How Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Birthed a National Food Movement
In the spring of 2002, I spent an afternoon in the downstairs kitchen of Chez Panisse, peeling fava beans and picking herbs. I was a green line cook at the time, but the cooks humored me—even when I didn’t follow herb-washing protocol (next time, lift the parsley leaves out of the bowl of water so the grit stays at the bottom, they instructed). For them, I was yet another visitor from the never-ending stream of cooks stopping through Chez Panisse in an effort to understand what made this restaurant so special, and harness some of that magic for myself.
It was years later when I started to get it. While eating lunch at the upstairs café, the casual alternative to the downstairs restaurant, I was handed a plate of Bronx grapes for dessert. Say what you will about serving fruit on a plate, but those sweet, floral grapes filled me with questions: What were Bronx grapes? Where did they grow? And why hadn’t I tried them before?
These days, it’s so common for restaurants to list farms on their menus that we take for granted that good restaurants source locally—at least some of the time. Yet decades ago, when Chez Panisse started making the case for buying local and seasonal produce, there was no network of farms supplying restaurants. Sourcing locally wasn’t the last revolutionary idea Chez Panisse had. Others, such as paying a living wage and abolishing tipping (it did so in 1989), are only recently gaining traction. Still, it’s astonishing to think about how a restaurant that opened in 1971 is relevant in 2017. And how? Alice Waters.
Alice was demanding and unrelenting about keeping integrity. That’s her shining star. Without integrity, what do you have? You have a compromise. And Alice didn’t believe in compromise. It’s hard to comprehend how important she is.
Jonathan Waxman, Barbuto, New York City
“She was so far ahead of everyone else,” explains Jonathan Waxman, recalling a day in the late 1970s when Waters had him drive to Bodega Bay to pick up salmon still in rigor mortis, a rare thing for a chef to do at the time. Waxman went on to bring this fresh style of California cooking to New York with restaurants including Jams and Barbuto.
“Alice was demanding and unrelenting about keeping integrity,” he recalls. “That’s her shining star. Without integrity, what do you have? You have a compromise. And Alice didn’t believe in compromise. It’s hard to comprehend how important she is.”
What makes Chez Panisse special—and why it has had a lasting impact on the restaurant industry—is due in part to how Waters has stayed true to the same message: Find good ingredients. Don’t mess with them too much. And while you’re at it, make the world a better place.
Setting the Standard
A draw for cooks wanting to work at Chez Panisse has long been its access to quality, in-season ingredients.
In the introduction to Chez Panisse Fruit (HarperCollins, 2002), Waters writes, “This is the eighth Chez Panisse cookbook we have published since the restaurant was founded in 1971, and it begins the same way as all the others: I throw open the window, start to flail my arms, and scream: ‘Pay attention to what you’re eating!’”
But finding these local food sources took work. During Chez Panisse’s first decade, friends grew lettuces in their backyards, but supply was undependable. There was also a disconnect between what farmers grew and what the restaurant wanted. One farmer came in with a head of lettuce every day. And every day, Waters told him she wanted it smaller. Alan Tangren, who joined the restaurant in 1982 as a cook, remembers Waters running across the street to Andronico’s grocery store to dig through the green beans to find the smallest, most tender ones.
“There weren’t established ways to get the delicious things we wanted,” explains Tangren, who left Chez Panisse in 2004 and now prepares multicourse dinners as part of a series called Chef’s Table at Tess’ Kitchen Store in Grass Valley, Calif. His menus reflect his time at Chez Panisse, with offerings including an artichoke and goat cheese pudding soufflé (recipe) and spring minestrone with zucchini, peas and asparagus (recipe), which he says is ideal “when the last of the spring vegetables overlap with the first of the warm-season crops.”
In the early 1980s, Chez Panisse chefs and Waters’ father, Pat, looked for farmers who could grow produce for them. Through this search, they found Bob Cannard, who became the primary grower for the restaurant. To further expand the network, in the late 1980s Waters talked Tangren into becoming the restaurant’s forager, responsible for procuring not only produce but also meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products from local sources. For five years, Tangren searched markets, tasted produce, visited farms, and learned about sustainable farming practices.
After all the effort put into procurement, the produce was the star. Tangren once accompanied Waters to an event in New York where she served the simplest thing she could make: a garden salad.
“She made sure the lettuce was as fresh as possible and used the best olive oil, garlic, vinegar, salt and pepper,” he recalls. “A French chef came by, and he said, ‘This is not cooking, this is shopping!’ And it was. But that was the whole point.”
When Gordon Heyder left Fourth Street Grill to take a job at Chez Panisse in 1983, he had already been a customer for years. While he left the restaurant a few times over the course of three decades, he always returned, until retiring at the end of 2016. What drew him back each time was the caliber of the cooks and the quality of the ingredients.
The philosophy was that less is more and simplicity reigns supreme.
Michael Tusk, Quince, San Francisco
“As cooks, we were allowed to say ‘No, this isn’t good enough, I don’t want to use it,’” he says. “But more often, something great comes in. That’s the fun part. It’s—wow—it would be foolish not to use this.”
Throughout the years, the rotation of chefs influenced the direction of the menu. Jeremiah Tower went more French, while Paul Bertolli skewed Italian. Jean-Pierre Moullé taught the staff about cheese, while David Tanis brought in tagines, couscous and fresh garbanzo beans. But the biggest menu evolutions came from the ingredients themselves.
