Well, the anniversary fête for Chez Panisse finally came to an end and I was more than glad that I came for the weekend of events. From the moment I had my first sip of Bandol rosé on Friday afternoon to the big final blow-out event for the hundreds of people who’d worked in the restaurant and café on Sunday, hoo-boy, the weekend marked a milestone in my life. And although Alice Waters swore there wouldn’t be another anniversary celebration like this, I’ve learned never to count out this fiercely determined woman.
One of the main things I learned at the restaurant, and from Alice, was that less is more. I’m as guilty as the next person of saying this, but when I hear people say they didn’t like a restaurant because they left and were still hungry, I’m glad that I no longer feel the need to qualify a restaurant based on how distended by stomach feels. Yes, we eat the feed ourselves, but I’m not so sure the hype about extreme eating and so forth have had all that many positive effects on society and our health. During breakfast with a friend at a local café, I was amazed at the amount of food on the plate that was presented to me. (Although I did somehow manage to eat it all, as well as the heaping plate of carnitas I had the day before. So I should keep my mouth shut, in more ways than one.)
Another neat thing about the restaurant is how much the guests participated in…and could experience – almost all of the workings of the restaurant. If anyone had asked to see any part of the place, from the meat walk-in to the wooden shed where we stored the crates of colorful heirloom tomatoes, we would’ve taken them to see it.
It wasn’t uncommon for diners between courses to get up and take a stroll through the kitchen to see what we were cooking. I remember one woman peering into a garbage can full of vegetables and apple peels, and exclaiming “What beautiful garbage!”
Of course, everyone touring the kitchen always stopped at the pastry department to see what we were doing. I never really thought about it, even though now open kitchens are much more common, but it’s pretty unusual to be invited to take a stroll through a busy working kitchen. No one’s ever been told “No” or given a strange look: we never had anything to hide.
When I was leafing through the commemorative book, 40 Years of Chez Panisse, there was a picture of one of the cook’s meetings (below, by Aya Brackett), which took place before each shift, a few minutes when everyone one sat around a table and discuss all that needed to be done for the day. There’s chef Jean-Pierre Moullé going through the menu with the crew, and in between each cook is a basket of fava beans that they’re shucking while they discuss how the prep is going to work, what tasks needed to be done, and how they were going to serve the food when the first guests arrive in a mere four hours.
It took me back to the baskets of beans and peas that we often kept on the bar upstairs, not for customers to nibble on, but for the hosts and waiters to shuck during any down times in service. And invariably a customer idling nearby would come and start up a conversation and begin shucking as well: for some reason, Chez Panisse invited participation and many of our customers became close friends of ours.
It’s always more than a little odd to me when I hear the elitist label tacked on to preparing and eating normal food, as if ‘local fruits and vegetables’ somehow is a kind of kooky left-wing, subversive act. While the whole scenario can lend itself to some eye-rolling, none of it was forced – it all was just a normal part of the restaurant and probably couldn’t exist anywhere else, in any other city.
And if you think about it, it’s our most basic human nature; to gather food and prepare it together. (Even though, personally, I work better alone. But I’ve always been somewhat of an aberration.)
And while I like the idea of using all organic, sustainable, and local products, that’s just not possible where I live. But that’s what makes us all interesting and part of a big mix, and at the events were people who’d left Chez Panisse to open bakeries, Tex-Mex restaurants, and ice cream shops. But we all share the same background and culinary influences.
When I left the restaurant, Alice told me “You have your own style, which is different from the restaurant.” Which was, and is, true. Whereas she’s not a big chocolate fan, I am. Then she gave me a good swift kick in the britches, and I was outta there.
Two people I worked with, Mary Canales and Charlene Reis, went on to open Ici ice cream shop and Summer Kitchen Bakeshop, respectively, carrying on the same principles, but adapting them to their situation and style of churning and baking. Respectively.
Because the events for the past weekend were a benefit for edible school yards, some were priced aggressively, to raise money to improve the food options for children in our communities. And others were inexpensive enough (such as box lunches for a suggested donation of $5) so that as many people as possible could participate.
All in all, the weekend was amazing and I was really glad I made the decision to come back. The history of Chez Panisse is part of my history, especially all the great people I worked with, many who have scattered away, and who came back for the weekend events as well. Alice said “This is it, there’s not going to be a fiftieth” and perhaps she’s right. And who knows where we’ll all be in fifty years anyways? And to be honest, I think it’s going to take that long to recover from all the fun, and of course, the food, and being with all my good friends – old and new – who cooked it.