With her famed Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Alice Waters helped give rise to a new cuisine based on locally grown, seasonal ingredients. Waters and her biographer discuss what has made the Chez Panisse such an offbeat and memorable place to eat for more than three decades.
Looking back, Waters would say it all began for her with a bowl of cafe au lait. As a student on a sojourn to Paris during the 1960s, Waters had never sipped anything so good. Soon, trips to the French countryside introduced her to the power and pleasure of local foods: mussels just off the boat, freshly pressed virgin olive oil.
Waters came back to Berkeley transformed. She hatched a plan to convert a run-down old house into an elegant bistro.
Opening night was in August 1971.
"I didn't know what to expect when we opened," Waters says. "I hadn't worked in a restaurant and ... I was still hammering the rug in on the stairs as people were coming in the front door."
The opening-night menu featured a rarity for those days — farm-raised fresh duck, instead of the frozen variety.
"So from that very first night, there was a difference in the raw materials served as Chez Panisse," says Thomas McNamee, author of the new biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution.
On that first night, Waters positioned herself where she always wanted to be — in the front, greeting and mingling with the diners. Back in the kitchen would be a succession of creative and colorful chefs.
One of the most outsized talents was Jeremiah Tower. Among Tower's qualifications: He was taught by an Aborigine in Australia to roast barracuda and wild parrots on the beach.
"He was a swashbuckler and he loved to do things in very complicated ways," McNamee says of Tower. "Both he and Alice shared an enthusiasm for the best ingredients. Jeremiah tended to go for the baroque in terms of preparation, and Alice tended to go for greater simplicity. That created conflict, but the conflict, in turn, became a synthesis."
This baroque sensibility led to menus like one in honor of Salvador Dali featuring a cannibal parfait. And one menu where every dish contained a single wine, sauterne.
There was imbibing in the kitchen as well. In the first year alone, $30,000 worth of wine was unaccounted for.
While many chefs have come and gone, one constant at Chez Panisse has been the growers. One of Waters' innovations is cultivating personal relationships with organic farmers.
Waters uses a network of growers, some of whom specialize in one thing — for example, peaches grown from one tree that might be picked in a single week in July.
Thirty-five years on, Alice Waters hopes to impart this intimate approach to food to a new generation. Through her Chez Panisse Foundation, she's created a garden-to-table project called the Edible Schoolyard, which began with a middle school in Berkeley where students grow their own food.
In a world of fast food and childhood obesity, the project aims to lure children into eating right.
"We have to create a circumstance that is really irresistible," Waters says. "And fortunately, nature is irresistible."