Zen Kitchen Apprenticeships

The Tassajara Zen Kitchen Apprenticeship Program is an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in vegetarian cooking while working in a Zen kitchen that integrates Buddhist practice into every aspect of the work.

Tassajara Cooking

Kitchen Prep

For nearly 50 years, Tassajara cooking has nourished the growth of Zen Buddhism in America. It has offered generations of monks, summer students, and guests delicious and innovative meals that have earned it an international reputation.

The inspiration for Tassajara’s food and cooking style comes from 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 Tassajara kitchen.

The residents who helped to found Tassajara created fresh styles of vegetarian cuisine, emphasizing mindful preparation and a sincere and joyful approach. Edward Espe Brown (author of The Tassajara Bread Book), Annie Somerville (former executive chef of Greens Restaurant in San Francisco and author of cookbooks based on Greens’ recipes), and Deborah Madison (author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) helped change the way people think about vegetarian cooking. The Tassajara kitchen continues to produce world-class vegetarian food while maintaining a distinct Zen kitchen culture.

ZMC Kitchen islandZen Practice and Zen Training

Work has an important role in Zen Buddhism. Suzuki Roshi taught that work is as important to Tassajara’s practice as meditation. Immersion in a Zen kitchen involves wholehearted engagement in the tasks at hand, attention to detail, and maintaining a harmonious workplace. Apprentices have the opportunity to learn how to apply Buddhist principles in the day-to-day practice of offering food.

Apprentices learn and develop their craft by taking part in the work necessary to produce three meals for 100 guests and students and a picnic-style lunch buffet. As the primary kitchen staff, apprentices are responsible for food preparation, dishwashing and clean-up, and managing visiting kitchen helpers. As apprentices settle into the fundamentals, they may take on more responsibility for planning and preparing menus, writing food prep lists, and expressing their creativity with food.

The work at Tassajara is demanding, requiring an open mind and heart, and a positive attitude. The pace is quick, kitchen temperatures during the summer are often high, and supplies can be limited by the remoteness of our location. In a Zen kitchen being open to experiencing whatever arises counts as much as culinary expertise.

Sample Kitchen Schedule

Below is a sample of what a typical kitchen schedule looks like. Schedules may vary (breakfast cooks, guest cook assists, afternoon fukuten, and bag lunch preparation will have variations in the schedule). The typical kitchen schedule week is to work three days, followed by a day off.

6:00 am Wake-up Bell
6:15 am Zazen
7:15 am Service
7:40 am Soji (temple cleaning)
8:00 am Breakfast
9:00 am Work Circle
9:45 am Kitchen Service
  15-minute break
12:30 pm Lunch
1:30 pm Work Circle
5:00 pm Bath & Exercise break
6:15 pm Evening Service
6:30 pm Dinner
8:15 pm Zazen or Dharma Event
8:40 pm Three Refuges
9:30 pm Firewatch

Kitchen apprentices actively engage with Zen Buddhism by following the daily monastic schedule and participating in the life of a practicing Buddhist community. They are expected to attend daily morning and evening zazen meditation and to follow Tassajara’s guidelines for monastic behavior. In addition, apprentices study Dogen's Tenzokyokun (or Instructions to the Cook) with the tenzo (head cook). Tassajara practice leaders meet regularly with apprentices to help integrate Zen practice through the zendo schedule, the kitchen, and one's life experience.

Application Timeline and Important Dates for 2022

The dates for the 2022 summer session are April 5 through September 11, although apprentices are encouraged to stay through fall work period until September 26.

Applications process opens:  January 1
Deadline for applications:  March 20
Required dates for Zen Kitchen Apprentices:  April 5 – September 12
First available date to arrive:  April 5
Last available date to depart:  September 26

Applicants should take time to think over their responses to the questions, and provide sincere and candid answers that will enable Tassajara staff to understand their interest in the Tassajara Zen Kitchen Apprenticeship Program, what they hope to learn, and what they feel they can contribute.

What Tassajara Looks for in an Applicant 

Tassajara’s Zen Kitchen Apprentice program attracts a diverse and dynamic group of people with many skills and interests, and of varying ages and backgrounds. Applicants need to have:

  • A desire to learn about Zen practice within the context of living and working in a Zen Buddhist community
  • The capacity to enjoy the intensity of communal life in a remote wilderness setting
  • Interest in creating flavorful and healthful vegetarian meals
  • An openness to new experiences and a willingness to learn
  • Excellent interpersonal skills
  • Attention to detail
  • Focus and organization skills, and an ability to adapt to changing conditions
  • Positive attitude to life and work and the ability to balance work and rest

How To Apply

To develop a clear expectation of what this experience entails, all applicants should read all related information carefully before completing the application.

1. The five-month Zen Kitchen Apprenticeship Program is within the regular Work Practice Apprenticeship Program. Please read the information on Summer Work Practice and Work Practice Apprenticeships.

2. Please complete the Summer Work Practice Application online and select the “Zen Kitchen Apprentice” option.

4. Please pay the $75 Summer Work Practice Application fee by credit card at the end of application. Checks may also be mailed, but not preferred.

Tassajara will send an acknowledgement email within two weeks, and will notify applicants whether or not they have been accepted. Those not immediately accepted may be placed on a waiting list.

For more information, contact Tassajara by email at zmcdirectorassist@sfzc.org or call 831-659-2229.

One apprentice described their experience in the Tassajara kitchen:

It's a kind of thrice-daily miracle that from late April to mid-September, the Tassajara kitchen feeds 70 Zen students and an equal number of Tassajara guests with a crew whose members have astonishingly different backgrounds. While some are long-time Zen students or accomplished cooks, others are new to Zen practice or learning to make meals for the first time. Each of us belongs here, and how a day in the kitchen unfolds is to some extent the unpredictable sum of our labors, moods, ideas, sounds and silences communicated through an intricate choreography of movement in a bustling, bounded space.