Flavors: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee
For many, many years this small and pretty woman continues to change the manner we eat in large and grand ways.
Alice Waters changed the way Americans eat. In Thomas McNamee’s authorized biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, McNamee writes of the evolution of how California cuisine and farm-to-table took root in an old two-story stucco house on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, California.
About a mile north of the University of California, Berkeley campus, Chez Panisse was set right across the street from the Berkeley Co-op and The Cheese Board Collective, and around the corner from Peet’s Coffee, some of the culinary anchors in the neighborhood when the restaurant opened on August 28, 1971. All the while the rest of the country was embracing processed food when Chez Panisse was bringing to the table scratch made cuisine from fresh grown food inspired from the haute and countryside cooking from France.
“Alice went to the University of California, Berkeley and she was kind of a hippie, and lived in a house with a bunch of other girls, and they started to cook together, and also Alice traveled to France, and drank a lot of wine, and ate a lot of food in the countryside," McNamee said of Waters' beginnings. "Then one of Waters’ roommates, Eleanor Bertino, suggested, ‘Alice, you should start a restaurant’”.
Waters is "very pretty, and she’s very small, and she has bright cobalt eyes that are hard to look away from," McNamee said. "When she talks to you, she stands up really close, and as often as not, she will have a hand on your forearm, and she has drawn in hundreds of people with sheer charm at the beginning, and upon that follows her incredible confidence and intelligence.”
Her charm and intelligence brought life and flavor into her restaurant that continues today, 50 years later.
“Mostly the people who came [to Chez Panisse] are extremely good at what they do," McNamee said. "Jean-Pierre Moule from Bordeaux, one of the chefs downstairs, was an extraordinary talent. David Tanis, same thing.”
Jeremiah Tower came to the restaurant in 1973. He "was one of the really great chefs in the history of Chez Panisse and he was formally trained in French cooking," McNamee said.
"He brought a really haute cuisine sensibility when he came to the restaurant which Alice had to suppress to a certain extent."
Tower embraced the rich and heavy French dishes while Waters delighted in countryside cooking served on farms. At Chez Panisse, Waters’ goal was to serve locally grown organic food.
“There was a beautiful creative tension between them,” McNamee added.
The first menu served at the restaurant on opening night was written on a blackboard:
Pâté en croute
Canard aux olives
Having a set menu kept costs down at the restaurant with less of a need to have too many ingredients on hand. The duck for this evening’s meal came from San Francisco’s Chinatown, while much of the produce came from the Japanese produce concession at the Usave on Grove Stret or the Berkeley Co-op grocery across the street from the restaurant.
Dining took place mainly downstairs during these beginning years before expanding upstairs in 1979 when an open kitchen was built. To this day, the prefix menu is served downstairs while above, an a la carte menu is offered in the cafe.
Lines down the street anticipated the restaurant’s opening. While pastry chef Lindsey Shere was preparing the plum tart in a small shack in the back of the main restaurant, behind the kitchen door it was “sheer chaos.” Chef Victoria Kroyer was simmering duck over every burner in the kitchen with every oven packed full. The pâté appeared on the table quickly while the main course was not served until an hour later. The night ended with tremendous success even after Waters turned away at least fifty people still waiting on the street.
“One of the key things about the restaurant is how it hasn’t changed," McNamee said. "They’re still making the same dishes that they have made for umpteen years, and they may make them a little better than they used to make them. The dishes have become simpler.
“Over time they found certain farmers that just grew things better than anyone else. In particular, a guy named Bob Cannard, who started with a turkey farm that was dead. There had been a stream running through and it had dried up,” McNamee said. “Over time Bob ground up all these lava rocks and things like that, and gradually brought the soil back.” Though the field is filled with weed patches, Cannard grows fresh and flavorful bounty.
To continue to fulfill her desire to serve sustainable food and her want to showcase the finest ingredients, Waters started the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1995. The mission is to serve children K-12 a sustainable school lunch with food procured directly from farmers and ranchers who take care of their land and workers. The project also educates students with hands-on opportunities to grow the food that is served in their meals at school.
Chez Panisse not only changed what came to the table, but also altered the lives of those who entered the restaurant. The restaurant’s alumni who went on to open restaurants of their own or authored cookbooks or food missives and columns included: Joyce Goldstein, Deborah Madison, Mark Miller, Paul Bertolli, Samin Nostrat and David Lebovitz.