During midday lunch service at San Francisco’s iconic Greens Restaurant, executive chef Annie Somerville is serene but not still: She shuttles constantly between the dining room and kitchen, overseeing staff, trading farmers’ market gossip, and occasionally pausing to answer our questions about her career at one of the country’s first fine-dining vegetarian restaurants.
“I’m a modified introvert,” she says about being at the center of such a high-profile operation. “I’ve adjusted to the attention.” Practice has clearly been a factor in her success. Somerville took the helm at Greens in 1985, four years after joining the staff. (Her only previous experience had been cooking for guests at the San Francisco Zen Center’s mountain retreat.) Unlike vegetarian restaurants that came before it, founding chef Deborah Madison fashioned Greens as a “white tablecloth” establishment, and three decades later it remains a standard bearer for what a meatless restaurant should be.
Eating there is an appropriately holistic experience. Built on a pier in San Francisco Bay, the dining room is dominated by a massive redwood installation by artist J. B. Blunk: a burled wave with cafe tables spilling from it. Vast mullioned windows provide a view of boats in the adjacent marina and the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. The sunny atmosphere is complemented by the cheerful staff and a diverse set of patrons: locals, veggie true believers, and tourists looking for an authentically “San Francisco” experience.
Menu changes are dictated by the cycle of the seasons and the abundance of Northern California’s farms. The cuisine is consistently fresh, locally grown, and tilted more toward flavor and pleasure than amino acid–balanced fulfillment. “I want my food to be a treat,” Somerville says. “I don’t try to meet every possible dietary requirement.”
Cheese plays a key role in her menu, enriching light dishes, adding savory contrast to salads and pizzas, and acting as a binder in such recipes as (link tk) potato cakes. Sourcing the cheese is critical; you’ll often find Somerville at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, chatting with friends and local suppliers such as Andante Dairy’s Soyoung Scanlan. On the February day I visited, Greens’ cheese plate consisted of Andante’s Minuet, Cowgirl Creamery’s Devil’s Gulch, and Wisconsin maker Carr Valley Cheese’s Marisa, all paired with Hamada Farm’s driedfruit chutney.
Somerville’s low-key farm-to-table approach is reflected in her mouthwatering recipes. Don’t be afraid to make substitutions for whatever ingredients are fresh and available; it’s what the chef herself does. The fromage blanc custard used in her Butternut Squash Gratin is a staple in Greens’ kitchen, but its discovery was pure serendipity: “One day we ran out of ricotta,” Somerville says. “A star is born.”
Click below for delicious season recipes from Annie Somerville:
- Annie Somerville's Vegetable Stock
- Annie Somerville's Pizza Dough
- Ancho Chili and Chipotle Chili Purees
- Butternut Squash Gratin with Poblano Chilies, Cheddar, and Fromage Blanc Custard
Photographed by Paige Hermreck