Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse: Where bold is the norm

Chefs take corn off just-picked cobs before the lunch crowd arrives. By Lynne Perri

BERKELEY, Calif. — In a shady Berkeley alcove, revolution is slowly cooking. Behind a moss-dusted facade on Shattuck Avenue, Chez Panisse is an inconspicuous presence. Yet with an all-organic menu, and a strong role in food politics, the restaurant holds a stronger influence than one would think.

Chez Panisse, established by Alice Waters in 1971,  is known for its bold menus. Every item is from food that has been organically cultivated, and many are delivered by a network of 85 local farms, many within about a two-hour to reduce carbon emissions. David Prior, director of communications for Chez Panisse Foundation, said, “It’s important to support the community.” Such efforts extend beyond fiscally supporting the agriculture in Berkeley, as even the leftover fryer oil is recycled into bio-diesel for a farmer’s tractor. “We like to think it comes, really, full circle,” said Prior.

And Waters is more than a simple restaurant owner. She is the author of eight books, an award-winning chef and an inductee into the California Hall of Fame. Now she also is vice president of Slow Food International; the organization advocates that food production should be “good, clean and fair food”: non-exploitative of the environment, the food and the workers who produce it.

Waters was initially inspired by this ideology while studying in France, where she fell in love with the idea of going to the market daily. She created the restaurant as a place for her friends to enjoy and “talk politics,” said Waters’ Assistant Varun Mehra. She also has taken her food politics outside the restaurant.

Enter the Edible Schoolyard, a project co-founded in 1995 by Waters and Neil Smith, principal at the nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Through the program, students learn to grow, cultivate and cook their own food, expanding their horizons to a whole range of healthier foods. Other than educating children about the origins of their food, the program aims to combat obesity, as well, and has expanded nationally with similar programs at four other schools. Workshops have also emerged from the program that encourage the local community to adopt similar tactics, and, “That’s very exciting,” said Prior.

Waters provides the example but not all the edible schoolyards are the same.  Additionally, her staffers said those not in schools with such partnerships can be instruments for change: “It just takes one person to hear about these ideas and be inspired,” said Prior. He and Mehra suggest that families take “out the middleman,” by growing their own food, and shopping in season to support the local community. Cooking simply, and eating less meat, meanwhile, makes Slow Food ideals more financially feasible for lower-income families, he said.

As for her highly successful restaurant, are there any plans to expand into a chain? “If it was exactly the same in each place, it would be sort of like a fast-food model,” said Prior, noting that such a move would contradict the ideals of the restaurant. Chez Panisse approaches its 40th anniversary next August in this city’s Gourmet Ghetto, a one-of-a-kind, still on a mission.

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Contritubting writer: Kallista Zormelo