Forty years ago this month, a young woman with a thing for vintage cloche hats and 1930s French cinema served her first restaurant meal ever, in a dump of a house in north Berkeley. She called the place Chez Panisse, after a fleshy sail-maker in a series of dusty old films by Marcel Pagnol, and the menu played out like some Foods-of-the-World caricature of bucolic French cuisine: pâté en croûte, duck with olives, tarte aux amandes.
By professional standards, Alice Waters’s public debut on August 28, 1971, teetered on the hatpin-point of disaster. The food took forever to come out of the kitchen, even though two of the three courses were served cold. And then the restaurant temporarily went out of business within weeks of opening. “Alice admits she didn’t know what she was doing,” says David Prior, part of the cadre of twentysomethings working for her these days in the warren of offices next door to Chez Panisse. “Nobody did that night. They’d never worked in a real restaurant before.”
In this moment of retrospection on Waters’s impact, what hardly makes a wave in the commentary is perhaps her most inspiring legacy. Because more than anything—more than edible schoolyards or locavore consciousness; more than popularizing the phrase “farm to table”; hell, even more than changing what Americans think about salad or goat cheese—Waters succeeded in elevating the amateur imagination.
Truth is, Chez Panisse and the Northern California food movement it spawned were nurtured by amateurs, fueled by literary and cultural passions, not trained chefs pursuing mostly culinary ones. They were energetic, idealistic cooks who had never worked at restaurants above the level of crappy college-town spaghetti houses, a shifting cast who took on the brief of recreating Waters’ flickering memories of a handful of meals in France and taking inspiration from faraway passages in books.
The guiding spirits of Waters’ imagination were Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Richard Olney—authors largely obscure to Americans 40 years ago, skilled writers with a gift for conjuring the food of France before the disruptions of the world wars. “We were Francophiles,” says Waters—now 67—across a marble-topped café table in her office, when I ask her about the drive of the early restaurant. It’s a line I’ve heard Waters deliver before, in the same airy voice, with the same careful pacing of her words. But while other Francophiles in 1971 were busy spattering the pages of the grand, two-volume, fleur-de-lys-insignia’d Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Waters turned away from Julia Child to immerse herself in Elizabeth David’s early books.
David was a minor member of England’s peerage who fell in love with French food as a teenager. In the 1930s she escaped Britain with her socialist boyfriend to explore France’s rivers and canals on a scuffed-up sailboat, traveling the scrubby Mediterranean. Back in England after the Second World War, David despaired over the state of British food, which had taken on a gray, extra-dreary cast under continued rationing and the advent of instant custard powder. She longed for the thick-skinned lemons, the olive oil, the sun-warmed figs she’d known, and wrote A Book of Mediterranean Food, first published in 1950, beginning a career that would change the very face of British food.
David’s book was impressionistic, aspirational. Take her recipe for the sauce aillade: “A mixture of garlic, basil, and grilled tomatoes, pounded in the mortar. Olive oil is added drop by drop, until thick.” That’s it—no cup measures, no one-sixteenth teaspoon of pepper, no make-ahead notes, and at a time when it would have been hard to get garlic in London, much less olive oil. She trusted the cook to know or to figure the cooking out; it was her job to seduce.
And so David’s book represented the triumph of the imagination over technique, a far, evocative cry from Child’s Mastering the Art, with its multi-step drills on the proper way to construct boeuf a la bourguignonne. That resonated with Waters. “I could never cook from Julia Child,” she acknowledges.
As we spoke, Reflexions, the 1999 memoir by the late Richard Olney, occupied a place of prominence on a shelf beside her.
Olney wanted to be a painter, and in the 1950s followed the well-worn track of American artist expats to the France of James Baldwin and Kenneth Anger. By the mid-‘60s he’d bought a crumbling, tile-roofed farmhouse and became the Henry David Thoreau of meridional French foodways, a gay recluse patiently carving out a wine cave in his limestone hillside, gathering wild thyme in the brush, combing the works of nineteenth-century curiosities on the right way to stuff an oxtail.
As a cook, Olney was a primitive. For his quietly epic Simple French Food, first published in 1974, Olney sketched improvisations on seasonal ingredients, but also pestered the laborers and truck drivers who showed up at his farmhouse for details on their wives’ or mothers’ daubes and eel stews. Waters made her first pilgrimage up the pitched path to Olney’s farmhouse in 1975, watching him as he cooked, an aperitif of Domaine Tempier rosé in his hand and Piaf wailing from the stereo. She’d found her muse, someone about as unlike Child and James Beard—the professional food establishment of the day—as possible.
