Chez Panisse: Remoulade, organic recipes revolutionize green education

Pastry Chefs prepare raspberry tarts for lunch at Chez Panisse. By Ayla Mitchell

BERKELEY, Calif.– On a bustling street in downtown Berkeley, a local but legendary restaurant, Chez Panisse, leads the way in the Slow Food movement; a response to the rapid growth of the processed food industry that promotes healthy living through wholesome and organic food.

Established in 1971 as a forum for political and social outreach by the young and ambitious student and chef Alice Waters, Chez Panisse has grown from a neighborhood eatery into an internationally renowned restaurant. Amid the free speech movement that flooded Berkeley during the 1970s, Waters found her place cooking for her friends at the forefront of social change.

An unobtrusive exterior conceals this hidden gem, set back from the street on a foundation of worn brick and wrought iron fencing. Antique lanterns provide a warm glow that pulls in any food aficionado. A terrace covered with thick foliage leads the way into the restaurant’s cozy foyer where diners face a choice: eat in the upstairs cafe, which features an a la carte selection, or dine downstairs from a prix fixe menu that changes daily. Upon arrival one is greeted with a medley of scents ranging from zesty lemon to olive oil and freshly baked bread, echoing the charm of a Parisian cafe.

Whether dining in the cafe or formal dining room, both menus at Chez Panisse reflect the season’s freshest crops. This choice coincides with the pillars of the Slow Food movement, which emphasize eating locally grown food which is free of pesticides, non-exploitative of the farmers, and accessible to people of all socioeconomic classes. In 1995 Waters and the Chez Panisse Foundation began collaborating with schools in the Berkeley area to educate children about healthy and cost effective methods of cooking.  From this movement arose the Edible Schoolyard, a program that expanded across the country. Last year, even  the White House joined the crowd; Michelle Obama broke ground for a family vegetable garden in which young students from a nearby elementary school help plant and harvest food.

David Prior, director of communications for the Chez Panisse Foundation, said that the Edible Schoolyards are vital sources of education in promoting healthy eating. “We want to open up the childrens’ senses to new food,” Prior said. He also said that the independence found from growing one’s own produce is far more satisfying than the instant gratification of fast food. This promotion of culinary education in low economic areas combats many negative stereotypes that the organic and Slow Food movements are too costly and exclusive to reach the greater population, he said.

Prior added that these Edible Schoolyards are not just educational but also economically feasible through government grants and private donations, on which the gardens exclusively run. So far throughout the United States there are four Edible Schoolyards, with the most recent addition in New Orleans, and plans for another garden in Brooklyn, N.Y., to begin this fall.

The Edible Schoolyards provide balanced nutrition and better diets for children while raising awareness about childhood obesity. According to the Center for Disease Control, childhood obesity in America has tripled from 1980-2009, with the prevalence in children from 6-  to 11-year-olds increasing from 6.5 percent to 19.6 percent. This caloric imbalance can be slowly diminished by the continued advocacy of healthy eating.

“We need to think beyond the narrow to the bigger picture to make things happen,” Prior said. “We are holistically defeating the obesity and diabetes epidemics.”

Prior said, “to succeed, the movement needs to fit with the culinary traditions of each location, and adaptations need to be made for each infrastructure.” Changing the philosophical outlook on the nation’s eating habits is a large undertaking, but the Chez Panisse Foundation and its supporters are not discouraged by the magnitude of this project. Prior said, “The goal for Edible Education is to have one garden for every school in America, taking away the need for monopolized food.”

To contact the Chez Panisse Foundation or get involved with the Edible School Yard Program, visit www.edibleschoolyard.org, the Bay Area Americorps chapter at www.bayac.org, or send an email to info@chezpanissefoundation.org.

Contributing writer: Ali Solon