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The Leading Voices in Food

E119: Chef Deborah Madison – An Onion in my Pocket

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
March 4, 2021

Ever wonder how a groundbreaking, pioneering, and award-winning chef and cookbook author came to such a place? Today, we’ll find out from Deborah Madison. After working at breakthrough restaurants Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Greens in San Francisco, Deborah Madison made her mark in Rome, opened Cafe Escalera in Santa Fe, and became a prolific writer of cookbooks and articles about foods for places like “Gourmet” magazine and “Food & Wine.” Her latest book, which is entitled, “An Onion In My Pocket,” is a memoir. It has been very positively reviewed in many places with terms like “beguiling, honest, and captivating.” And in the words of Marion Nestle, a well-known figure in the food area, the book shows how the path that carried Deborah to become what Marian said is, “The consummate vegetarian cook and cookbook writer.”

Deborah Madison is an American chef, food writer and cooking teacher. She has been called an expert on vegetarian cooking and her gourmet repertoire showcases fresh garden produce. Her work also highlights Slow Food, local foods and farmers’ markets. Madison grew up in Davis, California, and earned a bachelor’s degree with high honors in sociology/city planning in 1968 from Cowell College at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She then cooked at Chez Panisse and was a student for eighteen years at the San Francisco Zen Center. She was the founding chef at Greens Restaurant in San Francisco which opened in 1979. She then cooked for a year at the American Academy in Rome, Italy. She has written for the magazines Gourmet, Saveur, Food and Wine, Kitchen Gardener, Fine Cooking, Orion, Organic Gardening and Eating Well, and for the Time-Life Cookbook Series. She has also written for Martha Stewart Living, Bon Appetite, Diversions, Kiplingers, Garden Design, Kitchen Garden, Cooks, Vegetarian Times, Metropolitan Home, East-West Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Home and Garden, and the International Slow Food Journal. When she first moved to New Mexico, Madison managed the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market and served on its board for a number of year. Madison has been active in the Slow Food movement, founded the Santa Fe Chapter, was active on the ARK committee and served on the scientific committee of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity. She is on the board of the Seed Savers Exchange and the Southwest Grassfed Livestock Association, and is the co-director of the Edible Kitchen garden at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the founding chef at Café Escalara in Santa Fe.

Interview Summary

So your book, “An Onion In My Pocket” – that’s a really intriguing title. How did you come to that?

Well, there was an onion in my pocket one day. And I just was writing about it, maybe telling my editor about it, and she said, “Oh, we should use that for the title!” There was an onion in my pocket because I had been cooking with a friend and these onions were leftover from a pizza we were making. They were beautiful onions and I took it home with me. And then I went to Spanish class and it was in my pocket along with my pencils and papers and things like that. And I took it out, put it on the desk, and people started to laugh. And I thought, to me it’s normal that I have an onion in my pocket or I could have anything in my pocket. I’ve even had a snake in my purse that I brought home once because it was going to eat gophers, which I really appreciate. So that’s how that came about.

Wow, all kinds of interesting things show up in your pocket, in your purse. So in your book, you write about some of your other 14 cookbooks and what was involved in writing and publishing them. Which ones mean the most to you?

Well, I think Local Flavors does, Seasonal Food Desserts and above all, Vegetable Literacy. And they mean something to me because actually the first chant that we learned at Tassajara, which is the Zen monastery I was at was: 72 labors brought us this food. We should know how it comes to us. And all these books are indirectly about how food comes to us and the stories of food. And they’re interesting to me and I’m still very interested in that question. So those are my favorites.

So Deborah you mentioned something that I find fascinating about the story of food. Does it seem to you like it does to me that more and more people are becoming interested in the story of their food, and do you think this is a positive trend?

Well, I feel like it’s both positive and not so positive. I hope we’re not going to lose what we’ve gained in variety, particularly of vegetables because it’s been a long, long fight. You know 40 years ago there was nothing, there was really nothing to eat and now there’s a lot. And yet people are going back to old things as vegetables become harder to get. I’ve even cooked corn dogs for my husband who requested them. And I thought, Oh really? I’ve never even had a corn dog. What is a corn dog? I had to go online to learn how to make one. I think that there’s kind of a retrograde happening right now in the pandemic at the same time I think that people are interested in the story of their food and they have to be because it’s disappearing.

As I look out there and I see more and more restaurants have a board on the wall that lists the farmers where the food comes from and you hear people talk about food miles or the environmental impact of the foods they’re purchasing or consuming. And you know, people are interested in animal welfare or others are interested in some other issue of theirs, but when you put it all together it seems to me that the number of people care about these things has gone way up. And then I at least see that as a very positive trend. But I appreciate your thoughts on that.

I think it’s a positive trend too. And I like it and I hope people really do what they say for here in New Mexico. People would say, “Oh, we use local food” and they’d order a pound of lettuce or something like that. And it would run out. But I think people are doing more. You can taste the difference. You can see the difference customers aren’t stupid. You know, especially if they shop at farmer’s markets there they’re familiar. And if they have gardens and I think more and more people are gardening, at least judging by the seeds and how they’re disappearing from companies who take breaks and fulfilling orders and that kind of thing. But I think you’re right. I think there is more of a concern than there has been in the past.

