At the time, the United States was well on its way to becoming the fast-food Nation; fruit came from a can and vegetables from a deep freeze. Flavour and seasonality were a thing of the past, usurped by convenience and the perception of cooking as drudgery. Had you arrived to dinner at a young Alice Waters’ ramshackle stucco house-cum-restaurant four decades ago and been greeted by its the motley band of overeducated, inexperienced young dreamers, few could have predicted that the naive venture would see out the year.
Someone wise once said that “revolutions spring from the smallest, most unlikely places”. ‘Small’ and ‘unlikely’ are also fitting adjectives for this tale’s chief protagonist, Alice Waters. At barely 5-foot two, with fine features and a girlish lilt that registers little above a whisper, at first blush it is inconceivable that the tiny bohemian francophile could have built such an enduringly successful restaurant, let alone have become one of the most influential figures in food. Those in the know are very aware that while she may speak softly, Alice Waters carries a very big stick (or cast-iron pan, if you like).
To understand how she became ‘the mother of American food’ and Chez Panisse the wellspring of the real food movement is to trace its blood lines back to a place and moment in time. Berkeley in the early ’70’s was the epicenter of the American counter culture, the ideas that exploded from the Free Speech Movement continued to ferment and the radical university town had become a mecca for the country’s disaffected youth. Alice Waters had just returned from studying in France where she had fallen in deeply in love, not with a man (there would be plenty of those later) but with a different way of living. A born sensualist at an impressionable age, every part of her responded to the pleasures of taste, smell and sight to be found at each meal and on every corner. With the unrelenting determination and idealism that became the hallmark of her career, she set about trying to re-create a little piece of the world that had swept her away so entirely.
In the early days, food was primary to politics. Every day, the cooks, most without any formal training, poured over stained Escoffier and splattered Elizabeth Davids for guidance. Chez Panisse was to be a restaurant where the menu changed daily and only the freshest, most flavourful ingredients were used. The obstacle to that lofty goal was that those storied ingredients were either almost impossible to find, lost in an industrial supply chain or did not yet exist in California. The cooks were constantly searching for real flavour and going to extraordinary lengths to find it. When Iceberg was the only available lettuce, the solution was to tear up Alice’s backyard and plant smuggled rocket, chicory and lettuce seeds from France and Italy. If fish was not fresh, a truck was to be bought and a cook sent to the port. If a lone mulberry tree in the neighborhood had perfect fruit for a couple of days in July, the knock on their front door would come and an invitation to dinner, to taste the most mulberry-tasting mulberry ice cream, in exchange for the a basket for the frailest of all fruit. The restaurant began to reap profits directly, and handsomely. Students began arriving at the door with boxes of chanterelles, young nettles and wild fennel foraged from the hills around campus. If Alice wanted a particular type of heirloom tomato, breakfast radish or pixie tangerine, the seduction began. Before long, a box would arrive at the kitchen door and the menu that night might read ‘Jim Churchill’s tangerines’ or ‘Annbelle’s radishes’. In the search for taste that led Alice and Chez Panisse to the gates of local organic farms, the conviction that industrial agriculture not only robbed food of its pleasurable qualities but was disastrous for the health of individuals, communities and the environment alike took form. Progressive politics and food had found common ground and another movement was born in Berkeley.
Over the years, Chez Panisse has developed a signature style, sometimes referred to as ‘California cuisine’, although it’s simply one that is inspired by the purity of the ingredients, a dedication to simplicity and the taste of the individual cook. Each day, produce is hand-delivered to the kitchen, having been picked hours ealier on farms like Cannard – a rambling edible wilderness presided over by raconteur and typically eccentric Panisse-like character Bob Cannard. He has been supplying the restaurant exclusively for the best part of 25 years and famously has visitors taste the soil on his plot to demonstrate its sweetness. Every morning, as the best of the season arrives, the cooks discuss while shelling peas or peeling artichokes what might feature that day. No two menus are ever the same. The restaurant is split between the more casual upstairs cafe and the prixe fixe restaurant downstairs. Throughout the small building are foraged, wild-looking arrangements of blossoms and branches, sea-straw baskets piled high with whichever vegetable is star on the menu that day and copper stands that exalt the perfect fruit of the moment. The tumbledown building has developed its own handmade aesthetic code that has rested for now as a vine-covered craftsman-style treehouse with slight Japanese and Art-Nouveau influences. Much like everything at Chez Panisse, it should not work, but it does.
The restaurant was named for Honore Panisse, the generous and life-loving character from Marcel Pagnol’s romantic 1950s trilogy of films that revolved around the the comings, goings, lives and loves of an idiosyncratic group misfits set to the backdrop of a typical Marseilles tavern. As strong as her desire to replicate the tastes of the old world, Waters also sought to curate a collection of curious, like-minded personalities to buy into her Pagnol influenced fiction and realise her vision. Many of those cooks, farmers, artists, activists, musicians and writers have gone on to influence ideas around food in their own discipline, creating a family tree of the restaurant more complex and interwoven than the vines that entangle its facade. In many ways, what is truly extraordinary about Chez Panisse is the story that is never told: that although it was born out of a longing to re-create a piece of Europe in the United States, it is the most American of restaurants. The mix of earnest idealism, pioneering spirit and uncompromising ambition that continues to drive it forward are not traits found in the little ‘rural provencal restaurant’ that it claims as its inspiration. Waters’ counter-culture wonderland has helped to redefine globally what is considered to be good food and, somewhat ironically, grown up to become the defining American restaurant of its generation.
© Vogue Living, August 2011, Photography Credit: Eric Wolfinger