Go Ask Alice

The Last Chez Panisse/Alice Waters Tribute Piece of the Week

An image from the new 40th anniversary book: Alice Waters and one of Chez Panisse's founding chefs, Willy Bishop, ca. 1974.
An image from the new 40th anniversary book: Alice Waters and one of Chez Panisse’s founding chefs, Willy Bishop, ca. 1974. Photo: Courtesy of Chez Panisse

This 40th anniversary week of Chez Panisse is winding down in the press (though the big parties are just winding up across the Bay, and we hear Jake Gyllenhaal’s in town for it all!). Tomorrow night, there will be that series of fundraising dinners at private homes around the Bay, including an uber-exclusive pig roast at Michael Pollan’s house, as well as benefit dinners at restaurants around the country under the Eating for Education umbrella. But now we bring you one last tribute piece, this one penned by John Birdsall for Gilt Taste, in which he offers up the back-handed compliment that Alice’s greatest contribution to the food world is the elevation of the “amateur imagination” in cooking.

To wit:

“Truth is, Chez Panisse and the Northern California food movement it spawned were nurtured by amateurs, fueled by literary and cultural passions, not trained chefs pursuing mostly culinary ones. They were energetic, idealistic cooks who had never worked at restaurants above the level of crappy college-town spaghetti houses, a shifting cast who took on the brief of recreating Waters’ flickering memories of a handful of meals in France and taking inspiration from faraway passages in books.”

Also, Birdsall cops to having worked in the kitchen at Chez Panisse Café in the eighties, having never had any formal training and without even having a tryout. He writes that pretty much no one in the kitchen at the time had gone to culinary school, which was something they wore as a badge of honor. But, “if [the aioli] curdled at any point, almost no one in the kitchen knew how to set it right.” He then sits Alice down and tries to get her to answer to the now frequent challenges that the Chez Panisse ethos around food is too simple, but she’s having none of it. She quotes Alain Ducasse for the umpteenth time (“85 percent of cooking is shopping”), and most of us know Alice never did the cooking in her restaurant, so that feels like a pretty belabored point.

In any event, happy birthday Chez Panisse! And we promise, Alice, as soon as this weekend is over, you can breathe easy and return to your mostly un-public life, drinking Bandol rosé before bed and dreaming of perfect lettuces.

The Real Triumph of Alice Waters [Gilt Taste]
Earlier: What You Missed at the Edible Schoolyard Boxed-Lunch Fête in Union Square
Alice Waters, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Jenna Bush Walk Into a Garden …
Chez Panisse to Celebrate 40 Years With Events at the Berkeley Art Museum, Edible Schoolyard Dinners Nationwide

The Last Chez Panisse/Alice Waters Tribute Piece of the Week