Chic cuisine in the Gourmet Ghetto

BERKELEY, Calif. — Nestled along Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto lies Chez Panisse, a restaurant of legendary proportions. It was the innovative mind of Alice Waters that brought the restaurant to life in 1971, and over the last 40 years, Chez Panisse has transformed and expanded in ways that many would have thought impossible. So what is it that makes Chez Panisse so special?

Fresh bread, recently taken out of the woodfire oven in the Chez Panisse kitchen.                                                                          Photo by Puneet Antaal, Teen Observer.

For one thing, Waters made it imperative that all of the ingredients used in the restaurant are fresh, healthy and locally grown — one of the first of its kind. The relationships that Chez Panisse and local producers formed have been vital to its success. At the time, these ideas were almost unheard-of and no one could have guessed the impact that it would have on not only Berkeley, but the entire country.

It all started when Waters took a trip to France as an undergraduate at UC- Berkeley. Inspired by French cuisine and the alternative way that food was prepared there, Waters helped to create the slow food movement in the United States. She saw how French citizens had access to delicious, organic foods and firmly believed that everyone should have that right. And so began the mission of Chez Panisse.

Mission accomplished. The restaurant is a small, dim-lit oasis of fresh foods and delectable pastries. The menu, which changes daily according to what is in season, is elaborate. The prix fixe menu goes up in price throughout the week as each meal gets more and more elaborate. Ranging from salads to delectable California pizzas, there is certainly an option for everyone. Chez Panisse is credited as one of the first to use wood-fired ovens and make pizza.

The easiest way to gauge the quality of the food is by looking at the ingredients and where they come from. Apart from their own farm in Sonoma, the restaurant also buys from 85 other local farms. Just down the road at the local middle school, the Edible Schoolyard, part of a program that Waters founded to provide healthy alternatives to school lunches, sustains a mulberry tree; the mulberries sometimes find their way into restaurant’s  pastries.

The restaurant’s seafood comes from Monterey Fish, a sustainable-fish practice. With ingredients harvested in such an ecologically sound way, it’s not surprising that the restaurant menu on the weekend is priced at $100 per person.

The high price of the restaurant seems to raise questions about the integrity of Waters’ mission. After all, she believes that everyone should have access to fresh and local foods; the unfortunate reality is that only a small percentage of the locals here can truly afford it. That isn’t to say that Waters specifically wishes to cater to any certain class; there are a lot of factors that go into the high prices.

One of the larger priorities of Chez Panisse and Waters is that the suppliers, chefs, and everyone else who makes the restaurant possible earns a good wage. The high meal prices translate into good salaries for her employees and the local farmers, said Varhun Mehra, Waters’ assistant.