Thursday, July 19, 2012
For someone happy to subsist on mostly brown rice and steamed broccoli, Dale Kent is surprisingly eager to coax as many combinations as possible out of a four-foot shelf of spices and seasonings. Now an itinerant Zen Buddhist monk, Kent spends months on end dining on simple veggie-rice bowls, but on a weekend retreat he leads once a summer, Kent steps back into the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center kitchen he used to run and concocts a seasonal, colorful meal for 70 guests.
Kent is a cookbook author – he and his then-wife Melissa Gilbert Kent published Tassajara: Dinners & Desserts in 2009 – and former head chef of Tassajara, but he’s no foodie. Before he first came to the idyllic spot as a student of Buddhism and ended up living there seven years, Kent says he gave food little thought.
For guests, the acclaimed vegetarian cuisine – hearty grains lifted by stone fruit for breakfast, earthy bread with spreads ranging from nutty to spicy for lunch, and elegantly garnished family-style platters for dinner – is part of the draw to this peaceful enclave in the Ventana Wilderness. A day spent sweating over ovens reveal the grub’s renown has less to do with the credentials of the cooks than their approach to food.
Monks here say it’s the meditative approach more than their kitchen skills that transform a repetitive array of vegetables into stunning meals day after day. And that’s precisely what Kent and co-teacher Graham Ross, also a former tenzo and current ino, or head of the meditation hall, impart on this weekend retreat.
“The food tastes better than it tastes somewhere else, even if it’s the same recipe,” Kent says. “All the little things we do to take care are transmitted somehow.”
To demonstrate, Kent steels his knife – slower than any cooking show star ever did – then slices a carrot into orange ovals with glassy-smooth surfaces. He pops a piece in his mouth, then turns it over to feel the smoothness on his tongue.
Hungry retreaters arrived from as far away as New York City and Monterrey, Mexico, with culinary sophistication and states of zen just as varied as geography.
Kent assigned focused, repetitive tasks – shaving Parmesan, dicing onions, stirring a melting pot of chocolate – that felt within reach of mastery even for amateurs. The goal of the retreat was to meditate through cooking.
“We learn to bring our full body and mind to whatever we’re doing,” Ross says, “to know what it really is to grill fennel, or put olives on a plate, or wash dishes.”
For me – a meditation skeptic and a chaotic chef who often doesn’t know exactly what I’m making until it’s made – this stripping down felt antithetical to what I expect from cooking.
But Kent sets up participants for success, partly thanks to qigong and meditation each morning, and time to soak in Tassajara’s soothing springs in the evenings. But it’s also through in encouraging mise en place not just of ingredients, but of mind.
That comes in remembering not to lean on the shrine, a counter set aside for incense and food offerings to the Bodhisattva. There’s also the practice of silence but for the task at hand, cutting the gossipy space I’ve trained my own kitchen to be.
There’s also Kent’s menu planning – parsley salad with shaved Parmesan, antipasto of marinated beets and grilled fennel and radicchio, collard-kale-mushroom-goat cheese galettes, asparagus tarts, chocolate-dipped strawberries – which allows imprecision by design.
“Some of the best things come out of mistakes,” Kent says. “There’s just something about a willingness to be surprised and delighted.”
Galettes are designed to look rustic, so brioche dough with holes or unevenly rolled edges works just fine.
But I was at first disappointed our galettes and fluffy parsley salad didn’t compare to dinner the night before (Chilean shepherds pie featuring collards and mushrooms, paired with arugula salad with roasted onion, raisins and pumpkin seeds).
Then I remembered that’s not the point. In Zen Buddhism the two most important places are the monastery and the kitchen, Ross explained. The point was to find joy in cooking.
Our group, even with the its range of skills – from a professional New Leaf cook to a San Francisco housewife who said the kitchen made her nervous – prepared a great meal.
Even if I’m too attached to the news grind to adopt zen practices whole hog, making the kitchen more like a temple can’t hurt. The night I got home I debated whether listening to NPR would ruin the calm I’d felt for two days, where there’s no radio in the kitchen, and no humming or small talk allowed.
I decided to go back to my old distracted ways; made a phone call, turned on the radio, opened bills, all while reading recipes and figuring out what to do with week-old fava beans from my CSA.
But while I shelled the beans, I thought only of shelling beans. For a few moments at least, I thought of nothing but the stringy crunch of shells.
For recipes, visit www.mcweekly.com/edible