Thursday, October 3, 2013

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

By Thomas McNamee

According to the NRA  (National Restaurant Association), 71% of adults surveyed in 2013 said they are more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally-produced food items.   Twenty years ago, the surveyors might not have thought to ask the question, unless they were from California  – specifically, Berkeley – where Alice Waters has been championing locally sourced food since 1971.  Alice’s restaurant, charmingly named Chez Panisse, at 1517 Shattuck Avenue, was and is an ongoing demonstration that “how we eat can change the world.”

The subtitle of  Thomas McNamee’s book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, “The romantic, impractical, often eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution” says it all. In 1971, at a time when fast food restaurants were springing up like weeds in summer, a charismatic and energetic young woman with more ideas and passion than common sense and money opened a small restaurant in a shabby little house in a sleepy area of Berkeley, California.  Neither Alice nor her staff had much in the way of restaurant experience or culinary training, but despite the odds, and two devastating fires, the restaurant remains one of America’s dining Meccas because of who Alice Waters is and how she changed the way Americans eat.

During Alice Waters’ time in France in the mid-1960s she discovered that her sense of taste was more highly tuned than the average person’s.  Additionally, her “taste memory” was such that she could replicate flavors she had previously enjoyed and create new flavors by combinations of tastes remembered.  Of critical importance to flavor, she found, was the freshness of her ingredients.  In Paris, Alice had lived above the market street where she shopped daily for her foods.  Upon returning to the US, Alice began cooking for her friends and developed a reputation as an innovative cook.  When she opened the doors of Chez Panisse on August 28, 1971, the line of people waiting for a table wrapped around the block.  It would not be the last time she ran out of food.

The American food renaissance began in the early 1960s with the publication of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her PBS TV series “The French Chef”.  Having lived for several years in France where she trained at Le Cordon Bleu, Mrs. Child and two friends developed a methodology for cooking in  the French style with commonly available American foods. Her emphasis was on technique and practice so that cooking well would become second nature; the quality and freshness of ingredients were assumed to be inferior to what could be found in France and the recipes reflected that.  Thanks to Julia Child, Americans learned to eat quiches, soufflés, pâtés, and mousses and our restaurants improved as a result.  

At the same time that Americans were learning to eat gourmet foods, factory farming began to overtake family farms.  These massive farms produced pesticide-laced fruits and vegetables as well as antibiotic- and hormone-saturated meat and poultry.  In addition, agricultural laboratories developed artificial means of extending the shelf life of fresh foods so they could withstand weeks of refrigerated storage before appearing at a grocery store.  The result of these innovations is abundant and low-cost produce and meats, sadly lacking in flavor and nutrients.  Moreover, the long range effects of ingesting chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones are not fully understood, but are certainly not benign. 

The food we eat is a product of where and how it is grown.  Alice understood at an early age that foods grown from healthy soil, and animals raised on small farms by caring farmers not only tasted better, but were better for us.  As she became knowledgeable about farming practices in her constant quest for local food sources, Alice developed a vision of feeding America, and the world, in a way that would nourish both the consumers and the earth.  Her growing celebrity paired with her vision inspired what came to be called the “Slow Food” movement. 

Rome, Italy, is a place where the continuum of history lives in plain sight.  In the late 1980s, McDonalds opened an outlet at the foot of the Spanish Steps, one of the city’s greatest gathering places.  The outrage over this assault on culture, tradition, and history led to the founding of “Agricole”, the world’s first official Slow Food organization.  If “fast food” is mass-produced in factories weeks or months before it is sold, “slow food” is grown on small farms, harvested at peak ripeness, and quickly brought to a chef’s kitchen for consumption that same day.  Italian food has always been “slow” which is why it tastes so much better in Italy than in America.  The appearance of McDonalds in the heart of the eternal city signaled a coming and unwelcome change to centuries of land stewardship and food production in Europe.  Alice Waters endorsed the Slow Food movement and became a vocal advocate.

