Chez Panisse Turns 40!

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in: Chefs

On Aug. 28, Chez Panisse, the French-inspired California cuisine restaurant/shrine located in the heart of Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto,” will turn 40. No small occasion, even for those, like myself, whose connection to the restaurant dates back to its earliest days. Most restaurants fail, on average, within 10 years of opening. But Chez Panisse is no average restaurant — it’s a cultural movement! As for the enduring influence of its “simple food” revolution, 40 years may be only a drop in the bucket of gastronomic time. You get the feeling that the restaurant, and its founder, Alice Waters, are just getting started, in one form or another.

In honor of Chez Panisse on its birthday, I offer below an excerpt from my book, “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History.” Alice and her restaurant are one of the most important “exhibits” in my virtual and personal “museum of culinary history”* and one of the primary catalysts for my own career in food publishing and journalism. So, Happy birthday Chez Panisse, and many happy returns of the day!

* In my book, I refer to my Museum of Culinary History by its acronym, MOCH, which I pronounce “mooch.”

Alice Waters, the Ghetto’s Queen Bee

Much has been written about the final exhibit in my pantheon of ghetto heroes and the factors — biographical, political, cultural and counter-cultural — that have shaped the ghetto’s Queen Bee. The early years of Alice’s collaboration with Jeremiah Tower, and the endorsements by the East Coast’s culinary elite — especially James Beard — had put Chez Panisse at the forefront of an exciting gastronomic movement. It came to be known by the 1980s as California cuisine, but it had a broad national impact and has in recent years commingled with influences from abroad, including Italy’s Slow Food movement.

By the 1990s, Alice’s restaurant increasingly functioned as her busy beehive, sending out its storied message into the greater culinary world on the wings of its talented chef/pollinators. Once free of the hive’s gravitational pull, these anointed cuisiniers have often blossomed in their own right, creating restaurant, cookbook and even product-line empires of their own — Victoria Wise, Mark Miller, Judy Rodgers, Jonathan Waxman, Joyce Goldstein, Christopher Lee and Paul Bertolli are notable examples.

Although we at the Museum of Culinary History have attempted to establish the contemporary culinary context of Chez Panisse’s breakthroughs in the 1970s, our curatorial explorations at MOCH go back to an even earlier period of progressive cultural, social and aesthetic aspiration in England and Europe — the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th century — to explain the evolving food aesthetic, not merely the Craftsman decor,* of Chez Panisse.

*Architect-trained Jeremiah Tower did notice the physical Arts and Crafts details at Chez Panisse as described in his memoir, “California Dish”: “The remodeled old Victorian house looked like a cross between Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with a little bow to Berkeley’s Julia Morgan.”

L. John Harris drawing: on the road to arts & crafts cooking

On the Road to Arts & Crafts Cooking in California

MOCH presents the story of Alice Waters, the architect of what she has dubbed a “Delicious Revolution,” in terms of a pre-existing aesthetic condition in Berkeley and the Bay Area. It has been argued that Northern California, and especially the East Bay communities of Piedmont and Berkeley, was the epicenter of California’s historic identification with the Arts and Crafts aesthetic and progressive social ideals of England’s William Morris and his mentor, John Ruskin. (See Leslie Freudenheim’s 2005 book, “Building With Nature.”) Layered over the aesthetics was the vision of California as an anti-materialist, anti-industrial and socially progressive Garden of Eden. The historian Kevin Starr writes about California along these same lines as a California “dream.”

Connecting Alice Waters and Chez Panisse to the foundations of Berkeley’s early zeitgeist is best conveyed by comparing Water’s book, “The Art of Simple Food” (2007), to Charles Keeler’s 1904 classic, “The Simple Home,” a book that proselytized Arts and Crafts design and architectural concepts, many attributable to Morris and to Keeler’s close friend and mentor, the architect Bernard Maybeck. One of Keeler’s opening lines in the book could have been uttered at the dawn of the California cuisine movement — just place the word “culinary” in front of Keeler’s “art”:

A movement toward a simpler, a truer, a more vital [culinary] art expression is now taking place in California.

Keeler, a popular local poet, playwright, naturalist and founder of the Cosmic Religion, was a force in Berkeley’s bohemian and civic sets which included painter William Keith, naturalist John Muir and developer Duncan McDuffie. In “The Simple Home” he advocated principles that resonate uncannily with those in “The Art of Simple Food.”

The comparisons are stark. Here’s a partial list:

Simple Home (Keeler) Simple Food (Waters)
highest quality materials • locally sourced materials • structural elements left exposed • hand-made interior accessories • flower gardens for the soul • hearths for family connections highest quality ingredients • locally sourced ingredients • food that looks and tastes like what it is • cooking by hand/no gadgets • kitchen gardens for the meal • hearths for family cooking

 

Is it now possible to conclude that Berkeley’s earliest aesthetic and social reform aspirations have resurfaced through the Ruskinian polemics of a Delicious Revolution? Has the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement been resurrected through Alice Waters to lend support to a late 20th-century gastronomic awakening in America? Perhaps this narrative is best left for future scholars to evaluate. Meanwhile, the Museum of Culinary History will continue to celebrate the ghetto’s Queen Bee with exhibits that explore the growing legend and its relationship to Berkeley’s unique cultural inheritance.

Credits: Excerpt from “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History” and the drawing “On the Road to Arts & Crafts Cooking in California” used by permission of El Leon Literary Arts/Oak Rock Books. Copyright 2010, all rights reserved.

“Chez Panisse: The Next Generation” (2011) by L. John Harris.


Zester Daily contributor L. John Harris is a food writer, filmmaker, artist and the former owner of Aris Books, publishers of cookbooks in Berkeley, Calif. Harris’ most recent book is “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” a collection of his food cartoons and texts about America’s culinary revolution. (www.foodoodles.com)

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