Breakaway Cook

SF Zen Center Turns 50 — Come Celebrate at Green Gulch

Wow, I never put it together that I’m the same age as the San Francisco Zen Center — what a nice little coincidence! We’re having a big benefit bash at Green Gulch on Saturday September 8 to celebrate the milestone, and to pay homage to the incredible farming that’s gone on at Green Gulch for much of that time. These zen-inspired farmers were way, way ahead of their time, and have been doing sustainable organic farming for the past 40 years. The farm-to-table luncheon will feature GG produce in an elegant menu written by Annie Somerville, the charming and long-time executive chef of Green’s Restaurant, and prepared by Aaron Jonas and paired with some very creative non-alcoholic cocktails specially created for the event by wine guru Mark Ellenbogen.

The event starts at 11 am, and goes till 2:30. Lots more info, including how to purchase tickets, here. For additional info about the event or even to sponsor it some form, contact Scott McDougall,  who happens to be a matcha maestro and incredibly nice person, at [email protected] And speaking of matcha, we’re trying to arrange a tasting of our Blend 97 near the dessert course, so even more reason to book a seat or two. Proceeds from this event will help support the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center’s Cloud Hall renovation project.

I’ll be a featured speaker, as will legendary organic farmers Wendy Johnson and Sarah Tashker. Other speakers include CUESA’s Dave Stockdale, and 18 Reason’s Olivia Maki.

Don’t miss it! Afterward you can take the surreally gorgeous walk from Green Gulch to Muir Beach, which has to be one of Marin’s most magical. See you there!


Photo by Gyokuden Steph Wenderski 

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Breakaway Cooking with Tea, at Tassajara

I couldn’t be more pleased to announce another workshop at one of my favorite places on earth, The Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, in the Ventana Wilderness, east of Carmel. It will take place from May 31 to June 3, and it’s going to be all about cooking with tea. Well, our morning and afternoon sessions will be all about tea, but there will be heaps of time to explore Tassajara, sit in the zendo, get personalized meditation instructions, take long soaks in some of the finest baths in the country, take walks, read and relax, and eat fantastic food.

There are I think four spots left (we like to keep it small). People tend to have pretty magical experiences there — do join us if you can! You can email me if you have any questions about it.

You can reserve a spot online here,  and the  official description is this:

Discover and explore an entirely different culinary universe through the lens of fine teas.

Enjoy the taste, health benefits, and ritual of tea by learning to cook with it! We’ll explore all kinds of unusual uses of favorite teas, including matcha, rooibos, genmaicha, oolong, jasmine, hojicha, and lapsong souchong. We’ll learn how to make flavored tea salts and sugars, tea sparkling waters, tea crusts for proteins, tea infusions in soups, and much more. We’ll also introduce the notion of mindfulness while cooking and preparing tea, and discover the focused, yet relaxed, energy brought on by good tea.

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Giving Thanks To All Breakaway Cooks!

Many of you are no doubt doing some last-minute scrambling to get your Thanksgiving table in order. It’s a fun and meaningful holiday (imagine that!), as long as the THANKS gets more emphasis than the GIVING. Give all that you’re capable of, to be sure, but don’t sweat it too much. You’re never going to have some textbook, idyllicized day and meal, no matter how hard you plan it, so why not take most of the pressure off yourself and just relax into it, knowing it’s all going to turn out just fine, or better than fine?

That said, I might try a few different things year, including spatchcocking and grilling the bird, maybe with some Vietnamese influences (fish sauce and chile and fresh herbs and grilled turkey sound great to me), plus maybe a new, fruit-based stuffing with a few kinds of rice (lately I’ve been combining brown, red, wild, and japonica, held together with olive oil and minced herbs), and maybe some simple persimmon-based dessert. I’m also going to try making quince paste/membrillo, except I plan to use persimmon instead, to be served with some fresh-baked bread and good cheeses. With some good wine, that ought to do it. Some effort, yes, but no going crazy.

