Chez Panisse and the power of slow food

BERKELEY, Calif. — Rows and rows of pale shops and apartment buildings line the streets, but something different awaits on Shattuck Avenue. A large Araucaria tree out front seems to support the entire infrastructure, giving the impression of a tree house nestled back behind the sidewalk. Greenery graces the front gates and dances in front of the large wooden sign: Chez Panisse. Just one step into the red brick courtyard will awaken a sense of belonging. It is no longer a restaurant — it is home.

Chez Panisse chefs preparing lunch for the cafe. By Jordan Contrel-Galerkin

It is 9:25 a.m. and the chefs are working on lunch in the downstairs kitchen. A delicious aroma fills the adjoining dining room. A chef is scraping corn off the cob, while his co-workers prepare dessert from fresh and seasonal fruit, including, on this recent behind-the-scenes tour, mulberries and raspberries. In the pasta room, chef Holly Perez is making spaghetti. The pasta machine is made of  bronze, which is expensive but worth it, she says, because “it makes the spaghetti more porous so that it can better absorb the sauce.”

This is just one example of the attention to detail here at Chez Panisse.

The restaurant was founded in 1971 during the Berkeley free speech movement by chef and activist, Alice Waters. “She wanted a place to get together with friends to discuss politics,” says David Prior, director of communications for the Chez Panisse Foundation.

The restaurant is completely organic and serves only fresh and seasonal food grown by local farmers. Chez Panisse tries to recycle as much as possible. Leftover fryer oil sits in bins behind the restaurant. “It gets converted into bio-diesel fuel that one of our farmers uses for his truck,” says Verun Mehra, assistant to Waters. “The farmers also use our food scraps in fertilizer for their soil, which gives us food for the next year. It’s a full cycle.”

The restaurant menu is fixed for the week, consisting of three to four courses. The upstairs cafe, added in 1980, offers a la carte items at a lower price. The menu is constantly changing in response to the variety of fresh, local foods available.

This idea of buying seasonally, organically and locally is part of an international organization called the Slow Food Movement. This organization moves to educate people about the food they eat and revive an interest in where their food comes from. Waters’ own philosophy relates to this movement.

The food served at Chez Panisse is “clean, with no pesticides so it’s essentially organic … and non-exploitative of the workers,” Prior says. “Alice is advocating that food should cost more, to pay farmers as much as what they deserve. The food and growers should be valued more.”

With a single dinner ranging from $75 to $95, is it possible for lower-income families to afford to eat healthy as well? Quite simply, yes. “Grow your own food, shop in season and eat less meat,” suggests Prior. “The Berkeley Farmers’ Market is accessible and cheap.”

In addition, the goal of the Chez Panisse Foundation is to provide the knowledge and skills required to grow good, clean food. This led to their outreach program, The Edible Schoolyard.

Founded in 1995  in collaboration with the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School, The Edible Schoolyard is a program that provides city students with the opportunity to grow and cook their own food. However, the lessons do not stop in the garden. The program teaches kids to prepare dishes, set a table and lead a dinner-time conversation. Prior says that it teaches them not only to cultivate a garden, but to cultivate traditions to last a lifetime.

With such popularity, quality and amazing taste, why doesn’t Chez Panisse expand? The answer is simple. It would defeat the purpose of fresh and local slow food, he said. The menu items are unique to the California landscape surrounding Berkeley. “It’s not about franchise,” says Prior. For programs such as The Edible Schoolyard and support of slow food, “the community needs to be on board … If they’ve got it in themselves, everything’s possible.”