring some friends.’ And so I did. It was so amazing. We were just knocked out. We had no idea food could taste so good. I came back to Zen Center and I noticed that the abbot’s light was on. Zen Center is so rigid in its hierarchy—you don’t just barge in. I barged in. I said, ‘I have to work there,’ and he said fine. I said, ‘Well, I’m going to start tomorrow,’ and I did, and it was amazing, and it was really frightening. I had done a lot of cooking by then, but I don’t think I really knew how to chop parsley correctly.

“It was an amazing introduction to working and to tasting all kinds of things—I ate everything, no scruples about it. If they cooked it, I ate it. If I cooked it, I ate it. It was just so much fun. I had been in the kitchen with all these Zen students and we were very obsessed with this idea of practicing, but I found working at Chez Panisse was much more focused, and it was a lot more fun, actually. You could play music! But there was a lot of concentration and paying attention. If you’re looking at your watch and it’s 11:15 and customers are lining up at your door and this isn’t done, you know, you have to make it happen.”

Madison took a transformative trip to France, starting in Paris, then down to Marseille and on to Nice, where she met up with Waters. They traveled to Bandol, but “mainly I was a Zen student with no money and horrible clothes. No credit, nothing,” she says. Madison headed to Carcassonne and Normandy and Lyon on her own. “It was scary, but I don’t know, you do it.”

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Greens

“It was scary, but you do it” turns out to be a recurring theme in Deborah Madison’s life.

The next scary thing was the Zen Center opening Greens at San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center—a beautiful space overlooking the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge. Madison doesn’t remember if it was right after the trip to France that she started the planning for Greens or if she went back to Chez Panisse first. But the Zen Center’s nonprofit restaurant would open soon, and Madison would find herself at the helm. She was in her early thirties, and because she’d been chiefly responsible for the food at the Zen Center she was put in charge. “My only experience in a restaurant was Chez Panisse, which was totally different. Plus, people knew more or less what they were doing,” she says. “Suddenly I was faced with a huge restaurant, and I had no idea how to run it.

“I wasn’t confident at all. I dreaded the day we opened; I was so scared. At Zen Center you were often given positions that would push you. You take on something that you’re asked to do that you would never think of. You would never come up and say, ‘I’d really like to be the director.’ You never said that—it was always decided by someone else. And often those seemed like impossible stretches. I can’t do that, I can’t be the chef—I can’t be the director. Then you find that you can.”

She was responsible for both the restaurant menu and the kitchen design—things she didn’t know anything about. “The general manager, Karen, grew up with a family restaurant, so she knew about things like rolling racks. And I hated rolling racks. I didn’t want rolling racks in my kitchen! I wanted it like my kitchen,” she says. “I’m sure I drove her totally crazy, because I really just didn’t get it. And I’m really glad she prevailed.”

Greens opened in 1979—“with a bang,” Deborah says.  “In the first three weeks we got a review from Patty Unterman in the Chronicle saying, ‘Genius restaurant opens’ or something. Then all of a sudden we’re doing three hundred lunches a day. And it’s really hard to do that well. You want the food to be perfect every time. It took a while for it to calm down.”

Madison’s cooking at Greens offered a different kind of vegetarian food—food that wasn’t preachy. The food was compelling and novel and it was different every day. “Working at Chez Panisse confirmed my own sense that food should be beautiful, it should be bright, it should call you to it,” Madison says. “It should be fun, it should taste good, it shouldn’t just be drab and horrible—and that’s kind of how vegetarian food was at the time. Greens was fairly revolutionary. Now it’s no big deal. But then it was.”

Madison remembers hand-writing menus five minutes before dinner service started, usually dictated by whatever produce they’d gotten from local farmers or from Green Gulch.

“I had the Chez Panisse model in my mind pretty firmly. Why do the same thing twice?,” she says. “I had to think up all those things. Some of them I had never done before. Sometimes things really worked well. They really did. I could make a great ratatouille and all these juices would come off, I’d reduce them and they’d be really unctuous and syrupy and they’d go over the top. I figured out stuff.

“Fortunately I had this wonderful sous chef named Jane Hirshfield, who’s now a famous poet. I would say she was ‘characterized by faith.’ If I said, ‘Would you make this? Here’s the recipe,’ she’d say yes and she’d assume it would work! She always acted as if I knew what I was doing and as if things really would work. Oh my gosh, you just need somebody like that if you’re juggling a lot of doubts. I was also making desserts, as well as coming up with a menu and cooking and teaching people. It was just so much. It was so much to do.

