Saturday, October 04, 2014

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

Graphic design of the menus and posters
for Chez Panisse had a distinctive style,
illustrated here by the dust jackets of her
1982 cookbook and McNamee's book.
In Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Thomas McNamee provides many direct quotations from Alice Waters and the many talented people who have worked at her famous restaurant. He quotes direct memories of the food they made, the menus they served, the recipes they invented, the financial challenges, the rivalries and sometimes quarrels or jealousies (usually with solutions), and the food philosophy they shared. These bring the biography to life, as vividly as if it were a novel. I don't know why it took me several years to get around to reading it.

McNamee's sources were a number of interviews he did around 2004 or 2005, long after the fact, as well as contemporary newspaper and magazine articles, a few autobiographies and cookbooks by the participants, and archives of menus. I loved the way he put it all together.

Alice Waters and her restaurant have been famous almost since she founded it, which was in 1971. She's recognized as an innovator in several food movements: the adaptation of French food to American/California taste, creating an open kitchen space, finding boutique farms to provide exquisite seasonal produce, commitment to humane animal raising and slaughter, introduction of the "Edible Schoolyard" and nutrition education at many levels, participation in the Slow Food movement, and overall leadership in other food issues.

Since I read lots of culinary news, I was aware of most of her accomplishments, but I enjoyed the book and learned quite a lot from reading it. I enjoyed the way her many friends, employees, lovers, financial backers, family members, and chefs characterized her energy, dedication, and charismatic personality. Most of these people, in fact, are in several of these categories at the same time: Her friends became business partners or employees. Her lovers were almost always involved in the restaurant. Her employees may not have been trained but she turned them into chefs, several of whom became independently famous. She found people with all sorts of backgrounds to become "foragers" who looked for just the right farmers, or who helped them plant just the right crops.

With a few exceptions, all seemed incredibly loyal and admiring, permanently. Alice's creation was an incredibly non-hierarchal environment where each chef or cook made one dish at a time -- no grunts to peel the vegetables, even the head chef would do his own. So little resentment is documented, you might wonder if there are other involved people who weren't interviewed, though McNamee implies that this was not the case.

Above all, McNamee emphasizes Alice's dedication to bringing up her daughter, and how this led her to become interested in educational projects. What I learned from the book was that before Chez Panisse, Alice was a Montessori teacher and that Montessori ideas are fundamental to the hands-on basis of the Edible Schoolyard and how it was developed.

In response to the book, I've been looking through my copy of the first Chez Panisse cookbook, which I purchased the one time that I ate at the restaurant in the mid-1980s. I don't think I've ever tried any of the recipes -- they are very challenging because they demand extraordinary ingredients, in keeping with her philosophy. It's a cookbook for reading, not for cooking, I fear. Too bad -- McNamee's book almost made me taste the vast number of dishes as he described their invention, creation, and consumption in the beautiful atmosphere of the restaurant that Alice conceived.


Debra Eliotseats said...

I read more of an unauthorized bio about five years ago. I would love to read this one.

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,
Like you I too have a copy of her book but, like you I have never been able to bring myself to actually try any of the recipes:)

I would love to scan through McNamee's book because through the years I have read different opinions about the atmosphere at Chez Panisse. I'll have to watch for that book.

Thanks for sharing, Mae...