Waters run deep for Alice and Chez Panisse

BERKELEY, Calif. — Wrought iron gates lead into a small garden. The owner herself stands in the upstairs cafe chatting amiably with a friend, making preparations for the restaurant’s 40th birthday party later this month. She greets the students with a “my goodness, how wonderful … wonderful.”

Tucked into a cozy  in Berkeley, at first glance, Alice Waters’ avant-garde slow-food restaurant, Chez Panisse, looks like your grandmother’s house. The restaurant is even named for Honore Panisse from Marcel Pagnol‘s “La Trilogie Marseillaise.” As Varun Mehra, Waters’ personal assistant, said, “He owned the bar. He was very hospitable,” and that homey, down-to-earth aesthetic is apparent in everything from the building, an old house with a rustic, distressed, metal and dark wood facade, to the lighting inside the restaurant. “[There's a] secret to the lighting at CP… we use rose-colored gels over the lights [to create] … a friendly atmosphere, a romantic atmosphere,” Mehra says.

In an installation by Dosa‘s Christine Kim, the walls are papered with old menus, hand-designed by Waters’ friend David Goines and posters from Waters’ favorite Pagnol films. The only thing that doesn’t feel like home is the price tag; $75 per person for a pris-fixe dinner on a weeknight, but less expensive in the cafe

The shady, tree-lined walkway to the entrance. Photo by Carly Maltzman

This familial idealogy also influences the menu, which changes every day, just like it would at a diner’s home. “There are some tried and true recipes” that are repeated, says Mehra, but the emphasis is what is in season and ripe at local farms. “We have a personal relationship with a lot of [the farmers],” says Mehra. He added that  one of them will wait for the restaurant to call him before he harvests, and then will harvest what the restaurant wants: “maybe really big beets, or the chef will decide he wants little baby ones.” This emphasis on family farm cuisine was inspired by one of Waters’ visits to France, where she ate “trout from the river … raspberries from the garden,” says Mehra. “Everything was from right where they were.” In fact, Waters took this so much to heart that she began a national “slow food” movement, and has been educating school kids on organic, sustainable and local eating in an “Edible Schoolyard” garden on top of the parking lot of a local school.

Detail of Christine Kim's installation, and a poster from Marcel Pagnol's Cesar. Photo by Lucy Humpherys

“Three adjectives to describe [Chez Panisse's] food: seasonal, local, organic,” says Mehra; they buy and make food “when it can be grown or harvested … within a one-hour drive,” with two exceptions: wine and olive oil, which “taste different based on where they’re from” … but still “no pesticides or fertilizers,” bought from “people [they] can trust to bring the ingredients.”

At the end, it’s all about the relationships. “We’re quite the little family,” says Mehra, even with a large staff of 120 people, and “35 cooks total” for their small “neighborhood bistro,” where they all work together to inspire people with their fresh-from-the-garden, home-cooked meals.