Father Jad meets me at a pastry shop in Byblos, a storied city on the Lebanese Mediterranean coast that's one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the world. The ancient Greeks imported papyrus through the region, inspiring the word Bible, a fact the enthusiastic Maronite Catholic monk proudly shares with me while we wait for our order of maamoul, tiny shortbread cookies stuffed with walnuts and dates. After our pastries, we hop into his station wagon to ascend the Lebanon Mountains through an ancient cedar forest, from which King Solomon purportedly sourced the trees for his temple. As we round a hairpin turn cutting through a fig tree orchard, I catch my first glimpse of the Monastery of Saint Anthony Abbot of Qozhaya, an ancient stone structure clinging to the side of a cliff.
The moment we step into the thousand-year-old greeting room, a monk named Father Fadi greets us with a cooling glass of rose water flavored with fresh mint leaves. "Roses are a symbol of resiliency in Lebanon. May you carry this resiliency with you wherever you go," he says with a warm smile. We tour the sprawling grounds of the monastery, passing dented copper stills used to distill arak, the anise-flavored Levantine spirit.
We gather for a meze-style meal at a banquet table that stretches from one end of the monastery's vaulted stone dining hall to the other. There's labneh bi toum, tangy whipped yogurt drizzled with olive oil and topped with sumac; hummus; baba ghanoush; triangles of kibbeh; fatayers, flaky dumplings stuffed with spinach and onions; and plates piled high with charred pita bread. Along the table, the light glances off translucent glass ibriks, drinking vessels similar to the Spanish porrones, all filled with white wine produced at the monastery. Just after everyone settles into their chairs, an elderly monk with a flowing silver beard emerges in the doorway. The other monks stand to greet him, bowing their heads in respect. Father Jad tells me, "This is Father Youhanna. He lived in isolation in a hermitage in the mountains for over 20 years. He returned to the communal life only a few months ago."
"Why did you decide to rejoin your community?" I ask Father Youhanna.
Father Jad translates, and after several moments of closed-eye contemplation, Father Youhanna responds, "Because I missed sharing meals with my friends."
Monasteries throughout the world have long safeguarded the world's culinary traditions, not only ensuring that a region's gastronomic heritage endures, but also, in many instances, defining it and facilitating its evolution. Religious leaders forged some of the earliest trade routes, carrying with them as they traveled from monastery to monastery seeds, ingredients, tools, and kitchen wisdom gleaned over centuries. I have spent the past three years documenting those traditions for my forthcoming cookbook, The Elysian Kitchen. In the course of that research, I've learned that, as much as monastic cooking is steeped in history, it is much more than a relic of the past. Monks and nuns relish their roles as modern cooks, farmers, and food and beverage producers. The making and sharing of food plays a central role in the communal life of these spiritual centers, and the men and women who work and live in them take immense pride in paying homage to their forebears even as they move forward into a dynamic future.
I've also learned that their influence doesn't stop at the front gates of their monasteries; these cooks have also influenced some of the world's most prominent chefs, many of whom have spent time cooking in monasteries, mosques, and synagogues. Chef Ana Sortun, of the acclaimed restaurants Oleana, Sofra, and Sarma in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts, also found her way to Qozhaya, where she was struck by the beauty of the monks' meze-style meals, just as I was. "There was a beautiful delicacy, finesse, and subtlety to the food," she reflects. At her restaurants, she prepares Kibbeh Bil Sanieh, a decadent, special-occasion vegetarian dish that she learned from the monks.
At the 60-year-old Benedictine monastery Keur Moussa, located 30 miles east of the Senegalese capital of Dakar, chef Pierre Thiam found himself so inspired by the work of the monks that he nearly changed his career trajectory. "I've been visiting that monastery for quite some time, and I even considered becoming a monk myself," he says from his home in New York City. "The monks at Keur Moussa incorporate the principles of teranga into everything they do from a culinary and hospitality perspective. Teranga is the most important value in Senegal. It translates as 'hospitality' in the indigenous Wolof language. Its emphasis is on the way you treat others and how you should always offer the best of what you have." The philosophy of teranga has become so important to Thiam that it's the namesake of his West African fast-casual restaurant in Harlem.
The Japanese chef Shinobu Namae, of the two-Michelin-starred Tokyo restaurant L'Effervescence, regularly visits the 13th-century Soto Zen Buddhist monastery Eiheiji, situated on a mountaintop in the Fukui prefecture in west-central Japan. He says, "I learned from the monastery's master chef, or tenzo, Mr. Miyoshi, how to make people feel more peaceful through food." Many of the world's fine-dining restaurants—including his, he notes—offer an experience that amounts to overfeeding. From the monks, he learned a more restrained approach, one where guests are "eating just enough and making sure the food is nutritionally balanced, in order to help the mind and body feel more peaceful, positive, and less aggressive." One recipe at L'Effervescence that reflects the simplicity, balance, and less-is-more philosophy that he learned about at Eiheiji is his signature turnip course, which has been on the menu since opening day. An organic turnip is gently cooked for four hours, and the only thing that ever changes is the way its flavor shifts from season to season. Its humble, understated nature embodies the principles that the chef admires so much.
"It's like a mirage looming in the landscape." That's how chef Cortney Burns describes the 12-story Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Thikse, located at a dizzying altitude of 11,800 feet. It was established in the 15th century in the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh, where the winters are so cold that water freezes in the pipes and the monks rely on dishes like khichdi, a comforting, fortifying spiced rice and mung bean dish, to survive the season.
For Burns, who spent three and a half weeks in Ladakh at Thikse, the most lasting lessons have been what the monks there shared with her about their broader attitudes toward the preparing and sharing of food. "There's a reverence for sharing time and space," she says, "and there were always stories surrounding the dishes, ingredients, flavors, and techniques. The experience really made me start to think about the importance of dining rituals and about how food becomes more meaningful when you weave a narrative into your recipes. I incorporate all of the lessons I learned there into the way I prepare and serve food to this day."