BERKELEY, Calif. — Walking down Shattuck Aveneue here in the North end of town, in the heart of what is locally called “the gourmet ghetto,” sits Chez Panisse, which looks like a welcoming cabin with a vine-covered courtyard. A natural exterior with cascading trees complements the restaurant’s value of “slow food,” the ideology of healthy and organic cooking.
When founder and chef Alice Waters traveled to France in her early 20s, she discovered how much she enjoyed buying local, fresh food every day.
Today, her restaurant uses only locally grown produce from 85 area farms, one of which grows food exclusively for Chez Panisse.
The restaurant celebrates its 41st anniversary Aug. 28th, and Waters’ assistant, Varun Mehra said, “We are going to try to raise money for the Edible Schoolyard this year,” referring to the program Waters started at a nearby Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, and which has now grown into a nationwide movement.
“Every student should have a free, delicious, school lunch,” Mehra said, and the Edible Schoolyard fosters that with courses woven into the curriculum related to the garden, where students learn to grow, harvest and then cook their own food.
At the restaurant, all the ingredients are grown locally, and the menu is created and printed daily depending on what’s fresh and most available — and sometimes that includes mulberries from the school’s tree.
In addition to the restaurant, Chez Panisse features a less-expensive cafe, created in 1980.
Both feature open kitchens and serve about 500 meals each day.
The restaurant is prix fixe, consisting of four courses, except Mondays, when it is three courses. As the week goes on, both the menu and the prices grow.
During an early-morning visit, the chefs were quietly talking and getting to work for the lunch crowd. ‘This kitchen has a much different vibe than the other restaurants, it is much calmer,” Mehra said.
The kitchen smelled like fresh, warm bread and spices; colorful berries from Healdsburg were being sorted for sorbet; and two plum tarts had just come out of the oven.
The restaurant’s philosophy of eating what’s available locally extends further into enviromentally friendly habits beyond the kitchen. Excess frying oil is stored in a garbage can, and will later be used by one of their farmers to turn into biodiesel. Mehra said, “We basically don’t throw out anything that’s biodegradable.” In addition to this, all leftover food is turned into compost. And the restaurant ends up with only two cans of garbage a week.
A recent menu at the cafe featured such choices as house-made spaghetti, grilled squid, roasted quail and pizza with wild nettles and mozzarella. Mehra said, “I feel like I hadn’t discovered this way of eating before I worked here. It’s irresistible.”