“I more or less had a crew that was assigned to me. There were a few who were cooks, who liked food, who wanted to be there. And there were a lot who didn’t want to be there, and who didn’t know how to hold a knife or cut anything. I was caught between two demands. One was to make the restaurant a success, because it was a huge investment for us. The other was to have a really kind and gentle relationship with people. Well, you can’t always do that. You have to have people who know what they’re doing if you’re going to do part B. And plus, I didn’t know what I was doing! I was making it up. It was frightening. People think, Oh, wasn’t it fun doing Greens? It was so successful. But it was a nightmare. It was really hard.

Her kitchen crew had joined the Zen Center because they wanted to practice Zen, and not necessarily because they wanted to work in a restaurant. “I understand!” Madison says. “Because restaurant work is hard. It’s very hard. It’s very physical, it’s very tiring. And if you moved out to San Francisco because you wanted to move to the Zen Center and do this thing, and you’re being assigned to work in a restaurant? Maybe not what you wanted to do.

“It’s not that way anymore and it hasn’t been for a long time. But that’s how it was,” Madison says. All told, she spent about three years working on Greens—a year on the menu and design, and two years cooking. “And then, because I was an ordained priest, it was my turn to go to Tassajara”—the Zen Center’s retreat in Carmel Valley—“and be the head monk for practice period, something we all had to go through. It was my time to do that. And so I left the restaurant to do it.”

When Madison talks about finally leaving the Zen Center, there’s still a tinge of disappointment in her voice:

“It was a whole scandal with the abbot, which I just don’t want to go into. He basically had an affair. Once that was revealed it turned out he’d had lots of affairs and abused money and power. You know, it’s the typical story of people who go from nothing to something. And it was very, very, very hard on those of us who were older students who had been there for some time. Newer students didn’t care. It was a different morality. I was the director of Tassajara when all this happened, and it was my job, along with some of the other students, to go tell everybody individually what was happening. And the younger people said, ‘Oh, well. Affair? Big deal. He still gives good dharma talks.’

“I always say I’m a recovering Buddhist. It’s very hard to talk about, because I don’t want to dwell on the particulars. But it was a very strong and difficult thing to go through. Even more difficult than the restaurant, maybe. And heartbreaking. It was absolutely heartbreaking. To assume the meditation posture again was creepy.”

After Tassajara, she and Dan Welch—her first husband, whom she’d married right before Greens opened—got jobs at the American Academy in Rome. They spent a year there, ultimately separating before they returned. As disillusioned as she was with the Zen Center, it was the possibility of a Greens cookbook that brought Madison back. “I thought, I do not want to sit here and have somebody else write this book,” she says. “I didn’t want to come home, but I also didn’t want the book to happen without having something to do with it.”

She wanted to claim ownership of her time at the restaurant and all the work she’d put into it. “At Zen Center you didn’t own anything,” she says. “I never owned the experience of Greens. Never. I sort of wasn’t given permission to.” Even in the cookbook itself, “There was no personal pronoun. There was no I. I never said the word I.” Still she says, “I found I kind of liked writing.”

I picked up my copy of The Greens Cookbook at a thrift store in San Francisco—probably in 2007 or so. I had never eaten at the restaurant and didn’t know a thing about Deborah Madison’s cookbooks. As it turns out, the recipes in Greens are more involved than many of her others. But, for whatever reason, that was the cookbook that taught me how to cook. Everything always turned out so good. The fresh pastas, anything with beets, a polenta thing with three different kinds of cheese. It taught me that mellowing raw onions in lemon juice or vinegar, or pounding a little clove of garlic with salt, added something special to salads. It taught me about balance, about richness and acidity. And it taught me to cook without recipes.

“It’s interesting you say that,” Deborah says when I tell her this. “I had to teach myself, and I also had to teach a lot of other people, basics. And I’ve always written in that way. My mission with The Greens Cookbook was I really wanted people to be able to make food like they had tasted at the restaurant. But I really didn’t know what that tasted like, because when you’re that close to it and you’re cooking it all the time, unless you go and eat in the dining room, you don’t know, because you’re always full of the smells and nervousness of the kitchen.

“Just before the book came out, I was about to go on tour. Jane Hirshfield, my sous chef, made dinner for me from the cookbook and invited a bunch of people. I felt like I was tasting it for the first time. I kept saying, ‘Is this really in the book? Did you change it? Did you add more cheese?’ And she said no. And that’s how she is, she’s very faithful to the recipe. She cooked this meal, and it was so good, and it just gave me a little push of confidence that I desperately needed to go on a book tour. Because, I mean, I was depressed. I was having a hard time. I weighed about 105 pounds. I never watched TV, let alone been on it.

