On the eve of Chez Panisse’s 40th anniversary in 2011, Berkeley was buzzing. Around the Bay Area, an A-list crowd of chefs, activists, and artists had agreed to take part in several fundraiser dinners for Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard Project. New York Times reporters were covering the scene at various satellite events—including Michael Pollan’s open-air pig roast hosted at his Berkeley home.
The hub of activity, though, was still centered at Chez Panisse that night, and I decided I would make my way back there after I finished volunteering at one of the fundraisers (at the time, I was employed as a runner). I showed up at the host’s hillside home in my Sunday best, dropped off by a taxi—meaning I had no way back to Chez. After the last course was served, she graciously offered me a lift on her bike. Thirty minutes later, I arrived at the restaurant a bit flustered, still in my suit, having survived a hair-raising ride on the saddle of her bicycle (I had wrongly assumed she meant motorcycle). She’d waited until we were in transit to mention the pot brownies she’d just eaten, and they seemed to grant her a particularly blithe attitude towards Berkeley’s famously steep hills.
But we made it in one piece, and I walked inside to find Tom Waits and David Byrne sharing a table. As we passed through the dining room, my driver tapped me on the shoulder, flashing a knowing smile—the brownie-fueled ride was worth it after all. This was Chez Panisse: the kind of restaurant that attracted the country’s greatest minds, but also the My Fair Lady-like hippies of the Berkeley hills who could give you MacGyver-style rides on the back of their bikes. The restaurant’s magic, I realized, came from channeling both.
I do like Instagram, but I think it’s a little bit more than just, ‘Oh, nice pictures of peaches.’
In light of the chemical wizardry that defines modernist cooking, it’s remarkable to think that Alice Waters’ storied restaurant is epitomized by a simple bowl of seasonal fruit; and how that same copper ramekin filled with either strawberries, Kishu tangerines, or Medjool dates—depending on the season—has attracted the Dalai Lama to her kitchen, and inspired Michelle Obama’s garden at the White House.
Showcasing ingredients at their peak, the iconic dessert bowl is symbolic of Waters’ legacy—one rooted in the notion that a restaurant is indebted to the bounty of its local farmers; and that California’s raw materials can breathe in new life into a seemingly untouchable tradition like French cuisine. “It’s about bringing people to their senses,” she says.
Photo courtesy Chez Panisse
That radical premise for American cookery, which grew out of the ‘70s, would go on to awaken the food world’s consciousness as it was repeated as a mantra by the luminary figures that passed through Chez Panisse’s doors: Dan Barber, Jeremiah Tower, Judy Rodgers, Lindsey Shere, April Bloomfield, David Lebovitz, and countless others who worked or staged in its open kitchen.
“When I returned from a study abroad program in France, I was really looking for ingredients that I wanted to eat again. I had some ‘back-to-the-land ideas,’ but those health food stores didn’t quite resonate with me,” Water remembers.
The light bulb went off when she began to visit organic farmers in the area. “We just started buying whatever they told us to buy. It changed the restaurant dramatically, to have an understanding of the intellectual work required, to understand the nourishment that farmers like Bob Cannard provides. I thought he was joking when he said his carrots were ten times more nourishing than anybody else’s, but now I know why.”
Once [a restaurant] is thought of as an institution it’s not something you can really abandon.
Waters has stood at the center of what is now referred to as The Food Revolution—fueled by her counterculture ties to Berkeley, as well as the poets and politicians who have aligned themselves with her vision, and called Chez Panisse a second home. Her belief that individuals have an inalienable right to access delicious, sustainable food is reflected not only in her work outside of the restaurant—installing Edible Schoolyard programs at schools around the country—but it’s also manifested in the ethos of Instagram-savvy contemporaries like René Redzepi or Roy Choi.
And that’s not to say that Waters has no social media skills of her own. “Have I? Very rarely,” says Waters of her selfie game. “I do like Instagram, but I think it’s a little bit more than just, ‘Oh, nice pictures of peaches.’”
While a sense of calm defines the homegrown aura surrounding Chez—cooks deshelling peas on the back patio; nightly staff meals at the long booths; foraging runs for chanterelles in nearby Tilden Park—Waters always sought to engage in a bigger conversation about food as a tool for social change. Yet maintaining an institution with values that resonate so deeply has also presented its own set of challenges—including concerns about whether people cling too closely to its principles.
“It requires a psychological care-taking,” says Waters of her restaurant. “Once it’s thought of as an institution it’s not something you can really abandon. You have to figure out the best way for it to renew itself and stay alive. I used to ask myself every year, do we want to do it again? By the 20th year, it was difficult to return to that question. It had come to the point where we meant something to the people in the community.”