Today, the downstairs restaurant chefs, Cal Peternell and Amy Dencler, split the daily menus for the week, submitting drafts to Waters, who makes changes, often to the produce. Certain ingredients—lettuces, goat cheese, wild mushrooms, green garlic, cardoons, figs and Meyer lemons—have long been associated with Chez Panisse. But the list grows, including dishes like Peternell's simple grilled asparagus with pancetta (recipe). When chicories became more available about a decade ago, they became a regular part of winter menus, as with Heyder’s Castelfranco salad with bagna cauda (recipe).
“About 10 years ago, once we started getting good chicories, that was it: there was no putting the genie back in the bottle with that one,” he notes.
The ingredient focus is one of the reasons Chez Panisse is about remembering what things should taste like.
“When you go there and have a tomato, it functions as a standard,” says Charlie Hallowell, who worked at Chez Panisse before opening Pizzaiolo in 2005 and later Boot & Shoe Service and Penrose, all in Oakland. “They get the best tomato, they serve it when it’s just right, they put just the right amount of salt and olive oil on it. What you get is the ultimate, unadulterated iteration of an heirloom tomato.”
Chez Panisse influenced the industry not only by what Waters put on the menu but also in how she cultivated talent.
“She’s amazing at looking at people and seeing what they’ll be like in the future,” explains Waxman.
When Waxman was at Chez Panisse, Deborah Madison, the first chef of vegetarian restaurant Greens in San Francisco, worked as a prep cook. Judy Rodgers, who later became the chef at Zuni Café, cooked lunch. Steven Sullivan, then a busboy, went on to found Acme Bread Company in part because Waters suggested he should learn how to bake. Countless others, from Joyce Goldstein to Suzanne Goin, Dan Barber, April Bloomfield and Russell Moore all passed through the kitchen at some point, some for short stays, some for years.
“As people left Chez Panisse, they would carry that ethos to their business,” Tangren says.
The ethos went beyond the kitchen. By the time Gayle Pirie, chef/co-owner of Foreign Cinema and Show Dogs in San Francisco, started working in the Chez Panisse office, she was already a believer in the value of local food, having cooked at Zuni Café. But while assisting Waters in projects ranging from writing recipes and archiving menus to supporting efforts to start the Edible Schoolyard Project, Pirie saw another side of the business. Watching how a restaurant could transform a blighted concrete block into a garden for food education empowered her.
While Pirie says working at Chez Panisse did not necessarily introduce her to the idea that chefs have roles in their communities, it codified it.
“How you lead your own workplace needs to represent that you are part of the community at large,” she says. “You need to make good choices. And you are more powerful than you think. Chez Panisse is her medium. [It] has allowed her to speak louder to a world that needs guidance and inspiration, turning people on to making good choices not only about food but the planet. This restaurant is an important political statement.”
The Ingredient Generation
The Chez Panisse drive for quality continues to affect how alumni operate restaurants and influence others to follow suit.
Inspired by Waters’ farmer relationships, Michael Tusk, chef/owner of Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco, collaborates with farmer Peter Martinelli at Fresh Run Farm in nearby Bolinas. “Peter and I now have the ability and relationship to say, ‘Let’s talk about what we’re going to grow and be a part of the planning stages, not only four months from now but eight months to a year out,” Tusk says. “You might change as a person, and your style of cooking also evolves, but what doesn’t change is the procuring of products and the relationships that you build.”
Tusk cites his dish of freshly dug potato (recipe) as an example of how a farmer can impact a chef’s cooking.
“Last year, our staff planted potatoes at Martinelli’s farm for the first time,” he says. “Before being covered in the ground, the potato seeds were first coated in crushed oyster shells. This inspired us to incorporate oysters and ‘edible soil’ elements to the recipe. This dish is the perfect example of materia prima, seasonality and technique.”
Waxman follows suit with his salad of shaved Brussels sprouts, carrots and watermelon radishes with pecorino and lemon ($13, recipe), an homage to a raw shaved asparagus salad he once ate at the café. Pirie echoes the values of simplicity with her dish of sautéed porcini mushrooms with mint, lemon and Parmesan (recipe).
“If we find amazing porcini, we’ll try to highlight that in all of its purity instead of chopping them up and putting them in a stuffing,” she says. “When you have a rock star on the plate, you don’t need a backup vocalist or three more organs; you put the star on the plate.”
Dominica Rice-Cisneros, another alumna, shifted her focus to Mexican ingredients when she opened Cosecha in Oakland, but kept using fresh local ingredients a priority. When a local farm had several ears of corn covered with huitlacoche, rendering the rest of the corn inedible, she bought them and mixed the huitlacoche in masa for tortillas, then used the tortillas to make huitlacoche-filled quesadillas ($10, recipe).
The Power of Dinner
For a restaurant with such name recognition, it’s sometimes hard to place Chez Panisse amid flashier, younger restaurants. Some people are disappointed that it isn’t fancier, while others imagine it to be too fancy for them to try. Yet at its core, it’s still just a restaurant. And that might also be part of how Chez Panisse has stayed relevant for all these years.
“It’s unapologetically a place for dinner,” says Hallowell. “When you go to Noma or Fäviken or Alinea, you’re going to a performance. When you go to Chez Panisse, you’re going for dinner. No one is trying to make it anything else.”
“The philosophy was that less is more and simplicity reigns supreme,” Tusk adds. “The quality of the products was so great that they didn’t really need to do a lot and therefore they didn’t. There’s a reason Chez Panisse has been open for over 40 years. It’s about respecting the product that’s in front of you.”
Kate Leahy is a San Francisco-based writer.