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THE PROGENY OF CHEZ PANISSE

Today they call it the Gourmet Ghetto, but 15 years ago Berkeley was just a pretty college town with a left-wing reputation. Then Alice Waters opened a little cafe named for a character she had seen in an old French movie, and the entire town became obsessed with eating.

Food lovers from all over the country gathered the other day (Aug. 28, to be exact) to celebrate the 15th birthday of Chez Panisse; they reminisced about the early days when the restaurant served three meals a day and a full dinner cost $6.95. (Today, a five-course dinner in the downstairs restaurant costs $45.) Over a meal that began with Champagne and puffy little pancakes dotted with crunchy kernels of corn and topped with caviar, diners talked about how differently we all would be eating if Chez Panisse had never opened.

Munching on a salad of baby greens topped with whole chunks of sweet lobster, they began ticking off the chefs who began at the restaurant. These include Jeremiah Tower, an architect who wandered in one day, was asked to “do something to the soup” and stayed on as chef for a few years. He has since opened Stars--an appropriate name for the restaurant of one who has become so celebrated. Jonathan Waxman became the chef at Michael’s and then moved to New York to open three restaurants of his own.

Victoria Wise, the restaurant’s first chef, opened the first charcuterie in America, Pig by the Tail; she has just published a book of her recipes. Mark Peel worked at Chez Panisse before he became the first chef at Spago (he is now planning to open his own New York restaurant). Another former chef, Mark Miller, will soon open the Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe. Still another, Joyce Goldstein, now owns the fabulously successful Square One in San Francisco.

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Was it Waters who started it all? She herself says it is probably serendipity; that the restaurant happened to be a place where people who had similar ideas came together. What these chefs shared is an obsession with the quality of ingredients, a belief that American food need be second to none and an inventive spirit. Because of them, Americans have changed the way we eat.

Think about it for a minute. Look in your refrigerator. Most of the things that are in there would not have been 15 years ago. Look at the labels in your cupboard: A lot of additives you would have found on them 15 years ago have disappeared. We have become accustomed to a whole new world of eating. But if you really want a concrete example of how influential Chez Panisse has been, there is no place better to find it than in the city of Berkeley itself.

It is, I think, the best place to shop in the country. There are three big produce markets selling an amazing array of fruits and vegetables; the Monterey Market often has as many as 10 different kinds of mushrooms (at affordable prices). Just down the street is Paul Johnson’s extraordinary fish store (Johnson began by buying fish for Chez Panisse). Steve Sullivan began as Chez Panisse’s baker and then opened the Acme Bakery; he now sells bread so good that customers line up for it in the morning. Next door to Acme is wine merchant Kermit Lynch, a close friend of Waters. Lynch began buying wines from small French vintners by simply walking into cafes in little villages in France and asking, “Who makes good wine around here?”

But these days the Panisse influence extends as far as France itself. In an article in this month’s Gourmet magazine, Nathalie Waag, who offers shopping and cooking classes in her home in Provence, talks about what it is she is doing. “This might seem truly provencale,” she says, “but it is really the cuisine of Alice Waters.”

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