So you write about what you call Kitchen Lessons things that you’ve learned often from customers. Can you share some example?

The one I was really interested in was ‘Don’t Apologize.’ The example I used in the book was with a customer who said he loved the smoky flavor and the mushroom soup we had made. I know I knew there wasn’t supposed to be a smokey flavor. So I just said, thank you very much because why make him feel terrible about misjudging or not recognizing that the solids have fallen to the bottom of the pot and were scorched. And that that’s what he was tasting. So that was a lesson that I did learn very much from customers.

Other lessons I knew or I learned were to one eat in the dining room. Like a customer is very, very important as a way to getting to know your food treat everybody the same for sure you have to do that. And I mean I learned these lessons in the most painful ways possible. Marion Cunningham taught us a really good lesson when she said, “Debbie, dear do you not believe in salt?” And then she talked about salting food and how you should salt as you go, when you cook. Let’s see be gracious always to everybody. You know, people would come into the kitchen and tell me that that was the best meal they’d had. And I’d wanna say, “you’re kidding.” “What do you eat normally?” You know, but I finally had to learn that their experience was very different from mine and that it was just important to say, “I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” and actually mean it.

And the last lesson, wasn’t so much a lesson but a hint of things to come, which was; know that the six months in the beginning will be the hardest but you will get to leave one day. And that did happen almost to the day. And I was reflecting upon that and thinking at the time, “Oh six months have gone by, I’ve made it, we’ve made it.” And now Greens is over 40 years old. It’s amazing.

Let’s talk about that a little bit. So if you think back to those days when you worked at places like Greens and Chez Panisse, how are those or similar restaurants different today than they were back then? Certainly they’re more popular and visible, but beyond that have things changed much within the restaurants?

Oh yes, I’m sure they have especially Chez Panisse because I never, ever could walk in and get a job like I did then. I just wanted to work there so badly and it made so much sense to me, their food made so much sense to me. And I don’t think I would have been able to do that today for sure. Alice isn’t there so much, like she was then and it wasn’t some new greens for one is the dinners are all a carte menus. They’re much more expensive. They’re beautiful. And menus are printed on heavy paper stock. The waiters know the difference between espresso and espresso, which we didn’t really understand, so much then we thought that coffee drink was to get you going. And it is, but it’s not an express as espresso is pressed, things like that. So I think they are different but I think in some ways they’re the same. Their commitments are the same. They’re just many more restaurants that are doing that kind of thing too.

I scanned the titles of your books. Nine of the mentioned vegetables in the title but you say you’re not a vegetarian, what is that?

Well, I just find it’s too limiting. It’s just too limiting. I think I’m probably a natural vegetarian and that’s the food I really love to cook and eat. But if we are a nation meat eaters and I really think we are I feel it’s important to know what that’s about. And that’s why I’ve been on the board of the Southwest Grass-fed Livestock Alliance twice. And if somebody, I know like my husband, for example wants meat and he was raised with meat, I’m happy to cook it for him. I don’t like the limits of vegetarianism or any kind of food title. I don’t really care to have a label attached to what I eat.

So given that you’re so prominent and writing books for people who are vegetarian do you get any pushback yourself for the fact that you’re not strictly vegetarian yourself?

That’s the strange thing is I don’t I have never gotten pushed back. Maybe people are horrified. I don’t know, but in my book, ‘Local Flavors’ I actually did have 11 recipes that were for meat because meat was appearing in the market. And this was about the farmer’s market movement across the United States. Nobody seemed to notice nobody commented. I don’t know. It’s odd. I haven’t gotten pushback. On the contrary, I feel that people are sort of relieved with this book in a way. I’m not super strict about anything. I’m just not, I have a hard time being struck. Research about the vegetables I eat, I want high quality.

So what do you really think matters about food and how do you define the concept of nourishment?

Well, food that’s cooked with a mind of kindness and generosity, care, thoughtfulness, maybe even simplicity. I think that that’s, what’s important as much more important than what is on the plate, whether there’s a meat or not. And I actually did end the book with a lot of stories about meals I remembered and some of them had meat some of them didn’t, but the point was that they were so generously given and prepared for me that I remembered them. Some of them happened quite a long time ago.

You know what’s fascinating to hear you use words like generosity and kindness and describing how food can be given and received. How does that come through in the way say a restaurant can provide food to people or how families can do it? Cause it sounds like that’s very important.

Well, it is. And I’ve always found that to be true at Chez Panisse. I love, for example, when people come into a restaurant they’re welcomed with kindness with, “hello, can I help you?” And “Oh, you have a reservation with time and please follow me” and there’s bread on the table. All those are something good. And that’s a kind of food kindness that can be extended to strangers. I was writing in my book about more personal kinds of kindness, but not always. In fact, the first story I tell was a meal in Scotland that I had, and it really pointed me to my ‘North star’, which was about how food in season and in its place is the best food always. And you know, that was because a woman agreed to feed this older woman that I was traveling with and myself and we was really hungry and we sat and waited and we looked at the garden and we looked at the Lake and pretty soon she came in with a platter with the vegetables, from the garden and fish in the Lake. It was beautiful. It was really quite stunning


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