"Over the years I've asked other cooks at the Zen Center, 'What's the most difficult part about cooking?'" he says in the 2007 documentary "How to Cook Your Life." "They almost invariably answer, 'the people,' having to work with others, having to work with yourself. The food takes care of itself."
For someone who's been practicing Zen for 40 years, Brown can be rather peevish. At a daylong retreat at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California's Marin County, Brown broke from periods of sitting and walking meditation to tell stories of his own anger. When he returned as a guest chef to San Francisco's famed Greens restaurant -- a pioneering vegetarian place that he helped found –- he was asked if he had been a chef there before.
"Excuse me, I'm Ed Brown!" he recalled himself wanting to say. "And I was working here, doing five jobs in the kitchen, before you were born!"
Brown was 21 years old when the cooks at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center agreed to teach the student to bake bread. "For me it was like love," he says. "For them it was like work." From this knowledge and his own experimentation came the Tassajara Bread Book," "and for a few years it became the bible of bread-making."
You could argue that Brown is as responsible as anyone for the California-born movement to bake your own bread and grow your own vegetables that has since swept the nation. (A walking meditation through Green Gulch farms takes you past the fields of lettuce and groves of apple trees that supply Greens.) He spends more time teaching than cooking these days, including weekly sittings at the Peaceful Sea Sangha in Fairfax, Calif., and cooking classes in various places. He also spends a lot of time at both laughing at himself and his anger.
Brown was one of the original western disciples of Suzuki Roshi, the man who brought Zen Buddhism to the US. He recalls complaining to him once about problems he was having in the kitchen, the way the other cooks kept thwarting him, "and he was nodding sympathetically like, 'Yeah, you can't get good help these days!' And instead he said, 'To see virtue in others you must be clear in your own mind.' " Brown paused. "And I thought, 'That isn't what I asked you at all!'"