“I was also in the middle of getting divorced and living away from a community that I’d always lived in in my adult life. I’d rented a house in Berkeley and I was still working at Chez Panisse just to have some friends, some sanity.”

After her tour, Madison left California for Flagstaff, Arizona—to turn over a new leaf.

“I moved to Flagstaff to try being a grownup apart from Zen Center,” she says. “I bought my first house. I bought my first car. I was a grownup on training wheels, basically. I was forty, but you start when you start. I decided I would offer cooking classes in my home, which I did for fifteen dollars each. What was so cool about Flagstaff was that nobody knew about Chez Panisse, nobody knew about restaurants in New York. People had families, they were really busy. This was not their world.

“I was faced with a different context: there’s not a lot to eat here that’s very interesting or very good, so how do you find it? I really had to figure out ways to scour around. Now there’s Slow Food in Flagstaff, there’s a farmers’ market. That did all come to pass. But then there was nothing. It was kind of fun to live there because it was such an antithesis to everything I knew. But after a while it was depressing. The fun kind of wore off.

“I wrote Savory Way there, and it was really kind of based on: how do you make good food with lots of flavor and quality in a situation like Flagstaff? Say you have a family. Say you’re busy. Say you don’t have the resources that you have in a place like the Bay Area. It was an interesting challenge. It was fun. It was as fun as it could be, being depressed. It’s really hard to cook when you’re not happy, and if you’re not cooking for others.”

Flagstaff was wearing on Madison (“I thought, If I have to be here one more weekend, I’m going to die. I really can’t do it”). One weekend, she called her ex-husband, Dan, whom she’d stayed good friends with, and asked if she could visit him in Santa Fe. He told her that was fine with him, but that his friend Patrick McFarlin was visiting. “I’d known Patrick from the Bay Area, and we never got along,” Madison says. “Total oil and water. We did not mix at all. And I drove over, and I didn’t know what happened. I just fell in love with him. And it was mutual.” A few months later, the two of them were living together in New Mexico, and they married not long after that.

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Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone is Deborah Madison’s magnum opus: 752 pages on how to cook everything meatless. When it was published, The Joy of Cooking existed, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking existed, but nothing exhaustive existed for vegetarian cooking—how to cook various types of rice, what to do with salsify, how to approach vegetables from artichokes to winter squashes.

“Before I left the Bay Area,” Madison says, “I went to Esalen, in Big Sur, to teach a cooking class for a week. It was to be kind of a soup-to-nuts course. I mean, everything was going to be covered. We made bread, we made salad dressings, we made everything. And it was exhausting. I was filling my car with gas in Monterey, getting ready to head back, and I thought, You know, this would be so much easier if there were a vegetarian Joy of Cooking to use, instead of having to cull all of these things from here and there. And the light went on and I thought, I guess I have to write that.

Madison insists that the book really isn’t about her personal inclinations. It took years of research to produce. But it’s telling that, even when it comes to foods she’s not particularly interested in eating, Madison still throws herself into enthusiastic investigation. The book is sweeping in its approach, but it’s also dotted with moments of specific personal experience—endorsements for lovage (“its distinctive bracing flavor makes it an exciting herb for carrots”) and learn-from-my-mistakes admonishments (“My only word of warning is not to purée the purple carrots—they turn a dreadful shade of brown”).

“It was a really different book; it wasn’t about me,” she says. “It was about what you would expect to find in the culture. If you were a vegetarian, should you find hummus in the book? Probably. Should you find stir-fries? Definitely. Do I make stir-fries? Never. I had to ask myself a lot of questions about it and then I started it. It took seven years altogether.”

She was turning fifty just as her manuscript for Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone was due.

“My birthday is on June 21 and I think the book was due July 30 or something like that,” she says. “Dan said, ‘What are you going to do for your fiftieth?’ And I said, ‘Nothing, I’ll do it next year. I have this book due.’ He said, ‘You can’t do it next year; you have to do it this year. I’ll give you a party.’

“I said, ‘Okay, I’ll get the book done by the twenty-first. So I did. I finished it on the twentieth. On the twenty-first, Patrick took all these papers, had them Xeroxed, and had each chapter bound, and brought it to me. And we had a fabulous dinner that night—big, long table, thirty people. A case or maybe more of Le Cigare Volant from Bonny Doon, and a leg of lamb. Patrick read a poem that he wrote and people toasted. I was so happy.