How Alice Waters not only kept her ineptly managed restaurant alive and changed the way Americans feel about fresh foods is a fascinating and well-told story.  One of Alice’s gifts is that she is a people magnet.  She has always had many friends and as her fame grew, she attracted celebrities to her circle.  This access to the rich and famous enabled her to reach a wider audience than her restaurant patrons.  She began lecturing and publishing books, traveling frequently, and delegating responsibility for Chez Panisse to others.  Her management style, if she has one, is capricious.  She breezes into the kitchen, examines this, tastes that, and as often as not changes the entire menu requiring emergency produce runs and reprints of the menus (if time permits).  Surprisingly, turnover is low as employees know they will never find another restaurant where the sourcing, preparation, and presentation of food is a quasi-spiritual experience.

In 1983 Alice gave birth to her only child, Fanny, and her worldview changed abruptly.  Suddenly a “grownup” she circulated a memo to the restaurant staff stating the “five causes for immediate dismissal:”

  • Stealing from the restaurant or employees
  • Being drunk on the job
  • Fighting on the premises
  • Throwing food on the premises
  • Smoking marijuana on the premises during hours of operation

Her biggest concern, however, was that her child grow up appreciating and having access to untainted food.  This led to the nurturing of farmers who rejected the use of pesticides, chemicals, and other unnatural substances, opting instead to renew the soil with compost and crop rotations.  Procuring organic food for the restaurant became a daily race against the clock as suppliers were scattered all around and transportation arrangements were a challenge to choreograph. 

After several years of complicated logistics, one of Alice’s friends, Sibella Kraus, set up a meeting of organic farmers and restaurateurs which resulted in more efficient means of bringing the farm to the table while broadening the market for clean produce.  Farmers and chefs began working together to coordinate menus with seasonal produce and the results have been far-reaching.  Farmers’ markets once scarce, are now regular fixtures in major cities and towns throughout the US, giving people access to fresh vegetables and fruits as well as baked goods, preserves, honey, and crafts. 

As Fanny grew and entered school, Alice noticed how few children ate nutritious lunches and this prompted her to champion an “edible schoolyard” program.  Her vision was an interdisciplinary program in which the children would tend the garden while learning about plant biology, teamwork, and planning and sequencing of tasks.  Garden produce would supply the school cafeterias with fresh vegetables and fruits; organic waste would be composted and eventually returned to the garden beds.  Alice, ever the visionary, viewed the schoolyard gardens as a way of healing the planet from the ground up.  She lobbied President and Mrs. Clinton relentlessly about planting a kitchen garden at the White House, but they never warmed to the idea.  Alice’s dream of a White House kitchen garden finally came true in 2009 when Michelle Obama enlisted a local elementary school to plant a garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

The economics of running a restaurant are sobering:  according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics roughly 60% of restaurants fail within the first three years of operation in spite of being run by seasoned professionals with strong financial backing.  Alice Waters’ food service experience amounted to making small sandwiches in a department store tearoom across one summer, and a few short stints as a waitress.  Her financial backing was a small loan from her parents.  Chez Panisse literally ran on Alice’s will power for years, losing money and running up debts thanks to sloppy bookkeeping and non-existent inventory control.   The financial story of Chez Panisse and Alice Waters reads like a combination of ponzi scheme and check-kiting scandal, but the story of the food is pure fairy tale, with Alice as the Artemis-like heroine.

Given all this, it is almost miraculous that Chez Panisse is still thriving at the age of 42.  If you ever have the pleasure of dining there pay attention to the details:  the place settings, flowers, lighting, and plating.  Your menu will feature a woodblock printed cover and list the four course set menu inside.  At Chez Panisse, there are no choices so you have to be willing to eat what you are served, even if it is different from what is printed on your menu; because if Alice isn’t happy with something, it will not appear on your plate.   Dining at Chez Panisse is never the same twice so if you don’t like it the first time, you will the second or third time you go.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, written by one of her many close friends, may change the way you think about food and might even inspire you to plant a kitchen garden.  If we are what we eat, this book is definitely food for thought.

Menu from Chez Panisse, Saturday September 17, 2011 

Copyright 2013 Teresa Friedlander

No comments:

Post a Comment