The best part is consciously being thankful for this surreally blessed life of ours. Try to list a few things you’re insanely grateful for, and — this is the harder part — sustain that feeling for a good 10 minutes, multiple times throughout the day. Drop whatever you’re doing, and just let that gratitude flow, unencumbered, for a while. It’s an instant cure for any anxiety you might be feeling about the meal.

And thanks for reading and participating here. I’m grateful for our little community, too.


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A Personal Note — I’ll Be Blind For a Bit

Those of you who know me personally know that I have terrible vision: minus 15.5 diopter, which puts me far into the legally blind category. I’ve always taken to contact lenses well though, so correction to 20/20 hasn’t been an issue. Until now.

I’ve worn contacts since 1973; before that it was some pretty thick funky glasses:


The problem with having specialized contact lenses in my power is that only a few companies make them. The bad news for me is that the company that makes the ones that are most comfortable for me just got swallowed up by Novartis, who, in their infinite quest to keep shareholders happy, decided to discontinue this rather unpopular and (I’m guessing) not-so-profitable lens. I thus now have three options:

1) wear uncomfortable contacts

2) wear glasses

3) have eye surgery

No one can wear uncomfortable contacts for any real length of time, so that’s out. I can’t really go back to glasses, because my extreme nearsightedness means that my glasses have a very small “sweet spot” where everything looks good, right in the center of the lens. There is virtually no peripheral vision — making driving a very hazardous endeavor for myself and for others — the weight of the glasses cause unpleasant facial pressure, and they give me a headache when worn for extended periods.

So surgery it is. It’s called ICL surgery, and it’s wild. It’s essentially a contact lens that’s worn INSIDE the eye, not outside, and it gets implanted directly over the natural lens. My ophthalmologist, the formidable Dr. Mark Mandel,  has probably done more of these than anyone alive, and the success rate approaches 100 percent, so I’m not so worried. I’ve already had the iridotomy that’s required before the procedure: a laser zaps two microscopic holes in each iris to create a pressure valve that will be needed once the high-tech lens gets inserted.

They’ll do one eye at a time: one on Monday, and the other on Thursday. So I’ll be fumbling around all of next week, unable to do much. But a week or so later, I ought to be able — for the first time in my adult life — to wake up in the morning and actually see. It will be an odd and surreally wondrous feeling, of that I am sure.

Please wish me luck!

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What the Hell is Wabi Sabi, Anyway?

What the hell is wabi sabi?

Regular readers of this space have heard the Japanese term wabi sabi before, and it even feels like the term is headed toward that elite group of Japanese words that somehow make it into common English usage (think anime, manga, samurai, haiku, origami and of course all of the food and ingredient names, and countless others).

I’ve been trying for  a number of years now to come up with a good definition of wabi sabi, so I thought, for a change of pace, to do so in this space. Please forgive the length, and the break from our usual programming: readers interested in only food and matcha may wish to skip it.

First, I want to say that my ideas on Japanese art aren’t really very original. The entire synthesis of the view may be mine, but the components have been expressed elsewhere, and probably more eloquently. The classic, and excellent, text in English is Leonard Koren’s wonderful Wabi Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets, and Philosophers.

To most Japanese, the term wabi sabi is a confusing one; it tends to touch rather deeply on issues of identity and what it means to be a Japanese. It quickly devolves into something known as nihonjin-ron: the seemingly endless debate in the popular Japanese press about what, exactly, it means to be a Japanese. Ask a random Japanese person to try to define wabi sabi, and you will almost always hear something like, “It’s really difficult to explain.”

I’ve never met a Japanese who can confidently articulate what it means. But, like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, (who was talking about pornography) many will say something like, “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

“The zen of things” might be as good a definition as any, since the first Japanese to develop the concept were priests and tea masters. And since zen is itself difficult to express/articulate, wabi sabi is too, and most Japanese have given up trying.

Along the way, wabi-sabi was reduced, simplified, and packaged by Japan’s many iemoto (heads of long family lineages that teach traditional Japanese arts), who are really entrepreneurs of a sort, into a narrow—and definitive—set of rules. This represents the morphing—one might even say death—of wabi sabi from its origins of rustic simplicity into its opposite—something packaged, decided, and even polished and sacrosanct.

