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    Celebrating Vegetables at San Francisco’s Greens Restaurant

    The Gay Gourmet–

    By David Landis–

    Celebrating vegetables and female chefs for 43 years, Greens Restaurant in San Francisco is the gold standard for upscale, vegetarian cuisine. From its humble beginnings as part of the San Francisco Zen Center (which runs Green Gulch farms, one important source for the restaurant’s produce), Greens sowed its roots during the hippie era of tofu, whole grain breads, and organic produce. Now that plant-based and vegetarian menus are all the rage, it’s as popular and creative as ever. Not to mention its Fort Mason location, which has sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge.

    There are even more reasons to return to Greens after all this time: a sparkling new, covered, outdoor parklet with a peekaboo view of the bay that’s super dog-friendly; a craft cocktail program from Seth Corr that delivers vegetable-based yet tasty and innovative drinks (think Gin & Celery Tonic); a dinner series with visiting chefs (the next one is September 28 with Ethiopian chef Adiam Tsegaye of Mela Bistro in Oakland); and most of all, a vibrant, young, new Executive Chef—Katie Reicher—who’s grown up through the ranks at Greens, and is making her mark.

    Let’s start with Chef Katie. She takes the mantle after a long line of impressive female chefs at Greens, including: founding chef Deborah Madison; recently departed Denise St. Onge; and the legendary Annie Somerville, who reigned supreme for more than 30 years, transformed America’s idea of vegetarian cooking into a class of its own, and authored numerous, best-selling cookbooks.

    The Gay Gourmet spoke recently with Chef Katie for the San Francisco Bay Times about trends in vegetarian cuisine, her rise to such an important position at a young age, and her thoughts about the role of female chefs in the industry.

    Gay Gourmet: Tell me a little bit about your background. What was your inspiration for entering the culinary world?

    Katie Reicher: Growing up in the Hudson Valley, I had never really considered culinary to be a career in its own right. But most of my fond memories were surrounded by food. My Italian grandma would walk around the living room with a meatball and a fork moments before dinner was ready. My mom always had a garden, chickens, bees, crops, and vegetables. I’d help her prepare massive holiday meals. We stuck to our traditions. That’s how I gravitated towards seasonal cuisine. I was a straight A student and went to Cornell as a nutrition major. I had always loved food and I was an athlete, so nutrition made sense. I realized early on that I wasn’t interested in the science, so I dropped out of Cornell. While figuring out my life, I got a job at Hudson Valley Cakery, where I thought, this was what I wanted to do. I enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) at that point.

    Gay Gourmet: How did you end up at Greens?

    Katie Reicher: When I attended the CIA, you had to complete a four-month internship at any restaurant of your choosing. I had never been away from my home in New York. I thought, let me go as far away as I can and find something that is vegetable-based. I do eat meat, but I think it’s better for the environment to eat vegetables. California made sense. It has the longest growing season, everything is local, and there’s a great culture. I applied to Greens—and Annie Somerville was so amazing.

    From the moment I stepped through the black walnut doors, I was in love with every part of Greens. Everyone was friendly, and quickly I was adopted into this family. I loved it so much that I moved back the day I graduated to work with Annie as a line cook. I started in 2015 as an intern, and she retired in 2018. I learned a ton from Annie. She is the one who taught me how to think about the seasons, especially in California. She taught me that summer produce can last longer than one would think. She was so kind; that’s the reason I stayed at Greens as long as I did. It’s rare to find a restaurant that values employees. She would thank staff every day. She’d remember family members’ birthdays, and taught in a kind way. Annie now is happily retired. She’s still my cheerleader.

    Gay Gourmet: Greens has a long and storied history. And you’re one of the younger chefs at such an important restaurant. Is that intimidating?

    Katie Reicher: Everything panned out in a beautiful way. I started at Greens when I was 21, I was a sous chef by 24 and Executive Chef by 26. It went by quickly, but I have the training. Some people bounce around, but I was getting a crash course. I’m young, but motivated, smart, and passionate about cooking. I had a lot of strong, important experiences at Greens.

    Gay Gourmet: What is your vision for Greens? Are you changing the direction of the restaurant?

    Katie Reicher: My plan is to keep as much the same as possible. There have been a few changes. The biggest change is how often we change the menu: now, half the menu changes every month. It helps us keep things hyper-seasonal and interesting to our guests. While the bones are the same, the soul of Greens is still celebrating vegetables. But I am 28 and I use miso more than Annie did, so there are new ingredients, new methods, and different cooking techniques. Also, we have brought 100% of our bread production in-house; we’ve changed our “Greens to Go” concept: now we’re offering not just pastries or pre-packaged sandwiches, but the entire menu as well. And, we hope to keep the parklet.

    Gay Gourmet: Is most of your produce sourced from Green Gulch Farms?

    Katie Reicher: A good portion is, but we have a huge network of farmers, mostly from the Ferry Plaza. The San Francisco Zen Center opened Greens originally and the Zen Center owns Green Gulch. Their practices have shaped our kitchen culture.

    Gay Gourmet: What are your favorite dishes on the menu?

