Leisure & Culture #11

A Story of Adventure, Steel Will, Luck and Unquenchable Passion for Food

Alice Waters & Chez Panisse

Written by RMM
Photos by © Chez Panisse and Amy Waters

The year is 1971 and in an old run-down house turned elegant bistro, a food revolution was brewing. Amidst the chaos – the rug on the stairs was being nailed in as the first guests entered – and commotion, Alice Waters resplendent. She greeted and mingled with the diners, while chefs whipped up a frenzy in the kitchens. That night, guests were served exquisite farm-raised fresh duck, instead of the frozen variety that jaded American restaurant goers were used to.

Alice Waters (born 1944) is an American chef, restaurateur, activist, and author. She is the owner of Chez Panisse.

What was soon to be known as the Slow Food Revolution had humble beginnings like this. When Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, she had no intention of being pioneer in organic food revolution. She just wanted a place where she could recreate the magical experience she had, during her days as a student in Paris. A sublime bowl of café au lait, the pristine taste of mussels fresh off the boat, and food that was freshly grown and prepared. Chez Panisse was born out of a love for great tasting food and a desire to have a space for her friends could indulge in la dolce vita. Of course, in her quest to find the things that tasted best, Waters discovered the small sustainable farms that not only put her restaurant on the map but changed her goals as well.

Chez Panisse opened by Alice Water in 1972, locates in Berkeley, California, famous for its organic, locally-grown ingredients and for pioneering California cuisine.

It first started as a necessity – she needed these small farms to keep her restaurant going. Waters eschewed conventional fast food, pre-packed or frozen produce that was taking America by storm. Instead, she followed her experience in France, where fresh local food was readily available – in reasonable price as well. But in order to keep these small farms alive, she realized that she needed to make them popular. She needed to create the demand for sustainability.

Together with the head chef Jeremiah Tower, Alice Waters invented Californian cuisine. Characterized by simple recipes that showcased the natural tastes & textures of high-quality ingredients.

Alice Waters in Chez Panisse; photo by Megan Alldis

Together with the head chef Jeremiah Tower, Waters invented Californian cuisine. Characterized by simple recipes that showcased the natural tastes & textures of high-quality ingredients, Chez Panisse’s dishes endeared themselves to diners tired of the fast food culture. Chez Panisse actively tries to distinct itself from the industrial food system, she proactively seeks local and organic produce all culminating a menu that changes daily. Monterey Bay squid salad on Mondays, Peach Melba on Tuesday, and Salmon Creek Ranch duck breast on Wednesdays? Sounds like heaven!

The restaurant has always served a set menu that changes daily and reflects the season's bounty.

Slowly but surely, Waters and Chez Panisse had moved eating fresh, local and organic from the realm of the rich into casual dinning. The restaurant is now an institution in American cuisine, and has been an inspiration to many young chefs worldwide. Through her Chez Panisse Foundation, Waters has continuously imparted her intimate approach to food, to the new generations – students in participating schools get to grow their own food through the Edible Schoolyard project. In a world where convenience trumps eating right, Chez Panisse is a stalwart beacon of hope that healthy food can taste absolutely delicious.

Students in participating schools get to grow their own food through the Edible Schoolyard project.

In 1996, in celebration of Chez Panisse Restaurant and Café's 25th anniversary, Alice created the Chez Panisse Foundation. The non-profit envisioned a public school curriculum that includes hands-on experiences in school kitchens, gardens, and lunchrooms, and that provides healthy, freshly prepared meals as part of each school day. To support this vision, the foundation fully funded the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley and developed two additional programs: the School Lunch Initiative and the Edible Schoolyard Affiliate Network, now the Founding Edible Schoolyards.

Forty years on, and very little about Chez Panisse has changed. It still lives in that old house on Shattuck Avenue. It is still an unpretentious, homey and easygoing place where friends and family can relax and have something simple that hits the right spot. It is still a hallowed place where chefs and food lovers gather because they just want a place to have very good food. There are no fancy trappings or scientific deconstructions of apple pie here – just dish after dish, imbued with an increasingly powerful desire to eat and live right; food that wakes people up.

In addition to her restaurant, Waters has written several books on food and cooking, including Chez Panisse Cooking (with Paul Bertolli), The Art of Simple Food I and II, and "In The Green Kitchen." She is one of the most well-known food activists in the United States and around the world.

Official website of Chez Panisse: www.chezpanisse.com/intro.php