Wabi-sabi images force us to think about our own mortality, and evoke a tender sadness, and maybe loneliness, but those feelings are comforted by the knowledge that ALL things in existence share the same fate. Nothing will remain in the end, if we think in evolutionary terms of billions of years.

Diffused light through washi (Japanese paper), the color and textural changes of metal as it rusts and decomposes are classic wabi sabi images. This state of going toward our eventual fate—from something to nothing—and a conscious appreciation of that very state can give rise to incredible feelings of beauty and stillness, yet evoke a feeling of being totally alive and free. It’s a nice space to be in. Playing music is another doorway into that space for me. Wabi sabi is about enjoying the delicate balance between the pleasure we get from things, and the pleasure we get from the freedom of things.

Wabi-sabi is, in one sense, antiJapanese, in that true wabi-sabi diametrically opposes—hates, you might even say—hierarchy. Everyone in the tea room is the same, whether you’re the company president shacho or the garbage guy. Modern clues to discernment——brands, that is—are anti wabi-sabi, by definition.

Very few Japanese I know are comfortable making aesthetic judgments, especially concerning art. Like clothing/fashion, they want to know—from the very first—who made it. Only then will they make the calculation of a final judgment, which won’t be their own anyway; it’ll be the consensus.

When I was editor of a publication based in Tokyo, a quarterly journal on public policy worldwide, published by Japan’s largest and allegedly most prestigious “think tank,” I often got in arguments with my bosses about author submissions. I insisted on reading them blind, and making my judgments accordingly, but my bosses were unconcerned about the intrinsic quality or merit of a given work.

The same goes even more, I think, for more subjective things like painting and sculpture. If a work is well-known, it gets a thumbs-up. If not, no judgment can be “safely” made. This idea of making “safe” judgments is very problematic, and accounts, in my opinion, for the dismal state of literary criticism (or any kind of intellectual criticism, for that matter) in Japan; even to call it dismal overstates the case, as it is essentially nonexistent. Criticism is taken personally in Japan, as an attack.

When we get into something like wine—and there are more licensed sommeliers in Japan than anywhere in the world—this trend is even more exaggerated. Blind tasting makes most Japanese very nervous, because they’re forced, unwillingly, to use their own aesthetic standards, not those of someone else. Japanese sommeliers are the iemotos of wine.

The best side of Japanese art—the purest expression of wabi sabi—is the sense of quiet authority that comes across in an understated, unpretentious piece. I sometimes see this quality in Japanese artists and craftsmen. I know a potter in Bizen, and another one in Yamakita, who simply exude this sense of quiet authority. Everything they touch is done with such a sure hand. There is no need to let everyone know that they are masters—they are utterly secure in who they are and what they do. They don’t really require outside validation, because they know that it lives inside them. That, in my mind, is the real thing.

Today, lots of rich Japanese people are making an attempt to reconnect with their wabi-sabi roots. I was once invited to a weekend of relaxation (which was anything but relaxing) near Hakone, at the country home of a wealthy Tokyo businessman, a house that he attempted to recreate in the spirit of wabi-sabi. His effort was doomed from the outset, unfortunately, as he simply threw money at “the problem.” He paid, at great expense, someone to tear down a beautiful old farmhouse in Tohoku, and transport it to his land in Hakone. The problem was that he was convinced that the place must be sterilized, so he employed an army of cleaners (his wife seemed to be the main cleaner) to mop up the last traces of the very feeling he was trying to create, one of relaxed beauty amid ordinary farm objects and materials. It was more like a farmhouse museum than a farmhouse, a kind of “mansion” interpretation of a farmhouse, in which a very harried housewife nervously and meticulously swept away the remnants of our meals, literally seconds after consuming them. He was a kind of potentate, lording over his fantasy of being king of his country castle.

So on the one hand, I see lots of Japanese people who are longing for more wabi-sabi in their lives. So many of my Japanese guests came to my house in Kamakura house and told me, “I would like nothing more than to live in an old Japanese house.” They saw the old, cheap tansus, the simple garden, the lovely wooden sliding glass doors, the engawa, the wooden cabinets, and got nostalgic for them because some part of them recognizes the intrinsic beauty of those things. Yet in the next breath, comes the inevitable refrain: “But isn’t it hard to clean? Isn’t it fuben (inconvenient) to live here, like this?”