We caught up with the global icon and asked her to reminisce on the milestone eating experiences that shaped her vision for Chez Panisse: chestnut-honey ice cream at the Medici estate, bouillabaisse feasts with her mentor Lulu Peyraud, and—believe it or not—a seminal $3.50 bottle of wine.
Apricot jam on a hot baguette in Paris
When I was in college in the ’60s I went to France for my junior year, and that’s when I really woke up to real food. I remember that first taste of apricot jam on a baguette that was still hot from the oven—I just immediately wanted to eat that every single day. And I did! Back then every corner in Paris had a place where baguettes were baked in the wood oven. Everyone went to the bakery, and you waited in line in the mornings for your baguette. I liked that the apricot jam I found there had a tart-sweet taste to it—not sweet-sweet, but with a hint of acidity. At the time I thought apricots were apricots, but what I learned later is that there are all these amazing varietals, and when you get the right one in the right microclimate—like a Blenheim apricot in mid-summer in Brentwood—they’re ethereal. They make beautiful jam, of course, but I love to eat them just off the tree. We get tiny small ones at Chez Panisse and put them in our fruit bowl when they’re at their ripest in July. They don’t need any adornments and can be transcendent. (Photo: La Fujimama)
Goat’s milk in Turkey
Right after my year in France, some friends and I spent time camping through Turkey. There was one night when we set up camp, but didn’t realize we were actually camping on somebody’s pasture. We pitched our tents, and in the morning one of the shepherds had tucked a bowl of warm goat’s milk right inside of the tent for us to have for breakfast. That hospitality and kindness from complete strangers sort of astounded me—and the freshness and aliveness of the warm milk was incredible. Milk changes according to what the goats are eating—so in the spring and early summer, like it was in Turkey, it has a sweet, grassy taste. I’ve always loved goat’s milk and fresh goat’s cheese, which is a wonderful everyday cheese; on the Chez Panisse menu, the one constant is always a salad of garden lettuces with baked goat cheese. The flavor of the cheese is a little tart, and when it’s really fresh it’s very creamy and light; it’s wonderful after dinner with figs, too. (Photo: Savon de Bali)
White truffles in Northern Italy
One of my earliest trips to Italy was in the mid-’70s. My friend Sarah and I were somewhere in Northern Italy between Florence and Torino, at a little tiny family osteria up in the hillside, and I remember having someone come to the table and shave white truffles on top of a wide noodle pasta I had ordered. And I was struck with the thought that it was maybe the best thing I’d ever had in my whole life. I didn’t know what white truffles were at all. I’d heard of black truffles, but they’re entirely different things from white truffles. White truffles are much more perfumed when they’re raw—they’re meant to be shaved over warm things, whereas black truffles are more meant to be cooked. After I ate it I kept pondering, why was that so good, what was that? I almost couldn’t imagine that that sort of fragrance and taste could exist.
One time, years later, I bought a whole jar of white truffles when I was in Italy and feeling pretty extravagant. On my way back to the States I went to meet my mentor Richard Olney in London, and he asked me to come to dinner with the extraordinary Elizabeth David. I brought the truffles with me, thinking we’d maybe use half of one, and somehow the three of us ate the whole jar! It was a staggering amount. Richard shaved truffles on everything—the bread, the parmesan cheese, the sausage, the potatoes—and that was the end of them. (Photo: JeParleAmericain)
Levain bread at Poilâne Bakery (Paris, France)
It must have been in the early ’70s when I went to Lionel Poilâne’s bakery in Paris for the first time and had a loaf of levain. It looked fantastic—this big old crusty loaf of bread—and the flavor was sublime. Everything about it was completely unique, because Lionel had perfected his own flour, his water, the type of wood that he used in the oven, and all of it went into the flavor of the bread. That levain became the basis for what we serve at Chez Panisse as our bread with every meal. I remember insisting to Steve Sullivan—who started working at Chez Panisse as a busser, then became our resident baker, and later started Acme Bread—that he learn exactly how to make that particular levain. And he learned so well! (Photo: My Italian Smorgasboard)
Bouillabaisse at Lulu Peyraud’s house, Domaine Tempier
Lulu Peyraud—the now 95-year-old proprietor of the Domaine Tempier vineyards—has been one of my lifelong mentors, and she is one of the greatest and most intuitive home cooks I’ve ever met. I can’t remember the first time I had bouillabaisse at Lulu’s home in Bandol—there have been so many times through the years—but it is one of my favorite things in the world. I have always loved that experience of cooking over a fire outside. The whole unhurried process goes from first thing in the morning until late afternoon. It’s a production of the whole Peyraud household: one person makes the aïoli, one person tends the fire, one person makes the rouille, one person fishes for the fish. It is really a family labor of love, and you can’t help but appreciate the subtlety of it and the unbelievable aroma of it as all the parts come together. We always eat it together around a big table under the grape arbor at lunch, with lots of rosé to wash it down. (Photo courtesy Lulu Peyraud)