Waters says she’s always sought to staff Chez Panisse with a mix of people, skilled cooking mechanics along with those she describes as being “in that artist place.” Perhaps no one exemplified this more than Jeremiah Tower, the untrained proto-Panisse chef who came to the restaurant in 1973. Tower studied architecture at Harvard, but became an Olney protégé with a taste for primary-source material on French cuisine, the more obscure and evocative the better. There’s a story about Tower stumbling on a brief direction by the shadowy gourmand Curnonsky about coaxing along a pot of tripe in a bed of glowing embers for 10 or 12 hours. Tower stayed up all night in the Chez Panisse kitchen to coax. Same with an epic cassoulet, returning every hour to break the crust and spoon more of the unctuous cooking juices overtop, keeping awake by means of pharmaceuticals you don’t buy over the counter at Walgreens.
For a few days in the 1980s, I worked as a cook at the upstairs Café Chez Panisse. I’d gotten the job on the word of a friend who cooked there. I didn’t even have to try out, despite the fact that the restaurant had begun to professionalize.
Like pretty much everybody I cooked with, I’d never had even a day of formal training. To us, only the unimaginative went to culinary school, guys who aspired to wear starched toques in hotel kitchens. I’d gone to work at Greens (the seminal, Chez Panisse-inspired vegetarian restaurant, in those days owned and staffed by San Francisco’s Zen Center) as an exercise in Buddhist right livelihood, one of a kitchenful of amateur cooks seeking active meditation in one of the most stressful workplaces imaginable.
At Chez Panisse as at Greens, we had to do most kitchen work by hand, pounding garlic in big wooden mortars, drying salad greens in small, home-size spinners. If you had to make aioli for a hundred, with a dozen egg yolks and two quarts of oil, you did it by hand, in a huge bowl, a whisk, and your aching arm.
Thing is, if it curdled at any point, almost no one in the kitchen knew how to set it right, since few had been to culinary school. If the chef Jean-Pierre Moullé wasn’t around, you sighed or cursed, scraped it into the trash, and started over. But in a weird way, technical ignorance became a mark of pride. Instead of learning about the chemistry of phospholipids, or the tendencies of protein molecules when exposed to microdroplets of oil, I spent a summer reading and rereading Elizabeth David, reciting passages to my boyfriend, or stumbling through La Bonne Cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange in the original French.
(Of course, ignorance has its limits. One morning, making calzone filling, I didn’t realize the shiny casing on the pancetta was actually a wrapper. Another cook and I spent an hour picking out the minute wisps of plastic—I’m still not sure we got them all. Next morning I quit out of embarrassment. So much for the amateur imagination.)
Back at the marble-topped table with Waters, I mention those fevered early days at Chez Panisse, about shunning culinary education, about raw inspiration. But I’m not sure she understands my question about whether it bothers her that young chefs today think of the cooking at Chez Panisse as too simple, too conservative; she answers about having standards.
We are in, of course, a supremely technical moment in America’s gastronomic life. Gadgets and basic chemistry are staples of food television, and an alpha pack of home chefs turns its longing eye to Nathan Myhrvold’s six-volume, $625 Modernist Cuisine cookbook / manual / manifesto. (Waters “likes what he’s doing,” according to David Prior.) Call it a logical culmination of the past two decades, which saw formal training at specialized academies become almost a baseline requirement for entry into the culinary world.
Today’s generation of chefs complains about the continued influence of Chez Panisse, about the kind of artlessness David Chang characterized as “figs on a plate,” the naked, sometimes awkward quality of a cuisine that values ingredient sourcing over technique. Daniel Patterson’s 2005 critique in the New York Times, “To the Moon, Alice?" is still the most nuanced critique, sighing over the hammerlock influences Chez Panisse still exerts on California chefs, smothering invention under a thick layer of dewy-fresh mesclun, even as he praised Waters’ achievements.
It’s a charge Waters herself all but cops to. I ask her about innovation, about culinary technique, and she replies, “As Alain Ducasse once said, 85 percent of cooking is shopping,” Waters says. Her near-automatic answer felt like a retreat behind a well-worn defense, one that feels like it should be unnecessary. Because ingredient sourcing couldn’t possibly have accounted for even 15 percent of the brilliance that flared up in the early years at Chez Panisse.
Lindsey Shere, Waters’ neighbor in the late ‘60s, ended up as the restaurant’s longtime pastry chef. She once told me that the original drive for the way the restaurant shops—which they have long called “foraging”—was strawberries.
Disappointment with commercial berries of the 70’s was Water’s correlative to Elizabeth David’s despair over British instant custard powder in the 40’s. One day, a cook at Chez Panisse happened to mention that her mom, Mary Isaac, was looking for something to do, and had a bit of extra land 40 miles north. Waters and Shere convinced Isaac to plant an old strawberry variety called Quinault, as well as the musky-scented, pinkie-sized fraises des bois.
From there, Chez Panisse wove together a network of hobby growers, backyard gardeners and back-to-the-land hippie farmers, and in the process created the foundations of today’s local food movement. In retrospect, it’s a triumph, one nobody enduring the hour-long wait for duck with olives at that little house in Berkeley 40 years ago could have imagined. Call it Waters’s biggest amateur achievement.