And therein lies the problem. People are willing to give up aesthetic living for convenient living, even if it means living in a small box in an especially nasty area of Tokyo and being surrounded by nothing but depression in the form of indescribable ugliness, all in the name of convenience; as long as the room is easy to clean and the commute to work isn’t so long. Such low hopes for the very people who developed wabi sabi! I hear over and over again how wonderful it must be to live in Kamakura, in an old wa-fuu house, yet when I point out that the rent here is just a fraction of what they’re probably paying in Tokyo, and yes the commute is an hour from Tokyo but one hour is not exactly lengthy by Tokyo commuting standards, a kind of defensiveness sets in, as if they are trying to convince themselves that they’ve made the right decision, the one to live an un-wabi sabi life.

For more on wabi sabi, please do read Koren’s book.

(photograph by Bruce Seltenright)

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A Cookbook To Help Japan


The project I mentioned the other day, an e-cookbook focusing on Japanese-inspired dishes, is finally live at I’ve contributed a bunch of recipes, as has Mark Bittman, Morimoto, Anita Lo, Amander Hesser, and Miyoko Nishimura (Madonna’s personal chef), among others. It’s a pretty cool way to painlessly give something toward Japan’s reconstruction AND liven up your weeknight meal repertoire. Thanks for giving as generously as you can!

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Japan Will Be Back

(my favorite artisanal pickle store in Kamakura)

Like everyone else in the world, I’ve been following the events in Japan closely. As a 16-year resident of Japan, I’m beyond sad for the people affected by this insane tragedy. It’s a resilient place though; Japan as a nation can unite, regroup, and rebuild like no other.

The behavior of Japanese during and after this calamity makes me really proud to have such long-standing association with the country. Is there any other place on earth — upon being upended by one of the most violent earthquakes on record in any country (it was Japan’s worst, at 9.0), followed by a tsunami that carried away entire towns as if they were doll sets, followed by the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl — that wouldn’t freak, wouldn’t loot, wouldn’t revert back to the nasty, survivalist selves that exist, somewhere deep in our genes, in all of us?

Part of that ability to maintain discipline and human decency in the wake of a disaster of this scale is due to the Japanese character itself, but it’s also a testament to how the society has structured itself:

* Japan has a legal system that, despite its many flaws, reinforces and rewards honesty

* the spirit of “otegai ni” (“we’re in this together”) pervades

* police are generally ubiquitous and very visible

* yakuza (organized crime) tend to step in during humanitarian crises, and are often much more effective (and quicker) than government relief agencies, AND they tend to keep close watch over neighborhoods to prevent looting and general antisocial behavior (note that these guys are as far from benevolent as it gets for 99+% of the time — I just note their behavior during crises)

Japanese seem better at “being together” than others. It’s nothing short of miraculous that a group of people could rise from a decimated/firebombed/atomic bombed rubble into the second-most powerful economy on earth in a few short decades, and we have every reason to think that the very same spirit of recovery and “can do” national purpose will rally again, so I have some faith.

People have been asking me the best ways to give/donate/help. Aside from the sane advice of giving as generously as you possibly can directly to the Red Cross, you’ll also have the chance to donate via the purchase of a special cookbook with recipes from me, Morimoto, Bittman, Hesser, and many others. It’ll be available on Wednesday at a cool new site called — I’ll have more info and a direct link in a few days, so please check back.

In another, more lasting, sense, however, I think the most anyone can do help the people of Japan right now is to keep artisanal Japanese products alive and well by adopting them into your daily lives. Maybe make a habit of visiting Japanese markets, and regularly pick up some miso, yuzu, matcha, umeboshi, sake, etc., and make a permanent spot in your fridge for these wonderful ingredients. The artisans who produce them, many of whom come from Tohoku, the afflicted area, will certainly appreciate it.