    Katie Reicher: My favorites change all the time. Right now, I love our yuba noodle salad, but it may leave the menu soon. My farmer said they were growing sunflower sprouts and it made me think of a noodle salad, because of the texture and thickness. I ran with that theme instead of peanut sauce—sunflower koji vinaigrette (fermented rice that’s sweet). It adds a lightness to the sunflower butter dressing. Purslane, sunflower seeds, cucumbers, and mushrooms are added to the salad, which is topped with spicy sunflower seeds and avocado. I also love the corn and zucchini enchiladas, available at dinner only. It’s a healthy mix of original and new recipes and one of the first recipes I wrote as Executive Chef two years ago. It’s inspired by our stuffed poblano pepper—the tomatillo sauce is an old recipe and the rancho gordo beans are a bit different but reminiscent, with sherry vinaigrette and cilantro. The poblano pepper had goat cheese, so I kept that with the enchiladas.

    Gay Gourmet: I’d like to give a shout-out to your servers, including Becky, who delivered a first-class brunch to us.

    Katie Reicher: They’re phenomenal, which is no easy task these days. All of this goes back to our Buddhist roots. Greens has always treated people with respect, encouraged learning, and supported teamwork. We moved the kitchen employees to a living wage model. The line cooks are making much more money than they did before, and they can work just one job. We’re a restaurant that helps one another. I’m proud to take it a step further. Having a full kitchen staff has allowed us to do well in hiring the front of house. We have had consistent business because we have the employees to manage the business. Our beverage director, Seth, and I provide ingredient lists so people are informed. We have quizzes that we do just for fun. That translates into a great customer experience. I’d like to think that having a female-owned restaurant makes the culture different; there are no big egos or one upmanship.

    Gay Gourmet: Following up on that, as a female chef in an industry still dominated by men, you also come from a long line of women chefs at Greens. Do you think female chefs bring a different focus to the job?

    Katie Reicher: I do feel a sisterhood with the women with whom I work. The women I’m working with are complete and total bad-asses, full of passion. Being a lady chef takes grit. You see each other for your great accomplishments. I’m proud to be part of that. No matter what—whether a woman or man—you can be not a nice person. A lot of women have dealt with abuse in kitchens growing up. When you’re at the helm, it’s up to you to change that narrative. Maybe women are more likely to be more compassionate, but it’s not a general rule. My advice to any chef, no matter their gender, is to break the cycle of toxic kitchen environments and embrace teamwork.

    Gay Gourmet: What do you think are the latest trends in vegetarian and plant-based dining?

    Katie Reicher: Vegetarian food is taking off in a million directions, now that both vegetarian and plant-based approaches are being honored as their own cuisines. Part of it is environmental, some is health related. There was this stigma against vegetarian food—people thought “stale bread and sprouts.” Now, since it’s being adopted by so many people, there’s fast food, and there’s fine dining. The theme is to make really good food. Sometimes it’s incredibly complex like Eleven Madison Park (in New York). This expansion doesn’t change much for us at Greens. We use minimally processed, high-quality ingredients to get the best result. The core of what we do is still very much the same.

    The Gay Gourmet visited Greens both for a weekend brunch and a weekday lunch on the delightful covered patio, where dogs are welcomed. Standouts at brunch included: pinnacle eggs, with just the right amount of chipotle heat, black beans, potatoes, green and red onions, and homemade corn tortillas; corn and poblano pupusas with two eggs over easy, red, white and green sauce, and avocado; a golden-brown homemade cornbread (possibly the best ever) with honey butter; and a gooey cake with fresh strawberries and cream for dessert. For lunch, my pal Leah and I enjoyed splitting the aforementioned yuba noodle salad (made with soy milk), which was simply scrumptious and more than enough for my lunch that day and the next; a corn soup of the day made with coconut milk, both tantalizing and creamy (Leah licked the bowl clean); whole grain, brown seeded-rolls made in-house, which deliciously reminded me of breads from my hippie yesteryears; and some of the best grilled peaches of the season, from Blossom Bluff, with yogurt, hot honey (yes, that’s a thing!), frisée, Thai basil, and toasted almonds. The piece de resistance dessert was a fresh fruit cobbler made with blueberries, nectarines, a buttermilk biscuit, and a clean strawberry sherbet. Additionally, the cocktail menu is creative and fun and the wine list is extensive, with plenty of both California and international offerings. Note to self: the portions at Greens are substantial and invite sharing.

    When I asked Katie to sum up what’s on the docket for Greens, she reflected: “The dinner series is ongoing. Moving forward, I’d like to do a brunch series and work with other chefs as well as an artisan series where I can feature global chefs on the menu. I’m not well-known yet; I’m a young gun who has only been at Greens. I’m focusing on connecting with others in the community.”

    Go now! Greens is every bit as good as the last 43 years, if not better. It’s adventurous, tasty, and healthy, and commands a spectacular view to boot.

    Greens Restaurant: https://greensrestaurant.com/

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: davidlandissf@gmail.com Or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

    Published on August 25, 2022