When I moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles in 2004, I became a resident at San Francisco Zen Center at 300 Page Street. Being a resident meant participation to the Daily Zen practice: Wake up call at 5 AM, two thirty minute periods of Zazen sitting from 5:30 to 6:30 PM, chanting for fifteen minutes, followed by fifteen minutes of temple cleaning. The room and board was $800/month, most of the residents had a day job. I got a job working at Ozumo in Embarcadero as a sushi chef, and since my pay was around $20/hr with no tip, I needed an extra source of income, so I got a second job working at Greens Restaurant which San Francisco Zen Center founded in 1979. At Ozumo, I was mostly working lunch shift, 10AM-2PM and 3PM-11PM at Greens. So, as soon as I finished morning shift at Ozumo, I ate makanai lunch, hopped on the bus, got power nap while on the bus, and headed to Fort Mason to start my eight-hour evening shift at Greens. I got home at around midnight, or later on busy nights. By the time I showered, it was 1AM when I got to go to sleep, then at 5AM, wake up call for the daily practice. Most of the time, I fell asleep during the sitting practice.
Looking back now, I don’t know how I kept up this schedule for over two years. I never told anyone about my schedule but the Abbot heard from someone and asked me, “Wow, how do you do it?” and I said, “Well, you just wake up when the bell rings in the morning.” The morning bell was quite loud: loud enough to wake up everyone in the temple, even a resident like me, who only got four-hour sleep every night. There was a person who was assigned as the bell ringer to run all the way from the first floor to the third floor of the building, ringing the bell to wake up all the residents so that no one misses the morning sitting practice called “Zazen.” We had thirty minutes from the moment the morning bell rang, till the time Zazen started, but the rule was to be sitting in the room, at least five to ten minutes before the sitting started, which meant, you only had about five to ten minutes to get up, go to bathroom, maybe wash your face, get dressed and walk down to the basement, where Zendo, the sitting room was. It never occurred me to do it, but I heard many of the residents made a quick stop to the kitchen and grabbed a cup of coffee, before they headed to the Zendo. It would have helped me to stay awake, but for some reason, drinking coffee before Zazen sounded like “cheating,” though, sleeping during Zazen was not exactly a good thing either.
At Zen Center, residents prepared and cooked three meals a day at their kitchen. The basic structure was loosely based on the way they do at Zen Temple in Japan. There was the executive chef called, Tenzo, whose responsibility is to plan the menu, order ingredients and hand out recipes and cooking instructions to Fuku-Ten, Sous-Chef, who oversaw the prep, cooking and cleaning procedures in the kitchen.
At the kitchen, there were a couple of things they practiced well. One was the labeling system. At professional kitchens, there is a term: “first in, first out,” but nothing like at Zen Center. When you are prepping, it’s your responsibility to label everything.
For example, if you small diced onions, you need to label, “(L) 1/24/17, Onions, (L), Minestrone Soup” The first letter (L) means it’s for Lunch, then the date, the ingredient that is in the container, and the dish that content goes into. If you never worked in the professional kitchen, you may wonder why this is necessary? The reason is that there are so many people working in the kitchen and many times, different people working in the morning and afternoon, so, only Tenzo and Fuku-ten knows which ingredients will go into which dish. Quite often, you have two containers of small diced onions and one goes to the minestrone and the other for stir fry, you need to make it clear which one goes to what, otherwise, you may end up with different amount of onions. Also, dating the container is crucial because you always want to use the older ingredients first. So, to make it clear, they write down, “Use first” or “Use second” on ingredients, especially when there are more than one.
Cleaning was one of the most important parts of the kitchen practice. The first fifteen minutes and the last twenty minutes of prep hours were used to clean the kitchen and equipment, so, everything in the kitchen stayed spotless.
One of the biggest challenges I saw working at Zen Center’s kitchen was that almost none of the residents, including the Tenzo and Fuku-ten had no professional culinary experience. I never became Tenzo or Fuku-ten, but I could tell that it would be difficult to coordinate everyone. For example, it took over thirty minutes for one person to small dice ten onions, because you first had to explain what small dice is and how to cut them. It would have taken less than half the time for an experienced prep chef to do so.
The worst part was that everyone moved so slowly and quietly. It was difficult for me to understand why people in the US perceived Zen to be “Quiet” and “Clam,” and the fact is that Zen in Japan is neither quiet nor calm. It’s loud, fast, quiet and calm at the same time. I heard it from my Zen teacher, who was trained at 750-year-old Zen Temple in Japan, that at the Zen kitchen, there were lots of yelling and people moved incredibly fast. Otherwise, Tenzo would scream, which sounded just like any professional kitchen. At Zen Center’s kitchen, all the residents almost pretended not to show their angry side, because it was against their beliefs of Zen being Calm. A similar thing seems to happen at Japanese-themed Spa in the US, where they play calming new age type music and everyone is so quiet, looking like they are meditating. At Onsen hot springs in Japan, people are a lot more conversational.
