Sex, Drugs, and Olive Oil

January 9th, 2007

Alice and Chez Panisse
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution
Thomas McNamee

Penguin Press; 380 pages; $27.95.

This could happen only in America; and it could happen only once. In the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, Berkeley, California, experienced the perfect storm.

It was not literally a collision of multi-directional weather systems. Rather, the town was buffeted by winds of social change that blew everywhere and pushed a multitude of talented people into the vortex created by a charismatic young Montessori teacher who liked to cook. Alice Waters thought she’d simply like to open a little California restaurant in the tradition of the French café, a place where like-minded people could gather for good food, good wine, and good talk.

Slipping out of California in the winter of 1965 as the tensions of racial inequality and anti-war sentiments rose in America, Alice Waters went to Paris to pursue her study of 18th and 19th century French social history. Living with her American roommates where it had all happened, she was seduced by France of the 1960’s and by cuisine bourgeoise. Alice speaks of “café au lait in bowls… buckwheat crepes” I loved the idea of that restaurant, because it had those oysters out in front and “you could eat at the bar and have blanquette de veau and a glass of red wine and a basket of great bread.”

Most of all, Alice had been entranced by the culture of the café, the drama of a small stage where the lives of staff and clients were intertwined.

Returning to Berkeley seven months later, Alice and her friends rented an apartment with a good kitchen so they could cook French food. Raging campus demonstrations informed Alice’s social activism at the same time that she longed to recreate an intimate café. Alice and friends were not drawn to the barricades, but were “quietly devising a new way of living, grounded less in outrage than in pleasure, while also imbued with ideals of social justice.” One of Alice’s roommates recalls their exhilarating and frightening realization that they “didn’t have to get married” that there were “no rules,” but that they had “to make them up” themselves.

Soon, Alice had volunteered for the campaign of an anti-war congressional candidate and moved in with a radical boyfriend who also loved to cook. She plunged into the provincial French recipes and agrarian sensibilities of Elizabeth David. Julia Child was on TV, LSD was still legal, and the possibilities seemed limitless.

Author Thomas McNamee—journalist, essayist, poet, and literary critic—usually writes about the natural world. (His earlier books include The Grizzly Bear and Nature First: Keeping Our Wild Places and Wild Creatures Wild). In this undertaking, he searches for an explanation of the very recent revolution of American gastronomy. By meticulously documenting the birth and maturation of Alice Waters’ iconic restaurant, Chez Panisse, he leads us from days of 1960’s California Dreamin’ to 21st century confrontations with global agribusiness—all the while regaling us with the flirtations, foibles, and fundamental fixations of Alice Waters, her circle of friends, staff, and customers. Yet, even with so much material gathered from interviews and correspondence with living participants, we may never have all the answers.

Mr. McNamee charts the weather at Chez Panisse for over three decades: turbulence and calm, pressures high and low, updraft, downdraft, halcyon days.

Any restaurant is a complex ecosystem, and Mr. McNamee’s observational and recording skills as an environmental writer serve us well. Given nearly unfettered access to the written and oral history of Chez Panisse, he takes us up into the tree-canopy, down to the bottom of the pond, into the berry briars. And he’s an unobtrusive anthropologist—he lets inhabitants of this terrain describe themselves; we learn their quotidian routines and have glimpses of their mating dances. He trains a wide-angle lens on their rites of mourning (memorial services and fund-raisers as AIDS ripped through the Bay Area) and revelry (blowout birthday parties for the restaurant). Mr. McNamee does not simply tell us the story of the woman who defined “California Cuisine,” but the story of her whole tribe.

Though Mr. McNamee writes with clarity and erudition, his expedition notes would be enhanced by a time line and a lineage chart of la famille Panisse, as the people who drifted through Alice Water’s life came to be called.

Early on, the author himself is cautioned by one interviewee that a portrait of Chez Panisse would overwhelm him—so numerous are the players and so voluminous the material. How true!

From a psychotic mussel supplier and a brunch cook who liked to drop just a little acid, to the wordsmith who spell-checks the restaurant’s menus and the Tibetan driver of the vegetable van, the cast is operatic. As the actors step on and off the stage, we need to be reminded who they are and how they first joined the troupe.

This is especially true for the roster of chefs who revolved through (and sometimes back into) the kitchen at Chez Panisse. Each added something distinctive and many went on, as Chez Panisse alumni, to open restaurants of their own. Meanwhile, at the front of the house, Alice continued to refine the spirit of a 1930’s French café. But she was never far from the kitchen and retained her role as the final arbiter of how things should taste.

Two chefs in particular provide a telling contrast in what was happening behind the scenes and behind the stove. The mercurial Briton, Jeremiah Tower, imposed the opulence of nineteenth-century haute cuisine on the menu. Alice recounts the exhilarating, flying-trapeze preparations for Jeremiah’s Truite au bleu au Champagne (the trout leaping from the kitchen sinks before being clubbed unconscious, gutted, and immediately poached in a court bouillon—the only way to achieve that shocking blueness.)

