ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Celebrated Chef Annie Somerville and the Greens Way of Life

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Like it or not, we now live in a world of the double down. A couple of weeks ago, fast food powerhouse KFC unleashed this “sandwich” horror in which a layer of cheese and bacon rests between two fried chicken tenders. It’s quite possible that cholesterol levels rose 10 points just by reading that description!

In San Francisco, city-dwellers are fortunate because double downs are an infrequent choice rather than a mainstay in the everyday diet. With a surplus of sustainable farms and farmers markets in the Bay Area, fresh produce is readily available and organic ingredients are a quintessential menu staple.

No SF eatery understands fresh vegetables more than the famous Greens restaurant. Celebrating 30 years this year, Greens is a culinary emblem of delicious vegetarian cuisine. Executive Chef Annie Somerville also serves as a matriarch of the modern vegetarian movement, proving that you don’t need meat to make a satisfying meal.

Haute Living chats with Chef Somerville about her Zen approach to food and fun in the city:

Haute Living: How did you end up in San Francisco?

Annie Somerville: I attended Humboldt State University and moved to San Francisco in 1973 to practice Zen Buddhism at the San Francisco Zen Center. I then practiced at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center for three years. That’s where I really started cooking for Zen students and guests, which led me to Greens.

HL: Vegetarianism is a very distinct culinary choice. What appeals to you about a diet without meat?

AS: I’ve been a vegetarian most of my adult life. I simply don’t miss meat.  With all of our concerns for the environment, factory animal production, and global climate change, it’s a great time to be a vegetarian.

HL: Greens is celebrating 30 years. That is quite a feat. Are there any future culinary trends you foresee for Greens and the industry in general?

AS: More farmers markets, more urban farms, more people eating locally, sustainably and organically. I see more people embracing a flexitarian diet—mostly vegetables, fruits, beans and grains—with a little animal protein. That’s the way most of the world eats.

HL: You are a constant presence in your kitchen: on a day off, what are your favorite things to do San Francisco?

AS: This is a beautiful city. There’s always something interesting going on. My husband and I ride our bikes all over San Francisco, and row on the Bay (I’m a Bay swimmer). I also cook a little, garden a little, and spend as much time outdoors as possible. I’m an avid worm-composter—I have three bins and a can of worms.

HL: Greens is undoubtedly the trailblazer in vegetarian cuisine. Other restaurants are catching up though. What are some SF eateries that are on your radar?

AS: Let’s just say that there are many fantastic restaurants and cafes in San Francisco and our beautiful bay region. My favorite place to eat: at a picnic table, eating delicious fresh food, at one of our parks or along the water.

HL: Where and how do you relax?

AS: Getting exercise outdoors, backpacking in the summer in the Eastern Sierra and Northern Yosemite, walking as much as possible, and avoiding cars whenever possible.

HL: The Zen Center has played a major role in Greens’ history. How would you describe its influence?

AS: Greens is deeply rooted in the Zen Center. We opened in 1979 as part of the Zen Center with everyone practicing and working together. We’re still owned by the Zen Center. Though there are just a few of us with that longtime connection to Zen Center, there’s still a strong sense of community at Greens and a commitment to supporting the Zen Center.

HL: The Marina is a unique SF neighborhood. What are some interesting shops and pit-stops around you?

AS: Chestnut Street has lots of great restaurants [with] people on foot, riding bikes and taking MUNI. It’s a very lively scene. My favorite spots along the Marina:  The Palace of Fine Arts, Exploratorium, the Presidio, the Wave Organ, Crissy Field, and the Warming Hut. [We love] going to all of these places on a bike ride to the Golden Gate Bridge.

HL: The bulk of your produce comes from Green Gulch Farm. What other local purveyors and markets would you recommend?

AS: Green Gulch is a cool coastal environment. They grow delicious lettuce, chard, kale, potatoes, fresh herbs, and edible flowers.  We work closely with Knoll Farm, Star Route Farm, County Line Harvest, Mariquita Farm, Martin Bournhonesque, Acme Bread, Phoenix Pastaficio, Cowgirl Creamery, Andante Dairy, [and] many farmers and producers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. It’s a big circle of dedicated people producing beautiful food. I shop at Ferry Plaza twice a week, rain or shine.

HL: An extensive domestic wine list is also an integral part of Greens’ identity. What are a few of your favorite wineries in the Bay area and Northern California?

AS: Peay, Unti, Navarro, Bonny Doon, Scherrer, Ant Hill Farms, Lioco,  and Arnot Roberts. These are small wineries that make delicious wines- they go so well with our food!

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