Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Johnny Appleseed of American Dining: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse author dishes (sorry) about the mythic California restaraunt

Portrait of the artist as a young foodie (Gail Skokoff/Penguin)

In 2007 when you can walk into any neighborhood grocer and buy Truffle Oil, Sun Dried Tomatoes, or any number of organic wines, ice creams, and dairy products it is hard to remember back to 1971 when most Americans never had heard of any of these (now) household staples. Alice Waters, the Johnny Appleseed of Americana gourmet, has as much to do with these items moving from the realm of exotica into the norm of everyday culinary experience as a result of the groundbreaking menu and influence of what is most likely the most influential restaraunt in American History: Chez Panisse. The brilliant new biography of Ms. Waters and the history of Chez Panisse is recounted with extreme dexterity and finesse by the brilliant polygot and author Thomas McNamee in his book Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of A Food Revolution (Penguin) MLAF is thrilled that Mr. McNamee took time out to graciously answer some questions about his work, Ms. Waters and the mythological Chez Panisse.


MR: How truly different was Chez Panisse when it
opened? Was there any restaraunt that was remotely
like it in the US at the time?

TM: I don't think there was anything remotely like it. At least I never found one. The big difference at first, of course, was the fact that Ch.P. served only the fixed menu. All the organic/seasonal/local ideas would come later. Alice's insistence on the finest, freshest ingredients, however, was there from the beginning. There were other sorts of amateurish, hey-let's-start-a-restaurant places growing out of the sixties counterculture at about the same time, but in general not working too hard was a characteristic of that culture--a characteristic that Chez Panisse never shared. So Ch.P. was nearly always great from the beginning, because everybody there worked so hard at achieving excellence; and the other places withered away pretty quickly.

MR: Chez Panisse seemed to have a lot of ups and downs
in its early years. Yet, there seems to be the sense
that it was never really a possibility that it might
compromise, or, worst case scenario, close. What do
you attribute this to? Luck, stubborness, youth?

TM: Alice has never been a person who accommodates compromise. How she has managed to succeed so thoroughly in spite of that is still a bit of a mystery to me. Certainly there was some luck in the early days, but she has always been possessed of an adamanatine stubbornness, a refusal to accept less than the best--in ingredients, in conception, in execution, in staff performance, in hospitality. But there were times--perhaps precisely because the restaurant was failing to achieve its best--when she and the early investors not only considered closing but actively pursued it. At one point they put a classified ad in the San Francisco Chronicle offering to sell Chez Panisse lock, stock, and barrel for half a million bucks. But the offer didn't include the continued participation of Alice Waters and the great chef Jeremiah Tower, and there were no takers, not even a lowball offer. That alone, I think, is pretty persuasive evidence of a general principle about restaurants: No matter how much goodwill the place has, no matter its reputation, no matter the skills of its subsidiary staff, a restaurant, to thrive, must have strong and inspiring leadership.

MR: Would Chez Panisse have "worked" anywhere other
than Berkeley?

TM: That's a good question, and I asked it of many of the people I interviewed. Most of them are sentimentally attached to Berkeley, and their answer tended to be no. I'm not so sure. I mean, it's a totally hypothetical question, and it can't be answered with any authority by anybody. But why not San Francisco, anyhow? It wasn't so different, culturally, and the potential market would have been much bigger. As for New York, for example, it's hard to imagine--but who knows? Could it have worked in Chicago? Maybe: Great ingredients may have been just as easy to get there, but eventually, I think, a Chicago Chez Panisse would not have been able to achieve the greatness of the actual one because it could not have had year-round access to such superb produce. New Orleans? Doubtful--too conservative, probably. Same thing with Boston, at least in those days (the early 1970s). Seattle might have worked, or Portland, Oregon. But the fact was, it was Berkeley, and Chez Panisse has always been identified with Berkeley, which prides itself on its uniqueness (or peculiarity). There's an annual parade there called "How Berkeley Can You Be?" And it's hard to imagine any other restaurant in any other town adorning its front gate with a peace symbol woven of garlic to express its opinion of the American invasion of Iraq.

MR: Your book recounts the crucial moments in the the
restaurant's history. In your mind was there one or
two crucial moment in the restaraunt's history which
shaped the direction of the place?

