Over forty years ago, a culinary event occurred which would have an influence far beyond anything that anyone could have predicted at the time. In 1971, Alice Waters, along with a group of friends and investors, opened Chez Panisse, the Berkeley, CA restaurant which has become a model everywhere for restaurant menus featuring seasonal, locally based cuisine. In fact, one could argue, as have many, that Chez Panisse changed forever what we think of in this country as “fine dining.”
Years spent studying in France during college sharpened Waters’ ideas of what American cuisine could be and her involvement in the Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s shaped her as a lifelong activist. Waters’ strong vision, combined with persistence and a genius for collaboration, brought Chez Panisse into being. She conceived the restaurant as a place that would be like having dinner at someone’s house. The emphasis would be on the quality of the food and the warmth of the atmosphere. Up until that time, most fine restaurants tended to be chilly temples of cuisine where chefs ruled supreme and the idea of using organic, locally sourced ingredients was uncommon to say the least. Chez Panisse (named for Waters’ favorite character from a trilogy of films by the French director Marcel Pagnol) changed all of that. Also new to many dinners was the idea of a strictly limited menu. From the beginning, the restaurant (there is a separate cafe upstairs) has served one meal a night at a fixed price. On opening night, the menu was Pate en Croute, Duck with Olives, and a plum tart priced at $3.95. The meal on offer January 11th of this year will include (among other things) Dungeness crab, grass-fed beef, and a chocolate tart and will cost $100. Times do change.
In recent years, Alice Waters has extended her focus to include such projects as The Edible Schoolyard which gets children involved in growing, harvesting and preparing their own food and which has affiliates throughout the country. This program has spawned an important off-shoot in the School Lunch Initiative which seeks to make a healthy, sustainable and fresh meal part of every school child’s day.
If you’d like to learn more about what Alice Waters is up to now, check out this article from the Epicurious website.
If you want to learn more about the evolution of Chez Panisse, DCPL can offer 40 years of Chez Panisse: the power of gathering by Alice Waters and friends. The book features lavish photographs and eloquent text as well as gorgeous reproductions of the beautiful menus designed for the restaurant by Waters’ long-time friend Patty Curtan.
Do you think you’d like to cook at home like they do at Chez Panisse? If so, check out these titles from DCPL.
Also from Alice Waters:
Finally, if you’d like to learn more about the culinary “revolution” that occurred in this country throughout the 1960’s and 70’s (and beyond), don’t miss David Kamp’s funny, dishy, and very well researched book The United States of Arugula: how we became a nation of gourmets. This one comes highly recommended (by me…but then I’m the one writing this post!).