Later, Paul Bertolli, with his Italian sensibilities, eschewed theatricality for the unmasked celebration of superior ingredients. He literally brought the menu back to earth with offerings like Rack of Lamb with Fresh Flageolet Beans, prepared for Chez Panisse’s Thirteenth Birthday Dinner.

The Chez Panisse kitchen became calmer and more professional during the Bertolli years. Most significantly, olive oil, the elixir of Alice’s beloved Provence, resumed the role usurped by Jeremiah’s butter and cream.

All the while, an unflappable, can-do attitude prevailed among the staff. Yet, it wasn’t until the arrival of Jean-Pierre Mouleé in 1975, as sous-chef to Jeremiah Tower, that Chez Panisse had an employee with any professional culinary training. This was four years after Chez Panisse’s opening night in August 1971, when dinner had included a two-hour wait between the pâté and duck courses…

What should have failed had not. But why not? From more than thirty interviews with Alice Waters herself and scores more with her friends and associates, Mr. McNamee attempts to sort and weight the factors of talent, vision, determination, romanticism, synergy, idiosyncrasy, and sheer luck.

“Unlikely” is an adjective used liberally throughout the book. It was certainly unlikely that the building which became Chez Panisse, a modest house on Shattuck Avenue, was initially leased from two lawyers– would-be investors who had pulled out at the eleventh hour, only to reappear as landlords for the enterprise. Just as unlikely was the source of initial financing: local drug dealers. Mr. McNamee is quick to point out that “These were not the scary, Glock-wielding gangsters one associates with the term drug dealer today. These were ordinary gentle Berkleyites who happened to make their livings by supplying a network of friends with pot and other soft drugs.” Alice is quick to aver that back in the ’70’s, “they were the only people who had money.”

So it was not unlikely that many of la famille would be inclined to recreational drug use—even during service. In a memorandum Alice admonished her staff against “among other potential offenses” the use of marijuana on the premises “during working hours.”

A Waters family friend reminds the author that “One of the reasons the story of Chez Panisse is so complex, is that Alice was involved with so many of the men, And if she wasn’t, then someone else in the restaurant was. Oh boy.”

“Alice?s life is driven by passion,” says a male confidant from her student days, “and sometimes she sublimates [that] in the food of Chez Panisse.”

For those who lived it, “the perfect storm” may indeed be the best analogy!

While idealism (no compromise on the integrity of ingredients) and egalitarianism (profit-sharing, right down to the dishwashers) made Chez Panisse a magnet for an endless parade of culinary aspirants, it wreaked havoc with the bottom line. Employees got travel sabbaticals and extra time to be with their families. Many helped themselves to more than an occasional bottle of Bordeaux. In the early years, food costs often exceeded the prices printed on the menus. (Alice did not want to price her Berkeley friends out of the restaurant). Even after Chez Panisse had received national acclaim, it continued to lose money as staff generously extended the extra bottle or entire meals to friends and favored clients. Managers and accountants were hired and fired—or quit in exasperation. Emotions sometimes boiled over: one disgruntled female cook punched the bookkeeper in the nose.

Eventually, the restaurant began to find its stride. What better place for forming symbiotic relationships with local providers than northern California with its year ’round growing climate? To source wild and rare ingredients, there was an official forager on staff. Traveling in France, Alice had learned the taste principle of terroir and sought local provender, organically raised, whenever possible.

Glowing reviews piled up; reservations rolled in. But seats went empty, casualties of the no-shows that plague the business. Something of a Luddite, Alice would not countenance accepting credit cards, so there was no way to recoup those losses by the standard practice top restaurants regularly employ—the no-show cancellation penalty. Chez Panisse had shareholders and a board of directors who should have overruled her. Even though Alice herself owned but a small number of shares, she was such a formidable presence in both kitchen and the front of the house that it was nearly impossible to institute change without her approval. The restaurant’s accounting was not computerized until 1984. Only in 1989, when her father (a member of the board) prevailed, were credit cards accepted.

The business of the restaurant had always been less interesting to Alice than the food itself and the human connections to that food. Mr. McNamee traces subtle shifts in the breezes following the birth of Alice’s daughter in 1983, when she began her impassioned campaign to change the way American children eat. With the success of her Edible Schoolyard project for the Berkeley public school system, Alice had a platform on which she could do much more than a Bastille Day garlic fest, and she stepped up to it in earnest. Gardening and the pleasures of communal eating were ways to educate and civilize children and the rest of our society. Organic farming and eating local products would help the planet and make us better environmental stewards.

Chez Panisse had been a college girl’s romantic dream realized, but sustainable agriculture on a global scale has since become Alice’s raison d’être.

There is a wistful irony to this, for the force of Alice?s cause now spirits her away, for weeks and months at a time, from the cocoon of Berkeley, away from la famille Panisse. She is now in her early-sixties, and her outreach and influence have become global.

Topics related to sustainable agriculture and responsible food choices grab headlines every day. Whether we merely enjoy goat cheese in our salads or volunteer to plant a community garden, Mr. McNamee makes the case that we are all the better for the efforts of the Montessori teacher who wanted a little place where one could linger to enjoy simple food and visit with friends for hours.


Reviewed by Skip Lombardi & Holly Chase

In the interest of full disclosure, Penguin Press sent us a copy of this book for review.

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