Zen Kitchen Apprenticeship at City Center

City Center Kitchen and crew. Photo by Liping Zhu.
In the City Center kitchen. Photo by Liping Zhu.

Beginning in January 2024, the City Center Renovation Project will require that application for residential practice opportunities at City Center be suspended. This will continue until the end of 2024 or the completion of the project. Applications may be accepted again beginning in November 2024 for 2025. To stay informed about the project and its progress, please sign up to receive Sangha News and check our social media communications (see links in the footer of the website).

Green Gulch Farm and Tassajara will continue to offer residential practice opportunities, as described on the Live the Temple Life page.

The City Center Zen Kitchen Apprenticeship is a three- to six-month program that provides an introduction to vegetarian cooking in a Zen kitchen, integrating Buddhist practice into every aspect of the work.

The Apprenticeship provides an immersive experience into temple life. Apprentices have the opportunity to practice zazen, engage in ceremonial life, meet with Zen teachers, and connect with a vibrant sangha in the heart of San Francisco. Most importantly, it offers an opportunity to study the self in the reflection of each activity. This apprenticeship can be done on its own, or it can be extended into the two-year Work Practice Apprenticeship.

City Center Cooking

For over 50 years, cooking has nourished the growth of Zen Buddhism in America. The inspiration for City Center’s food and cooking style comes from Eihei Dogen Zenji, the 13th century founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Dogen so revered the teaching he received from monastery cooks that he wrote a set of instructions for running the kitchen—the Tenzo Kyokun. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center, supported creative expression in all aspects of life, including developing the cooking style of the Zen Center kitchen.

The founding generations of San Francisco Zen Center cooks created fresh styles of vegetarian cuisine, emphasizing mindful preparation and joyful activity. Many went on to change the way people think about vegetarian cooking: this includes Edward Espe Brown (author of The Tassajara Bread Book), Annie Somerville (former executive chef of Greens Restaurant and author of cookbooks based on Greens’ recipes), and Deborah Madison (author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone).

City Center continues to produce joyful vegetarian food while maintaining a distinct Zen kitchen culture. Purchasing guidelines ensure that the majority of our food is organic, local, and made from scratch.

Kitchen Work as Practice

Temple work has been at the heart of Zen Buddhism for a millenium, becoming essential as Buddhism traveled from the alms culture of South Asia into China. Self-sufficiency meant a new emphasis on enlightened activity in everyday life. Immersion in a Buddhist kitchen involves wholehearted engagement in the tasks at hand, as well as attention to detail and a commitment to maintaining a harmonious workplace. Apprentices have the opportunity to learn how to apply Buddhist principles in the day-to-day practice of preparing and offering food to visitors and residents.

Formal Zen meditation and training is the foundation of community life at City Center and is an integral part of the Zen Kitchen Apprenticeship. Apprentices follow the daily temple schedule, which includes sitting meditation, services, and temple cleaning (soji). The Zen Kitchen Apprenticeship requires a commitment to the following practice activities:

  • Early morning zazen, service, and temple cleaning six days per week
  • 30 hours of work-practice per week (M – F, 9 am – 12:30 pm and 4 pm – 6:30 pm)
  • Participation in practice periods and practice period classes
  • Regular private meetings with a resident practice leader
  • Monthly one-day sittings
  • Scheduled sesshins, depending on work and practice assignments
  • Saturday morning and Wednesday evening Dharma talks
  • Various monthly and yearly ceremonies and events

In addition, kitchen apprentices study Dogen Zenji’s Tenzokyokun (“Instructions to the Cook”) and meet regularly with practice leaders who are available to help clarify connections between working in the City Center kitchen and “cooking your life.”

The work at City Center can be demanding, requiring an open mind and heart, and a positive attitude. The emphasis of the kitchen apprenticeship isn’t on learning every detail of the culinary arts or how to be a star chef, but rather to immerse fully in the simplicity of chopping carrots or washing pots. In a Zen kitchen, being open to experiencing whatever arises counts as much as culinary expertise.

To Apply

All applicants must have completed a minimum of two weeks as a guest student at City Center prior to applying for the apprenticeship program. Please visit our Guest Student Program webpage for more information.

Anyone who registers for a six-month apprenticeship can participate in a practice period during the course of their stay without paying a fee. For shorter apprenticeship commitments (e.g., a three- to five-month commitment) apprentices cannot be in residency during a practice period, and would need to schedule their stay for alternate times of the year. Practice periods occur in October/November and February/March.

Please apply at least one month prior to your preferred arrival date. Applications may be submitted less than a month before; however, due to the reviewing process your application may not be accepted in time for you to begin your stay on your preferred date. Applications may be submitted up to a year ahead of your planned visit.

Applications are received year round, however, apprenticeship start dates occur between December 15 and August 31. There is a $30 application fee for non-residents, payable when applying. Applications will be available again toward the end of 2024. See note above regarding the 2024 renovation project.

Health and Safety

City Center is a congregate living facility which is home to individuals in high risk categories. As such, our Covid guidelines may be more restrictive than City and State mandates.

Anyone applying to be a WPA must be fully vaccinated with one of the three FDA-approved vaccines and have received one booster.  (If you are an international student who has not received one of these vaccines, but you would still like to join us for a guest student stay, please contact the director.)

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility

As part of a diverse community and world, SFZC acknowledges that diversity practice and dharma practice are not separate. SFZC is engaged in practice, conversation, and study to further embody diversity, inclusion, equity, and cultural humility. Students at SFZC aspire to view all beings as Buddha, treating each person we meet equally with care and respect.

City Center welcomes people of every gender, age, race, ethnicity, class/income level, sexual orientation, political belief, language spoken, and physical ability, and will try to accommodate the requests of the sangha.

I could not be more grateful for the time I spent as part of the kitchen crew during my stay at SFZC … I found that it is possible to practice zazen while cooking, lifting heavy pots, prepping food and doing dishes. It was fun, communal, engaging, and just down right amazing! Thank you SFZC! —Sallamah

The kitchen is a dojo, it is a training place where practice lives in every act … wash rice, chop vegetables, mix condiments, clean utensils, sweep the floor, get everything ready at the appointed time. In silence, with concentration on posture and full attention to the present. Therefore, more than preparing food, in the kitchen we prepare offerings to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. —Ryushu Juan Andrés Ferreira