Ordained as a Zen priest in 1971 after six years of
intensive study, Edward Espe Brown has dedicated his life not only to spiritual
exploration, but to the creation of fine organic foods. He has served as head
resident teacher at each of the San Francisco Zen Center’s three regional
temples; authored bestselling cookbooks including ; and, as co-founder of Greens, the pioneering
vegetarian eatery nestled in the heart of Fort Mason, he has been credited for
popularizing meat-free diets not just in the Bay Area, but throughout the
Now, add film star to his résumé.
Brown, who resides in Fairfax, is the
subject of How to
Cook Your Life, the new documentary by
German-born filmmaker Doris Dörrie that follows one of The City’s best-known
culinary connoisseurs through a series of his rigorous cooking classes and
serene meditative retreats.
Although he has described himself as an “arrogant, bossy,
short-tempered know-it-all” in the kitchen, Brown is calm and easygoing in
person, quick to offer guests a plate of freshly diced apples or
mojito-flavored french fries. Discussing his passion for Zen and the art of
culinary maintenance, he acknowledges that his interest in cooking was sparked
by utilitarian need, but soon morphed into something more profound.
“I was 19 or 20 when I started
to cook,” he says. “I asked
my mother how to cook bread. I was in college at the time, and I didn’t know
how to prepare food for myself. I’ve never understood why colleges don’t teach
those skills – they’re so basic and fundamental. Everyone needs to eat, after
“I was unhappy in school. It was absolutely not satisfying.
When I started cooking, I found something really fulfilling. I could actually
do something with my body, and it tasted good.”
From there, Brown began to integrate his love
and the teachings of his Zen mentor, Suzuki Roshi, who taught him the
importance of simplicity in life and in the kitchen. He learned the importance
of organic ingredients, of interacting directly with the earth to create
healthy, delicious cuisine, and of dedicating his time and undivided attention
to every dish.
It’s a lesson, he says, that too many people ignore during
their lifelong quest to earn the biggest paycheck.
“We don’t have time for all those things
anymore,” he says.
“We are too busy earning money at uninteresting jobs. If people were to do more
simple, down-to-earth activities like gardening, sewing or cooking, they would
feel more satisfied and fulfilled, more connected. You won’t get that from
“Working with our hands nourishes us. It doesn’t matter, if
you cook or do garden work, it will give you a feeling of being connected to
the world. You work with the things of this world. Today, if you are a
successful person, you hire a cook, a housekeeper, you buy your clothes and
somebody buys your food. Nobody touches a broom anymore to sweep the floor. What
are hands for? To put chips in your mouth and punch the remote?”