Chestnut honey at Badia a Coltibuono
In the mid-’80s, when my daughter Fanny was two years old, we went to Italy and stayed at Badia a Coltibuono. An old friend, John Meis, had invited us to visit this place in Tuscany between Florence and Siena, where he was a caretaker of Lorenza de’ Medici’s historic house and estate that had existed since the first century. The house was in the middle of a chestnut grove, and they made this chestnut honey there and served it warm over vanilla ice cream. I had another one of those epiphanic moments where I said, “Oh my god, what is this?” It’s rich, a little bitter—it’s really a taste I’d never, ever had before. I still have some of that chestnut honey saved from that trip in a bottle in my pantry. I refuse to eat it all up—I want it to be there forever. (Photo: Ping Ming Health)
Extra-virgin olive oil in Tuscany
On that same trip to Badia a Coltibuono, we went up into a little village where they were doing the very first pressing of the olives, when the oil is just running off the olives from the pressure. I mean, this was really extra-extra-extra virgin olive oil. The whole town smelled like olive oil! You would go up to the press and put your glass under the spout. I tasted it and that was just it for me. I’ve used that flavor as my measuring rod for all other olive oils since then. Every year I wait for the new oil to come in—there’s nothing better than a drizzle of it over warm toast. It’s the basis for many, many dishes at Chez Panisse—just that incredible oil and toast. (Photo: Turismo Intoscana)
Mulberry ice cream at Chez Panisse
Mulberries were a revelation to me. I remember playing under the mulberry tree in New Jersey when I was a child, but the mulberries seemed very sour to me at the time; I think I must have always picked them too soon. But the mulberry tree—which had branches that dipped all the way to the ground—always made a great little house to play in. After the restaurant started and we were on the hunt for the best fruits in the area, we found this one guy who had a gigantic, ancient mulberry tree, and we started bringing the fruit to the restaurant from just that one tree. The mulberries are incredibly delicate, and the season is so short, and so we always put them in our fruit bowl for the few weeks of the year that they’re ripe. But we also make a syrup out of the mulberries that we keep the whole year long for making ice cream. It’s one of those mysterious flavors that isn’t like anything else. If I’m ever going to try to persuade anyone about anything, I pull out the mulberry ice cream. One year my daughter and her friend sold mulberry ice-cream cones out in front of Chez Panisse for the restaurant’s birthday in August. We sold the cones for two dollars apiece, and one person came up to me after and said, “That is the best thing I’ve ever had in my life for two dollars!” (Photo: The Scarf and Stripe)
Spring lamb from Dal Porto Ranch in California
Dal Porto Ranch was the first real ranch that supplied to Chez Panisse, back in the early ’70s. My friend Jerry had a piece of property up in Amador County and he’d met Frank and Enid Dal Porto and had seen their ranch—it’s in the rolling foothills of the Sierra, and so beautiful. He made a deal with them for their spring lambs, and we’ve been getting them from there ever since. Their spring lambs have the most tender, succulent meat, and when they’re cooked in the wood oven, it’s one of the most delicious things you can imagine. I’ve been to the Dal Portos’ ranch many times through the years. A little later they started raising pigs, and in the lead-up to one of our first garlic festivals on Bastille Day, we decided to feed the mothers of the suckling pigs garlic, so that their babies would have a garlic infusion. We were going up to the ranch and throwing whole cloves of garlic into the pigpen. (Les Blank made a great film about it, Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers—this was in the heady early days of the garlic festival.) We thought it made a difference in the flavor—whether it really did, who knows. (Photo: Cuisine Style)
Château d’Yquem Sauternes wine
Before Chez Panisse came into being, I spent a lot of time just hanging out in the wine shops in San Francisco. I really didn’t know anything about wine, but I was very curious about all of it. Paul Draper from Ridge Vineyards was working at a wine shop called Esquin, and he would suggest wines to me. He introduced me to Sauternes, and at that time, believe it or not, the greatest Sauternes in the world were $2.50 a bottle. Then there was one Sauternes that was REALLY expensive—Château d’Yquem—and that was $3.50 a bottle! I fell in love with all of them—there’s a richness and a complexity that’s really beautiful. In a good year, the great châteaux of Sauternes are just lovely—but there’s one that is always a little more lovely, and that’s the Château d’Yquem. When Chez Panisse started, we served only three wines: a Fumé Blanc, a Cabernet, and a Sauternes, all by the glass. I remember I bought ten cases of the 1959 Château Suduiraut for the restaurant before we opened—I would have gotten the Yquem if I could, but I thought it was just too expensive. But in retrospect, I really wish I had gotten that $3.50-a-bottle Yquem. I wish I’d bought enough cases to still have some aging in my wine cellar today! (Photo: yquem.fr)
Photo courtesy Chez Panisse