Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
Although Penguin Press bills Alice Waters and Chez Panisse as an authorized biography of the famed restaurateur, in fact the book isas its title indicatesmore of a dual biography of Alice Waters and her singular creation, Chez Panisse, perhaps the most famous restaurant in the United States. Born in Chatham, New Jersey, Waters enjoyed “an ordinary American suburban childhood.” Readers are presented with a charming (and prescient) picture of the young Waters attending a Fourth of July costume contest dressed as the Queen of the Garden, “with a skirt of lettuce leaves, bracelets made from radishes, anklets of red and green peppers, a necklace woven of long-stemmed strawberries, and a crown of asparagus.” Aside from these few details, however, author Thomas McNamee spends little time on Waters’s early life, jumping quickly ahead to her immersion in the heady swirl of Berkeley in the mid-1960’s.
This is as it should be, for Alice Waters and Chez Panisse are virtually indistinguishable, and both are creatures of the cultural revolution for which Berkeley served as the epicenter. However, McNamee, like Waters, moves quickly from Berkeley to France, where Waters’s personal transformation began over a bowl of soupe des légumes, the first meal she ate after arriving in Paris. It was not just the taste of the soupalthough Waters recalls feeling as if she had never eaten before; the whole experience (“those big, old, thick curtains”) caused her to redefine herself in relation to her environment. Waters spent little of her semester abroad studying at the Sorbonne. Most of her time was devoted to tasting the fruits of the earth as presented by the French.
Waters returned to Berkeley in the autumn of 1965 a changed woman: “I wanted hot baguettes in the morning, and apricot jam, and café au lait in bowls, and I wanted a café to hang out in and I wanted to wear French clothes.” She did, for a time, occupy the margins of the Free Speech Movement and other manifestations of radical politics, but shortly after graduation Waters gravitated to restaurant work, and thereexcept for a brief and instructive sojourn as a Montessori instructorshe has remained.
The improbable idea of Chez Panisse was born of Waters’s desire “to evoke the sunny good feelings of another world that contained so much that was missing or incomplete in our own” and named for a minor character in mid-twentieth century French filmmaker Marcel Pagnol’s classic trilogy, Marius (1931), Fanny (1933), and César (1936), set in a bar-café in old Marseille. Waters wanted to bring the easy familiarity and generous spirit of the films to life in her own place. It seemed an entirely impracticaland impracticabledream. Although she was an accomplished cook, Waters had no formal culinary training, no business experience, and no capital. What she did haveher small stature and soft voice notwithstandingwas a will of iron.
McNamee’s first chapter, an evocation of Chez Panisse’s opening night on August 28, 1971, is masterful. Like his subject, he has a gift for scene setting, and he manages to convey a powerful sense of the look and feel of the restaurant in the old two-story stucco house at 1517 Shattuck Avenue on that auspicious occasion. In many ways, the evening was a disaster: The line of waiting diners stretched out the door and down the block; a full hour passed between the first and second courses; and there simply was not enough food to feed everyone. Nonetheless, Waters and company pulled it off, largely owing to a combination of fresh food presented simply and gifted improvisation. These elements continue to be at the heart of Chez Panisse’s success, as does the custom of a set but ever-varying menu, a large container of freshly cut flowers, and an uncompromising commitment to excellence. When Waters’s employees wish to poke fun at her, they pick at a microscopic bit of green on a plated entrée, declaring, “Too much lettuce!”but they do so with affection,...
(The entire section is 1,505 words.)