“What I always tell people is you have to celebrate whenever you have the feeling that something is done. When the book finally comes out, it’s usually sort of a letdown. Sometimes it’s a year later. It comes out and your life has moved on. And suddenly here’s this book? And you have to get excited about it and go out and talk about it? Meanwhile you’re writing something else or traveling or opening a restaurant or whatever you’re doing. It’s always a little anticlimactic when the book arrives. But when you send it off, oh man.

“At the end of writing a book, the questions that always float to mind are, What do I want to eat, and who am I? Because sometimes you don’t know! A cookbook is an assignment. It’s so much work, and it’s so hard, and you never have that feeling of freely cooking because you have to measure it and write it down and ask how long it took, and put on your timer. How high is the oven? That kind of thing. It’s really an effort to write a recipe. You get to the end of a book and you think, I can eat anything I want! What would that be? And it has nothing to do with whether you like the food in your book. You have this freedom and you haven’t exercised it in so long.”

Over the course of the few days I spend with Deborah Madison, she cooks what she wants to eat: Burrata with a little salad of bell peppers with olives and the last of the cherry tomatoes from her garden. Hybrid turnip-rutabagas (Gilfeather turnips) we find at the Santa Fe farmers’ market, which she steams and browns in butter. She makes a sauce of mascarpone, yogurt, oregano, thyme, and marjoram to put over the top. It’s indescribably good. She makes saffron basmati rice with a cauliflower curry. A sticky pudding with dates, walnuts, coffee, and whiskey, and served with a little cream around it, that I’m excited to have again for breakfast the next day, with cottage cheese. Occasionally she’ll consult her own cookbooks (the sticky pudding in Seasonal Fruit Desserts; the onion tart in Vegetable Literacy). One night she pan-fries Jerusalem artichokes from her garden; the next morning, she apologizes: “I just remembered why I never cook them. We used to call them ‘fartichokes.’”

For all that I’ve picked up from Deborah Madison’s cookbooks, I find I’m learning as much from Deborah Madison the person: celebrate whenever you feel you’ve finished something. Marjoram and yogurt go great together. Experiment. Explore everything.

Madison looks amazing, especially for a woman who’s turning seventy in June. “I only got a doctor a year ago because I thought I should have one,” she says. Her husband, Patrick—who’s an artist, and with whom Deborah collaborated on a book called What We Eat When We Eat Alone—is chatty and cheerful and funny. Back from his studio in Santa Fe, he mixes us drinks and eats dessert happily. Madison holds up a Netflix DVD in the mail. “I got Breasts,” she says. “You said you’re a breast man.”

One day she’s driving and we come across a big silver snake in the middle of the road. She stops the car and gets out to investigate. “It’s a diamondback!” she exclaims and kicks it lightly, curious to see what it will do. It rattles and wriggles off the road. Deborah gets back in the car, and drives on, exhilarated.


When I asked Deborah Madison if we could reprint a few recipes from The Greens Cookbook, she reacted the way I expected she might: yes, we could print a few recipes from the cookbook, she said, but “Why not something more contemporary?” Since 1987, the year The Greens cookbook was originally published, Deborah’s authored many, many more books—Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Local Flavors, The Splendid Table, Vegetable Literacy, and others—each different from the last.

My reasons for wanting to print Greens recipes were purely sentimental: the book was one of the first cookbooks I learned to cook from, and these recipes were among my favorites: from them, I learned that splashing still-warm-from-the-oven beets with vinaigrette suffuses them with flavor, that roasting bell peppers is well worth the wait, that salads can be bright, complex, and much more than you imagine. Making these recipes again after so many years surprised me; though I thought I knew them by heart, I found that I’d remembered them wrong: I was so sure the Broccoli with Roasted Peppers, Capers, and Olives had feta cheese in it; I was positive the Beets, Apples, and Cress with Walnuts and Curry Vinaigrette with crème fraîche in the dressing (it doesn’t). I don’t know if I’ve conflated them with Deborah’s countless other recipes, or if I revised them bit by bit over the years. The fact is this: these are great recipes to love and learn from.

RECIPE #1: Broccoli with Roasted Peppers, Capers, and Olives

RECIPE #2: Beets, Apples, and Cress with Walnuts and Curry Vinaigrette

RECIPE #3: Eggplant Gratin with Saffron Custard