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November 16, 2007

Zen Can Cook

Cook Your Life chef brings viewers (and himself) back to basics

Now we're cooking: Edward Espe Brown and class in the documentary How to Cook Your Life (Photos: Roadside Attractions)

Advice to all chefs in training: From now on, when you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup. These are some of the lessons offered by Zen priest Edward Espe Brown in Dorris Dörrie's new documentary How to Cook Your Life (opening today in New York). Part omniscient camera inside Brown's cooking classes at Zen Buddhist centers, part critique on the overly processed American diet and the decline of home cooking, the film centers more or less on Brown's culinary philosophy.

For all its rich offerings, however, the least-cooked dish in the film may just be its subject.

"It's a sense of demystifying cooking and giving people the confidence to use their bodies to turn their ingredients into food and sharing it with others," Brown said of his teachings during a recent interview with The Reeler. "In Buddhism, personal fulfillment and well-being are tied to the question, 'Are we living in a way that benefits others?' "

The "how to" in the film's title sounds misleadingly stodgy, like a classic cookbook from the likes of Julia Child. One does not, for instance, witness the entire preparation of any food in the film's 93 minutes (although a limited number of booklets with Brown's recipes and quotes from the film will be distributed to audiences this weekend at IFC Center). Yet not unlike the way Child is credited with bringing the very essence of French cooking into the everyday American kitchen, Brown is on a similar mission towards doing just that for the principles of Zen Buddhism.

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An ordained Zen priest since 1969 and author of five cookbooks, Brown recalls in the film that early in his Zen training, monks thought him and his hot temper unfit to continue. Dörrie hints at this characteristic but doesn't delve far into his emotional history: Orphaned at the age of 3, Brown was adopted into a Unitarian household three years later. His adoptive father remarried not long after, bringing the third mother into his life. "It turns out that I went to six different grammar schools, even though I only lived in four different places," Brown said of his childhood. Eastern philosophy appealed to Brown in college, who described himself then as alienated and anxious. He received an A for a sociology paper on alienation and anxiety, but it didn't help him feel any better.

Studying Zen felt more productive, he said, and following a monastic schedule gave his life stability. "One is encouraged to seek for oneself," Brown told me. "I've always appreciated that kind of approach. I ran into that instance with food; [other philosophies] are very adamant about food, and they're sort of saying, 'Do it the way we tell you.' There are a lot of diets like that too, and for the first time I thought, 'Well, do you?' "

Brown and filmmaker Doris Dörrie in San Francisco

After a stint as a dishwasher, Brown worked as a cook at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in San Francisco. Thus began his training in Buddhism at the same time he began to cook, and he found synergy in the two meditations. In 1970, shortly after being ordained, he published the international bestseller The Tassajara Bread Book; he began teaching cooking classes in the mid-'80s. In How to Cook Your Life, he tells his class that it is not just they who are cooking the food, but the food, in a way, is also cooking them. "I try to learn from what I'm doing," he said. "After a while I sort of have a sense of how to do things without certain recipes. So that lets me use the things that are available."

Dörrie explores this concept through traveling to various small farms, foraging enclaves and weaving in found footage of Brown's late Zen Master Suzuki Roshi. Departing from Zen principles, however, it doesn't all come full circle; it's occasionally difficult to keep track of who is being interviewed and how organic produce ties into the equation. At its core, however, the documentary makes a case for better understanding food in order to better cook it, using all the human senses. A recurring mantra heard from Brown in the film encourages cooks to treat food "like their eyes and ears."

How to Cook Your Life may be a tough sell to New York audiences, who might assume that both its subject and its "Zen in the art of cookery" message are just a little too niche, oddball or even West Coast to be relevant to many. But as alluded to by Brown's "Born Again Buddhist" T-shirt in some of the doc's classroom scenes, to be born again anything -- and to complete the transformation -- is a hallmark of the American dream. "When people watch me in the kitchen and I'm not worried about doing things right," Brown said, "they realize that there are a lot of possibilities."



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