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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Q&A with Greens Chef Annie Somerville, part 2: Keeping a 33-Year-Old Restaurant Fresh

Posted By on Thu, Apr 5, 2012 at 10:00 AM

click to enlarge Greens chef Annie Somerville, loaded up from a farmers' market run. - SETH JOEL
  • Seth Joel
  • Greens chef Annie Somerville, loaded up from a farmers' market run.

Annie Somerville, executive chef of Greens Restaurant, came to the world of cooking through unexpected means. Somerville moved to San Francisco in 1973 to study at the San Francisco Zen Center, and became chef of Greens -- which the center then owned -- in 1985. Somerville recently talked with SFoodie about the challenges, demands, and surprises of a restaurant that has become an institution - both in San Francisco and in the larger vegetarian community. Part one of this interview ran yesterday, and tomorrow we'll post one of Somerville's recipes.

After cooking at Greens for 30 years, how do you keep it fresh, and where do you get your inspiration?

I utilize a lot of cookbooks, but more often now I read magazines, newspapers, and stuff on the Internet. I'm always looking around to see what's going on, and that includes going to other restaurants, reading other restaurant menus, and tasting other chefs' food. I also shop at the farmers' market twice a week, so a lot of the inspiration comes from the vegetables themselves. I will say that I always have a really hard time letting go of certain seasons. Summer into fall is easy, but fall into winter is a tough one for me. I'm always the last one buying the cherry tomatoes at the market.

What dishes have come to define Greens?

There are certain dishes that are pretty much part of the Greens pantheon. Our wilted spinach salad has been with us since day one, and we just vary the ingredients. It could have seeds and olives, or Asian pears and blue cheese, or cherry tomatoes and gorgonzola -- there are a lot of ways to prepare that salad. The mesquite-grilled brochettes are a solid dish that I'm sure no one ever thought would still be on the menu. Again, we vary the sauces, like a honey-ginger miso sauce with red and brown rice, but some other time it might be chimichurri with quinoa. The soft tacos are hard to get off the menu - everyone loves tacos. And in the summer, people love our little griddled corn cakes.

click to enlarge The shepherds' pie at Greens. - GREENS RESTAURANT
  • Greens Restaurant
  • The shepherds' pie at Greens.

Do you still follow a vegetarian diet?

You know, I do, and I tell you - it's a pretty good way to eat all these years! I'm a pretty healthy person, as far as I know. And I'm not absolutely strict - I occasionally have a little fish. But I'm pretty happy eating lots of vegetables, and I do eat dairy products. I don't keep dairy or cook with eggs at home, but we do use eggs and dairy at the restaurant.

If this path hadn't led you to kitchen, what do you think you would be doing?

I love going to the mountains. My husband and I do a lot of backpacking; we're total outdoors people. If I wasn't a chef, I think I would be something like a field geologist - someone who was studying in the field and working outside in high elevation. I would love the opportunity to just live outdoors, cook outdoors, and camp and hike and work. Someday ... or another life!

Alanna Hale is a writer and photographer whose work can be found at alannahale.com. Follow us on Twitter at @sfoodie.

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