Sunday, March 2, 2008

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (a book)

For many of you, who don't reside in the U.S., the name Alice Waters may not hold much meaning. She's been an icon of the foodie world for about 40 years, emanating from her ubiquitous restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California.

Thomas McNamee has written a definitive biography of Alice Waters, and the history of the restaurant along with it, that gives interested readers a glimpse into the complete timeline and inner-workings of the famous restaurant and kitchen.

Alice Waters' claim to fame, is her absolute dedication to using farm fresh (Slow Food) produce and products. She's probably credited with bringing this movement to the U.S. long before anyone else was interested. After visiting France when she was newly graduated from college, and enjoying the fresh untainted bounty of the countryside, she and her then boyfriend, returned home to open a restaurant near her Alma Mater, University of California, Berkeley. Chez Panisse is literally about 10-15 blocks north of the campus, and has remained much the same as when it opened back in 1971. A 2-story stucco house, transformed into a very busy, very VERY busy restaurant. After reading the book, I'll just say that it has morphed over the years, and Alice remains in some kind of role, still seeking out the "stage," if you can call a restaurant as such.

Having eaten there twice, I'll say that I enjoyed the food tremendously both times. But I didn't realize the significant difference between eating upstairs vs. downstairs. Upstairs is the casual cafe, with a small, open kitchen, and an a la carte menu (where I've eaten both times). Downstairs is the more formal set menu dining room, where you eat what is placed in front of you. No choices except what wine you'd like to have (extra). The varied chefs (Jeremiah Towers Mark Miller, and the current chef, Jean-Pierre Moulle) over the years, have made and remade the reputation, but with Alice's touch, always. The notable chefs have ebbed and flowed. Some with fiery temperaments. Some who had to take a back seat to Alice's name as chef, when in fact, she rarely cooks. Over the years she's had to wield a frying pan many a night, but you learn that it's not her strength. She'd rather be adding a sprig of chervil on the green beans, or glad-handing the guests in the dining room. She also had the wizardry of Lindsey Shere, certainly a well-known name now in pastry stardom. Alice gave Lindsey her own tiny shack on the property, little more than a lean-to, and it's from there the famous Chez Panisse desserts emanated. Lindsey was given almost complete autonomy, as long as she abided by Alice's desire for local and seasonal products, the freshest, etc.

The first time my DH and I had dinner there, Alice was present in the upstairs dining room. We actually sat in the next booth to where she'd joined a small family (Chez Panisse purveyors) who had come to the restaurant for the first time. Alice was making certain they were appreciated. And now having read the book, I'm certain Alice was spreading "the word," her philosophy, about how the Slow Food movement was progressing and how important their contribution was.

What's interesting is that over the 35+ years of its existence, Chez Panisse has only been making money for about the last 10. Alice has a vision, always, about everything in her life, but particularly the restaurant. Nothing could sway her from her goal of providing the very best, the most expensive, but the freshest seasonal ingredients. But her management style? She virtually has none. She always left and still leaves the supervision, guidance, firing, to underlings. She didn't dirty her hands with the day to day management. She prides herself, however, on the feeling of "family" that exists to this day, amongst the staff. In the early years she accommodated everyone's needs - for vacations, days off mostly whenever they said they needed it, breast feeding in between shifts in a back room, or loans when someone was in financial difficulty. Rather amazing in a way.

But the staff, for probably 30 of those years, took gross advantage of their positions. The waiters and waitresses comped food to lots of guests (their friends, or?), delivered wine to tables that never paid for it, which naturally, affected the bottom line every single night. And, it was commonplace that after a shift was over with, the staff would get roaring drunk (on highly expensive bottles of wine in the wine cellar, for which they didn't pay), got high on drugs, and drinking on the job was almost encouraged. It took Alice's father's strong hand and arm some years ago to bring some kind of order to the chaos. And a modicum of profit to the books. There were many others who helped with this - not just her father - but for every step forward, she'd fall a half step back. However, she never faltered in her vision, and it would seem, she still maintains the vision.

It's one thing to have an idea in your head about what you dream or see for a business. And it's another to make it work and make it profitable. Alice has never seemed to have the guts to step up to the plate and make that happen. Making the restaurant profitable was not a goal for her. And part of that was laudable, actually, since she funded hefty profit sharing to the employees over the years, and always provided health care insurance for them when it was an unknown in the restaurant business.

According to the book, Alice is rarely in the restaurant anymore. She has finally left it (mostly) to the able hands of chefs and managers she's finally recognized as good and reliable. Instead, she flits around the world promoting her myriad of sustainable food projects (including one at Yale University). Alice has a loyal following of friends, and because of her notoriety is sought out by more celebrities. She's a particular fan of Bill Clinton. But Alice still lives in the tiny home near the restaurant (when she's home), and drops in the restaurant to say hello to old friends and to taste a sauce.

It was an interesting read. More so because I've been to the restaurant more than once, and because I've known of Alice Waters since the 1980's. Although I certainly gained an enormous respect for Alice Waters from reading the book, I'm left with a feeling of unfinished business somehow. How she managed to run a business all these years is beyond my ken. Really what happened is that it barely ran itself. It was close to bankruptcy several times. I guess I'm disappointed in Alice for that reason, that she couldn't learn how to manage. Fortunately she has strong, talented help who now do know how to run a restaurant.

Where do I go from here? (1) next time I go to Chez Panisse, I'm planning ahead and definitely going to the downstairs restaurant. That's where the haut food is, where innovation takes place; and (2) I'm going to do some research about Lindsey Shere. Next time I'm in a used bookstore I'm going to look for her 1994 Chez Panisse Desserts, which is still in print.


Charles Shere said...

I feel I just have to respond to some of this. The staff rarely got "roaring drunk." Over more than thirty-five years, in fact, the staff has been pretty wonderful. I can't imagine how the restaurant would have survived without them.

And I hope you do investigate Lindsey Shere's book, because she's my wife, and I think her book is still the best in its field. And I'm not the only one!

Carolyn T said...

Mr. Shere - I'm honored - truly - that you stopped by my blog. Thank you. And certainly I didn't mean to misconstrue the facts - but in the book it sounded like, in the earlier days at least, the staff unwound with lots and lots of wine and drugs. And you're right, certainly the staff - the loyal ones and probably many who don't use drugs anymore - kept the restaurant running when nobody else did. And definitely, I do plan to buy your wife's book. She came through the book as a pastry heroine. And you were involved too, with the restaurant and were mentioned many times in the book.

I'm not a professional reviewer. Merely an interested person who has enjoyed the restaurant and sat, somewhat, in awe of Alice Waters and her accomplishments. I think I see her now - perhaps a bit more real - and a bit tarnished. I likely put her on a pedestal and have now discovered that she's mortal and flawed as we all are. Thank you again.

Anonymous said...

To think that Mr. Shere would take the time to comment is just so WOW!!I'll be you were shocked. Jancd