TM: Well, just as in human infancy the first months have long-lasting effects, I'd have to say that the character of Chez Panisse when it opened shaped its destiny as much as anything else. I think the hiring of Paul Bertolli in 1982 brought a sustainable identity to the food at Chez Panisse. And I'd say that Alice's getting to know Lulu Peyraud, the great home cook in the South of France, had a huge influence. "Lulu's Proven├žal Table," by Richard Olney, will show you how powerful Lulu's philosopy of cooking is; it's also one of the greatest cookbooks ever published.

MR: You had access to the restaraunt's archives and
you interviewed many of the restaraunt's key figures:
1. How complete were the archives and 2. Were the
interviewees experiences similar or did they vary
wildly?

TM: The archives were by no means complete; in fact they were pretty hard to make sense of. I had the feeling that one day somebody opened a cabinet door in the office at Chez Panisse, and a great avalanche of papers came pouring out, and somebody said, "Hey, we need to clean this place up---do you suppose the Bancroft [Library, at the University of California at Berkeley] would take this stuff off our hands?" And then I envision librarians piling all those papers into boxes, laboriously sorting them, trying to make sense of it all, but finally more or less giving up simply because coherence was not to be had. Certain eras in the history of Chez Panisse were well documented in that collection, but there were also nearly-blank times when it seems nobody was keeping records. There were some great photographs, but there were also some important people whom I could never find a picture of. What was critical in forming a coherent narrative was the interviewing of over a hundred people who have played a part in the history of Chez Panisse. I also did thirty-some-odd interviews with Alice, in each of which I gained a slightly changed perspective.

There was a lot of variation in the interviews. Everybody seemed to see things differently. Often the same person would see things differently on different days. That's the nature of long-term memory, I think, plus there's the fact that every person's experience was different. There were also a lot of drinking and drugs in the early days, which didn't do the collective memory any good at all. There were people with grudges to settle--Alice has made some enemies in her time--and there were friends so loyal and affectionate that they portrayed Alice as almost angelic. Luckily for me, the most important people in the restaurant's history had two characteristics in common: great intelligence and great candor. Alice herself, in most of our interviews, just poured herself out without a thought of self-censorship. Seeing some of this material in cold black-and-white print later gave a number of my interviewees some pause, not least Alice herself, but I had complete editorial freedom. This was an authorized biography in the sense that Alice (through her assistant, actually) asked me to do it, but there was never any censorship or attempt to control the book. So I think it's fair to say that the result is a very complex composite portrait, in which there is considerable internal contradiction simply because that's the nature of remembering and the nature of perception. One of the most fascinating aspects of this complexity, for me, was the fact that Alice herself can be so hard to bring into focus. She's soft, hard, determined, stubborn, shy, girlish, domineering, generous, controlling, self-contradictory, infinitely not-quite-settled. Did I, in the end, "understand" her? No. The best I could do was try to represent fairly the scores of impressions that different people brought to the narrative, and to arrange those, along with my own perceptions and judgments, into something resembling a coherent story.

MR: . When you walk into a restaraunt now do you think
about all the ways Chez Panisse changed modern
American dining?

TM: Of course! And the influence is continuing to spread. Farmers' markets as a source for restaurants are expanding at an amazing pace. An insistence on the freshest ingredients characterizes most of the best American restaurants--and that was not the case before Chez Panisse. Seasonality is widely respected; pre-Ch.P. it was hardly ever considered. Generous, informal hospitality has replaced the stiff politeness (and sometimes rudeness) that was the standard for American fine dining. Waiters in America are people now, individuals; before Chez Panisse, they were mostly anonymous servants. Many American restaurant chefs are stars; that had long been the case in France, but it never was in America until Chez Panisse. The idea that how we eat has an immensely powerful effect on the health of our land and waters is something that Chez Panisse brought to the fore. The idea that eating together in a leisurely, sharing atmosphere was not new, but its philosophical significance--living well as a way of doing good, eating with mindfulness and a conscience--continues to influence Americans' thinking about sustenance. How children are fed in schools has become a source of worry nationwide in large part owing to the Edible Schoolyard that Alice founded at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, and more recently a similar project at Yale. Virtuous farming and fishing and livestock husbandry--stewardship of the earth--are increasingly demanded of our food suppliers. And food in restaurants in general tastes a whole lot better than it used to. That's a lot of change.

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I (Mark) have written for The Christian Science Monitor, Clear Magazine, Picture Magazine, Film Score Monthly, Dan's Papers, Rue Morgue, In Flight USA and a lot more publications that I can't remember.... My wife Lynn was a model with the Ford Agency and her photography has been featured in most of the publications I have written for...

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