Walking in downtown Berkeley’s “gourmet ghetto,” it’s easy to pass by a little place by the name of Chez Panisse. This restaurant, though tucked away behind an iron gate and tall, leafy trees, is one of Berkeley’s most talked about restaurants. As you enter the courtyard, you discover a natural and rustic exterior. It’s a simple scene, with wisteria pods hanging above and sunlight filtering in through the trees. Inside, a homey yet elegant dining room awaits. Chefs and delivery people hustle in and out with large bags of produce in hand, preparing for the 12:30 lunch seating. If you walk upstairs to the café, you will see vintage movie posters of Marcel Pagnol’s work. Panisse, a character in Pagnol’s films, is deeply loved by the restaurant’s owner. Along with the classic velvet curtains and the calm music, all of this contributes to Chez Panisse’s friendly and romantic atmosphere.
Chez Panisse is a restaurant that was created by chef and author Alice Waters, who is self-described with a passion for food economy that is “good, clean and fair.” It opened in Aug. 28, 1971. It was in France where she first learned to cook and also where she developed her own cooking philosophy: using fresh, simple ingredients grown locally to create delicious dishes. The French style inspired her further to use a prefixed menu in her restaurant, which features a three course meal on Monday evenings and a four course meal for the rest of the week. As the week progresses, the menu becomes more elaborate, and thus more expensive. If the restaurant experience, however, is not for you, her café, which opened in 1980, features a menu à la carte. Varun Mehra, Waters’ assistant, said that the café, “is a little more bustly,” while the restaurant is, “a more serene dining experience.”
Mehra generously guided us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the famous restaurant. As we walked through the restaurant Mehra said, “This kitchen has a much different vibe than other kitchens. It’s much calmer.” He emphasized the relaxed and stress-free environment which is evident in the chefs’ various work stations and even in the dining room. Chez Panisse is also unique is its dedication to using locally grown, organic food. Bob Cannard, a Sonoma farmer, harvests his crops twice a week for Chez Panisse so that, in the words of Mehra, they have, “what is the [most fresh] and best at the time.” In addition to Cannard’s, Chez Panisse frequents 85 other farms around the state. Mehra says that farmers call them, “all the time,” asking if they can, “bring [their produce] by.” The fruits and vegetables are often stored outside because they retain better flavor that way. Besides fresh produce, meats are also brought in frozen to be butchered on the premises. The downside of using organic ingredients is that the restuarant becomes more expensive than some would like. Mehra’s response was that the extra cost comes from Waters’ dedication to making sure that the farmers have a steady income.
While seating about 500 people a day, Chez Panisse produces only two trash cans worth of waste per week. Mehra said that the restaurant prefers not to, “throw out anything that is biodegradable.” Those remnants are sent to farmers as well as the city of Berkeley for composting. Even the leftover oil is recylcled back to the farmers to make bi0diesel fuel. Chez Panisse’s committment to the relationship between food and the environment is evident throughout their traditions in and out of the kitchen.
Mehra explained that Waters follows her food philosophy outside the restaurant through one of her other projects, the Edible Schoolyard. Only a mile down the road from Chez Panisse stands Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, where Waters created the first edible schoolyard. It is a one acre garden which has grown fresh fruits and vegetables for 17 years. All the while, the school has incorporated the garden into the students’ lessons, creating interdisciplinary courses featuring cooking and gardening. According to Mehra, Waters believes that “every student should have a free, delicious, and healthy school lunch.” Not only do the students learn to grow and make their own food, but they are able to set a pattern for heatlhy eating down the line, as their cafeteria now incorporates the produce grown in the schoolyard for their meals. Every now and then, Mehra said, the pastry chef from Chez Panisse visits the school to, “steal some [mulberries]” from their mulberry tree. The improvement of the cafeteria lunches has inspired a larger movement to show kids around the country that healthy eating can be delicious and beneficial. Even the first lady, Michelle Obama, planted an edible garden at the White House. Waters visited the garden and is, “thrilled,” according to Mehra.
Mehra said the resaurant is looking forward to the 41st anniversary of Chez Panisse. There will be a fundraiser held on August 28th for the Edible Schoolyard, where they hope to raise several thousand dollars for the organization. Additionally, Waters is currently publishing a sequel to her accliamed cookbook, “The Art of Simple Food,” which will come out in the spring of 2013.
Waters is a major public figure in the movement for organic food, and she inspires many people all over the country to eat delicious yet healthy food. Her influence is felt all over the world and she manages to make a lasting impact. She constantly amazes those closest to her. Mehra, who has been her assistant for three years, says that his own perspective has changed since meeting her. He grew up on the East Coast, where he, “hadn’t discovered this way of eating,” just yet. Once he embraced Waters’ philosophy, though, he found that, “it’s irresistable.”