Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Chez Panisse: The early days.
From Sarah Kerr's review of Thomas McNamee's new biography of Alice Waters:
The restaurant opened in August 1971, in the OK-but-nothing-special stucco house in Berkeley where it remains—several times remodeled, of course, later fitted with one of the first wood-fired ovens in an American restaurant and with plain, beautiful motifs of rich wood. Waters's parents had leveraged their own home to help out; among many early partners were the writer Greil Marcus and some helpful local pot dealers—as Waters recalls, "the only sort of counterculture people who had money." The zeitgeist sense of teamwork extended to the abolishment of the French system of kitchen stations and to a practice Chez Panisse would become famous for: foraging on the roadsides, in the forest, and in a generous neighbor's vegetable plot for the freshest possible foods.
. . . Waters was not, much of the time, the chef. She was the arbiter of staff proposals for the menu, the ruthless judge of whether a dish hit the mark, the overseer of atmosphere, the lowliest kitchen help when needed, and the front-room public face. Most of Chez Panisse was her vision, in other words, but over the years a complaining minority of chefs and staffers would say she should have given more credit, in cookbooks and in public appearances, to their contributions. The internal power tussles, hapless confusion about finances, and weary ambivalence about the pressure that comes with success will be roughly familiar to anyone who has followed any rock band from this period. In this regard, Jeremiah Tower—a gambling wizard of a chef fanatically versed in culinary history—plays the role of the guitarist with superior chops. Tower's solo riffs through much the '70s could blow the room away. But some of his creations read on the page like the food equivalent of a concept album—like the menu based on Salvador Dalí. In any case, it was later in the decade that Waters decisively started to realize her calmer but more lasting dream of seduction by casual bistro, underpinned by her championing of simple, fresh ingredients, artisanal if human-made, organic if from nature, and grown whenever possible nearby.
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