Chez Panisse: Make yourself at home

BERKELEY, Calif. — Flames emanate from the kitchen fire, and along with the dimmed overhead lighting, reflecting off the smooth wooden walls of the restaurant. There is a warm, almost sleepy glow.  Inviting scents of rosemary, tomatoes and freshly baked bread greet patrons at the door.

Warm light and a home-like kitchen give Chez Panisse "a friendly atmosphere, a romantic atmosphere," said Varun Mehra, assistant to Alice Waters. Photo by Max Chantha

The normal restaurant hustle and bustle that in many cases leads to chaos here lends an atmosphere of dedication unique in its focus and ease.  Chefs, waiters, floral designers and other employees say a friendly hello to those passing by and strike up a conversation while performing their assigned tasks.  In short, Chez Panisse has created the ultimate combination of downhome atmosphere and fine dining efficiency.

Alice Waters started the restaurant in 1971. She is an organic food advocate and avid gardener continually striving to create the experience of eating in her home. Waters had been inspired by the food on early trips to France, where “the trout was out of the river, and the raspberries were out of the garden,” said Varun Mehra, her personal assistant.

One of the original visions of Chez Panisse was that it would have a different menu every night, which also allows the dishes to be based on ingredients that are “seasonal, local and organic,” said Mehra.

As it approaches its 40th anniversary on Aug. 28, Chez Panisse still embodies the founder’s original vision. The building itself is an old house converted to a restaurant, providing a welcoming front porch with climbing vines, unimposing and easy to miss from the street view. Dimmed lights provide a warm orange glow in the dining room.

One can hardly separate the dining room from the kitchen, though. A clear view of wood cutting boards, baskets of warm bread and fresh herbs and a firebrick oven allow diners to feel a connection to their food and the chefs behind it. The same goes for the upstairs cafe section of Chez Panisse, where wooden tables and worn leather booths line the rim of a second kitchen, in which the chefs work in front of the guests.

Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard campaign prize nutritional and culinary education as equal to traditional subjects. Photo by Max Chantha

The French name of the restaurant translates to “Home of Panisse.” The inside walls of the upstairs section are decorated with posters of a French movie series, the Fanny trilogy, in which a bartender named Panisse is described by Mehra as the “epitome of hospitality.”

Forty years later, Alice Waters and her concept of “slow food” are making young people more and more conscious of what they eat.  “People are starting to look more closely at where their food comes from and how it is treated. You wouldn’t spray pesticides on your plate” said David Prior, director of communications at Chez Panisse.

Waters created the Edible Schoolyard campaign, a push for better school lunches and food education. She started at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, but now the foundation seeks to “take the idea of Edible Schoolyard and deliver it to every level of education,” said Prior. Accordingly, Waters has just finished a new book, The Power of Gathering: Forty Years of Chez Panisse, and she will teach a course at her alma mater, the University of California at Berkeley in the fall titled, “Edible Education 101: The rise and future of the food movement.”

The fast food culture of America, however, still poses a huge challenge to the slow-food movement. With respect to the rivalry between the two cultures, Varun commented ” There are two tracks moving really fast. … We are just trying to keep up.”