Many people have also asked me whether matcha is safe to drink in the wake of the nuclear crisis. The answer is YES, absolutely — my suppliers have sent me detailed analyses that they are updating daily on possible contamination due to radiation. Rest assured, there is none, zero. Luckily, the tea fields are in western Honshu, very far from the afflicted area.  But more detail on that in the next post.

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Wasara — The World’s Coolest Disposable Tableware

I’m not a paper plate and paper cup kind of guy, and I imagine not too many reading this are, either. But one look at this elegant little cup — ideal for matcha, no less — sure spun me around on the possibilities of disposable AND biodegradable tableware.

The Wasara series of  single-use tableware is pretty freaking elegant. It’s made from 100-percent renewable, “tree-free” materials: a combo of bamboo, reed pulp, and something called bagasse, a substance leftover from  the sugar-refining process that’s typically thrown away as waste.

This stuff hits all the sweet spots of good design: it’s clean, crisp, utterly utilitarian, and minimalist. It feels good, and stable, in your hands. It’s got lovely texture.  It’s thin, paper-light, and yet robust; it feels terrible and wrong to throw it away after only one use.  And it goes right into the compost pile, not the garbage, not even the recycling bin. Designed (and made) in Japan by Shinichiro Ogata.

Do disposable plates get any better than this?

Branch Home in SF is the exclusive US distributor of this rather stunning series (disclaimer: Branch’s founder, Paul Donald, is a friend. But he didn’t ask for a feature in this space — Wasara is featured because it’s gorgeous, and useful to breakaway cooks everywhere).

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Happy New Year, Breakaway Cooks!


It’s very hard to fathom 2010 actually being gone, but it may be time to come to grips with the calendar. Daphne is our calendar counter from now on — this is her in Yosemite over the xmas break, at 13 months. Those teeth are now chomping down all her favorite foods,  things like spiced duck soup, all types of noodles, potatoes in every form imaginable, grilled mushrooms, lots of eggs, and pomegranate arils by the bushelful (her obsession with them caused some major stomach upset after an especially epic session, but it hasn’t deterred her, and she’s not going to be happy to learn that pomegranates only last one season). She’ll try almost anything, and seems to enjoy setting the bar for general excellence higher each meal!

The big exciting news going into the new year is the matcha ceramics project I’m doing with the renown ceramicist Aletha Soule. We’ve got the shapes and glazes down, after a lengthy and enjoyable design process. I’m calling the glazes blush, eggshell, and celedon. Matcha was MADE for these cups. They’ll likely be ready at the end of January, which is also when I hope to roll out the all-new Publication of The Breakaway Vegetarian Cook is looking like mid-spring, when it will debut as an Ibook and Ipad/Iphone app.

Best wishes to everyone — here’s to 2011 being an extraordinary one for all of us!



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Ben Harper + Great Food and Wine

People sometimes ask me if anything’s changed since I started my SF Chronicle gig. The answer is: nothing at all, save one thing — somehow I got on the list of every food PR agency in the country. PR people send me at least 10 emails a day, hoping somehow that I’ll write about whatever it is they’re promoting. Most are complete Hail Mary passes, but once in a great while — well, exactly one so far — something resonates. The magic words? Ben Harper.

American Express and Constellation Wines got together with the brilliant idea of inviting one of the most soulful, brilliant musicians alive today to Napa, to “pair” his music with the lusty cuisine of Chris Cosentino, of SF’s wonderful Incanto restaurant and a pioneer in the “snout to tail” philosophy of using every part of every animal in his cooking, and the cultish wines of Janet Myers, of Franciscan Estate.  To say that it was a magical evening vastly understates it. It was held on the surreally gorgeous grounds of the Franciscan Oakville estate, with no detail not completely thought out and flawlessly presented.

How Cosentino could pull off this meal for about 80 guests is completely beyond me– it seemed effortless, as did Myers’ very personal wine selections, which included a spritzy blush that blew me away. After dessert, to the wild delight of everyone present, Ben took the stage and performed a full set. As you can see from the photo, if I got any closer to him I would have smothered him! He played some old favorites, but most of the set was from his forthcoming album, which sounded like it will be his best recording in many years.

Bravo to the organizers of this incredible event.

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