Almost everything was made from scratch at Zen Center. There was a bread maker, who baked the bread a couple of times a week for the residents to eat in the resident kitchen. Peanut butter and Jerry with a cup of coffee were always available for all the residents, and I must have at least a slice or two every day.
Breakfast was at 7:20 AM, Lunch at 12Noon and the dinner started at 6:30 PM, every day except Sunday. During breakfast, residents could pack their lunch if you were working outside and even if you missed the meal, we could always find leftovers in the walk-in to reheat later when we get back from work. We chanted before every meal, which symbolized the show of gratitude and regard food as medicine, which was a concept foreign to many Western societies until Zen was introduced. The chant extends our (eater) gratitude to those who brought the food: the chef, the farmer, the driver who brought the food, the land, water, air, the sun and the earth and the universe. It also extends to our ancestors and all being beyond this dimension. Though it sounds religious, it is more spiritualism, non-denominational, or you can simply call it naturalism. All we are doing is saying Thank you to nature and the universe, which includes everything we know and everything we have yet to encounter.
Zen Center Kitchen was a vegetarian kitchen, so the menu consisted of lots of fresh vegetables, notable from Green Gulch Farm in Marine, just across from Golden Gate Bridge. Green Gulch has been farming organically for over thirty years, and I have to say that their leafy vegetables are the best tasting salad greens I’ve ever had and I always felt so fortunate to have those every day for lunch. We ate lots of salad and soup for lunch and since cheese was allowed, pizza on Friday nights, many burritos for dinner, and lots of beans and tempeh as a source of protein. On Thanksgiving Day, some of the residents who stayed at Zen Center made a traditional “Neatloaf” made from nuts, beans, mushroom, onion, carrots, and cheese to mock the meatloaf, along with the side of mashed potato. I have to admit that when I tasted vegetarian meatloaf, I was amazed. Had I not known, I couldn’t tell if it was a vegetarian dish.
Because there was no scheduled meal on Sundays, some of the residents went out to eat at restaurants. Some stayed and either cooked using the ingredients in the kitchen or just reheated the leftovers in the walk-in. Those who wanted to eat meat, had to go out to eat outside of Zen Center, though, they never prohibited or interfered with the residents from eating meat outside of the temple. Though I was not vegetarian, I did not mind eating vegetarian dish all the time and during my three-year-old residency, I rarely went out to eat meat dish. On Sundays, I rather wanted to cook on my own, because in the walk-in were the variety of fresh vegetables I could use to make whatever my imagination took me, which I enjoyed a lot. I usually made quick stir-fry and soups, limiting my use of pots and pans so that I only needed to spend five minutes cleaning up the kitchen. When I cooked at Zen Center’s kitchen, I brought my own knives because all the knives in the kitchen were dull since there was no one who knew how to sharpen knives. In fact, I was the only one who knew how, so I occasionally volunteered my free time (which was Sundays) to sharpen all the knives (10 or so) using my whetstones.
I liked “No talking, except questions, instructions, or things related to cooking” policy in the kitchen at Zen Center, because when I am prepping or cooking, I like to focus on what I am doing and I cannot talk at all. It is very hard for me to engage in conversation with someone while I am cooking, especially when the conversation is chit chatting.
Greens Restaurant was the only non-sushi restaurant I’ve ever worked for, and I was a line cook. The first two hours of my shift was to prep and cook the dish we are serving for the dinner and it was extremely hectic. I made lots of vegetarian curries and to cook this in two hours was quite a challenge. Greens’ kitchen shared the same rules as Zen Center’s kitchen because originally, all the chefs were residents at Zen Center. So, I found labeling system very familiar. At the start of my shift, I had to locate prepped vegetables, herbs and stocks to make curry in the walk-in, took them out to the back kitchen to start cooking.
There were two kitchens at Greens. The front kitchen was used mainly for the service and prep, and the back was used solely for prep and cook dishes for dinner. Because all the tools were stored in the front kitchen, we had to pick and carry them to the back kitchen to cook curry and other dishes. In the beginning, I didn’t know what equipment I needed, so I made numerous trips back and forth, wasting my precious prep time. I also had to cook rice in two large 32 QT pots. I made at least two trips between the front and back kitchen to carry all the equipment.
Greens started dinner service at 5:30 PM and at 5:20 PM, there was tasting. The executive chef, or kitchen manager would taste everything on the menu for the evening, so each line cook must finish their prep by 5 PM, clean up their prep station, and then set up their line in fifteen minutes and whip out their two dishes they are assigned for. Annie Somerville was (and still is) the executive chef at Greens and she came to taste every dish almost every day while I was working at the Greens. I think Greens was one of the best companies I’ve ever worked for and the credit goes to Annie. She was communicative, attentive, listened and never forced anything on the kitchen staff. She of course, never lost her temper or raised her voice on anyone. She always said in the way of, “Let’s do this,” or “How about we do this.” I learned a lot of managing the kitchen from Annie and every time I experience a problem in the kitchen, I always think about the way she handled an issue in the kitchen.