During our California vacation last September, Jim and I spent a few days with friends who live down the street from Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And, embarrassingly enough, we never made it to the restaurant for lunch or dinner while we were there.
Not that I minded, at the time. I had developed a vicious cold during our drive up the coast from Los Angeles. And when I wasn’t knocked out from various meds we were too busy having fun with our Berkeley friends, grilling in their beautiful backyard and hanging out among the lemon trees.
But after reading Thomas McNamee’s book, Alice Waters & Chez Panisse, I now know what we missed. From its chaotic opening night in 1971 (where some patrons waited hours for their entrée of canard aux olives), Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse has been more than just a restaurant. Exciting and experimental, it has gradually become an American institution. By the end of McNamee’s well-written book, both Chez Panisse and Alice Waters feel like old friends, their histories and philosophies fully and enjoyably explored.
Waters’ most important inspiration comes from the food itself. Whether assembling a simple green salad or a fruit tart, Waters has always sought only the best ingredients for Chez Panisse. Even the casual, conversational recipes scattered throughout the book make this point paramount. Its no wonder that Waters and Chez Panisse have become synonymous with the seasonal, local food revolution finally making its way across the nation.
As McNamee explains, Waters’ conviction that how we eat is directly linked to our quality of life grew with time, especially after the birth of her daughter Fanny. This belief became the basis of Waters’ activities outside of the restaurant, eventually leading to her creation of the Edible Schoolyard project and involvement in the Slow Food movement. From establishing relationships with local farmers to providing the best possible working conditions for her staff, Waters’ professional decisions are almost always based on her own desires and beliefs.
But as the book also makes clear, this professional success sometimes came at a high personal price to the “mother” of California cuisine. At the heart of it all, Waters has created a life around her restaurant and the philosophies it embodies. And we are now benefiting from her years of hard work.
McNamee’s authorized portrait of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is enjoyable for anyone interested in food and where it comes from. The stories about Waters’ circle of friends, lovers, and chefs are fun to read as well as integral to the unique history of the restaurant. And of course the book has convinced me that I’ve got to get there someday. I’ll find a way, believe me.