On the night of August 28, 1971 — the night Chez Panisse, the famed Berkeley, California, restaurant, opened its doors — a four-course meal (pâté, roast duck, a plum tart, and coffee) cost $3.95. Twenty years later, $3.95 (adjusted for inflation) was $13, but at Chez Panisse, that same opening-night dinner (with soup) cost $65.
Who was willing to pay the price? According to an irate letter to The San Francisco Chronicle signed by five Berkeley residents (they'd observed in August 1991 the restaurant's birthday bash in the form of a top-dollar farmer's market), "Lamborghini Leftists," that's who. The city of Berkeley, that hotbed of '60s radicalism, was becoming, in the words of that letter, "a parody of itself and its purported ideals."
The point was worth taking, because when Chez Panisse began, it wasn't about costing an arm and a leg. It was about good honest eating (with heavy borrowings from the French) at a good price in the company of good friends — a "family" of friends, as Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, envisioned it and as native Memphian Thomas McNamee describes it in Alice Waters and Chez Panisse — two names but one book, because the two names are inseparable.
But more importantly, there's the singular Alice Waters, who, we're told in the foreword by R.W. Apple Jr., is not a chef (though Waters has served as head, in a pinch, in the Chez Panisse kitchen). Nor is she much of a businesswoman (though, finally, the place does make money). Nor is she much of a writer (despite the six cookbooks that carry her name). What she is is driven, and what she has is an iron will (despite the surface girlishness). And she's got taste. It's infallible. It's what served Waters well when she encountered traditional French cooking in the mid-'60s. It's what Waters depends on when she pronounces a plate from the Chez Panisse kitchen fit to serve. And it's what saw Waters through a failed marriage, money shortages, periodic personal burnouts, and assorted crises in the lives of her admiring kitchen workers and servers. If there are Chez Panisse ex-kitchen workers and ex-servers who don't admire her, you won't hear them here.
And what's not to admire? Waters was in the vanguard of those who called for seasonal ingredients, for organic produce, for sustainable farming, and for employee fairness. She was at the forefront against agribusinesses, and her name is forever linked, fairly or not, with every twist and turn in recent taste: la nouvelle cuisine, California cuisine, and the Slow Food movement. Waters' horror at school lunch programs led her to establish the "Edible Schoolyard" project. And she took the president of Yale to task after observing the substandard stuff fed to students (Waters' daughter, at the time, one of them).
So, again, what's not to admire? Something central. And maybe it has to do with Waters' very iron will. Her taste? Yes, it's infallible, according to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. But the late Julia Child (whom Waters knew and respected but from a distance) communicated something else: joy. Give me 65 bucks, and I'll bet that Child's the better dinner partner. Waters can do the cooking.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
By Thomas McNamee
The Penguin Press, 367 pp., $27.95