Retreat Eats

Ann Sieber
dharma chef

I basically learned to cook in the kitchen of a Buddhist retreat center. My father was one of the founders of the Margaret Austin retreat center west of Houston, and I enjoyed coming out and assisting various retreat chefs through the years. Although I'd never been especially interested in cooking before, I was surprised to find I really loved it.

The first half dozen retreats I cooked for were all silent retreats, and a sense of calm peaceful awareness pervaded the eating and the cooking. Slicing a zucchini was done with attention, tasting a miso broth was done with attention, figuring out the proportion of lime juice to honey in a peanut sauce was done with attention. I think this really influenced me as a cook. For me, cooking almost never has the dull stress of routine. Instead, cooking feels grounding, and I relish its capacity for making people — including me — feel nourished, healthy, and delighted.

Eventually I became a lead chef myself, and have been cooking for a variety of meditation and yoga retreats since the mid-1990's, both at the Margaret Austin Center and elsewhere. Here is a list of groups I've cooked for and testimonials.

For myself, I find that if a retreat or workshop has good food and snacks, that transforms it, and far weights it towards the positive direction, that sense of I want to be here! versus ugh! this is hard — my back hurts — everything feels strange — why did I ever come?!

As I cooked for more and more retreats, I started to be known as a chef, and it spread to other parts of my life. My principle profession is as a writer and editor. As I turned my attention towards food and cooking, magically, I started receiving restaurant assignments. I wrote descriptions of new restaurants in Houston for AOL Digital City for several years, and even wrote a guidebook to vegetarian restaurants in Houston. I even became a personal chef for a year, cooking macrobiotic meals in a couple's home.

I'll admit, calling myself a "dharma chef" is a bit misleading, as I'm actually a Quaker, although count the Buddhists as my secondary spiritual home.

I've cooked within many different eating modalities: vegetarian, vegan, raw, macrobiotic, ayurvedic, food balancing. I have dishes from each that I incorporate into my menus. My own personal favorite is Body Ecology, which borrows from many of these traditions. And I also love spicy food, especially Mexican!

Contact me at

Here's a funny little piece I wrote about My Voodoo Love Affair with My Spice Cabinet