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 “The Tassajara Bread Book”; and, as co-founder of Greens, the pioneering vegetarian eatery nestled in the heart of Fort Mason, has been credited for popularizing meat-free diets not just in the Bay Area, but throughout the nation.
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. The film, which opens Friday, 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 all.
“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 for cooking 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 watching television.
“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?”