Chez Panisse: Out of the farm, into the frying pan

BERKELEY, Calif. — A plate arrives from the kitchen of Chez Panisse bearing a a sea bass coated with shell beans, zucchini, scallions and cherry tomatoes in the form of relish. A hungry stomach will demand to be fed, but never wonders where the food came from or about the long process it underwent to make it to the table.

The process of food and the people who make it are often overlooked or forgotten. However, these people are arguably the most critical components of the long cycle that is producing food.

Chefs prepare a mulberry dessert. By Haley Rosenspire

And Chez Panisse, under the philosphies of co-founder Alice Waters, is attempting to change this outlook on farmers who have long been neglected.

Ever since it was established in 1971, Chez Panisse has been revolutionary in changing the way restaurants are designed. Inspired by the French markets — where customers planned their meals based on seasonal products — Waters launched a restaurant destined to challenge the traditional style of cooking.

The restaurant is known for promoting a process that uses local, organic and sustainable food.  But Chez Panisse takes a step further. Staffers there are promoting every link in the food chain, starting with the farmer.

Since Chez Panisse places such an importance on using local ingredients in their dishes, the restaurant purchases its food products from a network of 85 farms — including two main vegetable farms — that are mostly within a two-hour drive of Berkeley. This allows the restaurant to reduce its carbon footprint; the food travels a shorter distance and less carbon is emitted during its transportation.

However, the close proximity of Chez Panisse to its farms allows restaurant staffers and farmers another opportunity: the opportunity for each other to know where their food comes from and where it’s going.

The restaurant staffers enjoy getting to know the farmers that supply their food said Verun Mehra, assistant to Waters. Chez Panisse even holds its staff parties at some of these farms.

The close relationships between restaurant staff and farmers enable more innovative and resourceful thinking. When Chez Panisse orders meat products, it purchases the entire animal. The animal is then slaughtered at the restaurant allowing the chefs to use as much of its meat as possible. However, when waste is produced, the restaurant and the farms have an ecological solution.

Chez Panisse and its farms have collaborated to reuse waste materials, such as oil and food scraps. When food is cooked at the restaurant, Chez Panisse stores the oil produced in large bins. These bins are then sent back to the farms, where the oil is turned into biodiesel and used to fuel the trucks that transport food products. In addition, all food scraps are put into a compost bin, where they will decompose into soil and be used in fertilizer on the farms.

“It comes full circle,” said Mehra of the recycling process.

However, even with the collaboration between Chez Panisse and local farms, farmers still aren’t getting the recognition they deserve. David Prior, Director of Communications to the Chez Panisse Foundation, points out that many farmers don’t have a sustainable income.

“People growing the food aren’t getting paid enough,” Prior said. “Food should be valued more.”

However, increasing the value of organic and local food is not simple. The Chez Panisse Foundation also believes that organic food should be affordable and accessible to everyone, regardless of economic status.

“We need to make food democratic but expensive,” Prior said.

The solution to this predicament requires compromise from both customers and farmers, but Prior has advice. He said that if families shop in season and locally, quality food will be both accessible and more affordable.

Prior’s advice is only one way to accommodate both parties in the battle over affordable, quality food and the increased value of food. However, the Chez Panisse Foundation believes that is possible to satisfy both farmers and consumers; all that is necessary is the determination to make it happen.

“Alice says we can’t think narrowly,” Prior said. “We have to think in the biggest possible way.”

Contributing writer: Paige Mastrandrea