Back in the day, chic New York City restaurants were typically French. Their famous entrees were traditionally prepared with a variety of sauces concocted by a saucier. These dishes were rich, heavy, expensive and calorie-laden, and they were essential components of a petrified cooking tradition.
That all changed in the 1970s. Perhaps the change would have come without Alice Waters, but it certainly wouldn't have come as quickly or as profoundly. Waters, a North-Jersey Girl, went to college in the late 60s in the hotbed of the Counter-Culture--U.C. Berkeley, graduating with a degree in French Cultural Studies. She headed overseas. As is typical in France, she shopped for produce and fish and beef and fruits in the local street markets, bringing home the freshest of foods. She met chefs from the area and absorbed their lessons in the preparation of fresh food, food that wasn't swimming in rich sauces that disguised the taste of the food itself. She was much taken by the hospitality shown patrons in the quaint local bistros and patisseries. She admired the camaraderie of friends sitting around a table, sharing good food and a robust wine for hours. And she became determined to replicate that experience in her home country.
In 1971, back on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, Alice opened Chez Panisse. She collaborated with Jeremiah Tower* to create dazzling new dishes that brought the focus back to the natural tastes of foods that had not been processed or embellished. Seasonal fruits and vegetables picked earlier in the day. Fish caught that morning. Chicken and beef brought in from local farms and ranches. Everything was fresh!
*You may want to see the late lamented Anthony Bourdain's tribute to Tower on his show Parts Unknown. Tower may well have been this country's first celebrity chef, if you're into those designations.
While Tower tinkered in the kitchen, Waters devoted herself to creating a vision. This vision would involve virtually all of the dishes served in her restaurant being both organic and locally-sourced. She went to the local fishermen and cut a deal
that she would buy their fish every day if they gave her the best of the catch. She created a farm collective, guaranteeing local farmers and ranchers a steady customer if they delivered just-picked fruits and vegetables and organic beef. She took a restaurant that was primarily designed as a place she could hang with her friends and turned it into a sort of food Mecca, a place everyone had to try, a place where chefs world over came to learn. It was the origin of New American Cuisine-simple and elegant.
Check out the menus below from two random days.
You'll notice the biggest change of all as far as American cuisine was concerned. Prior to the creation of Chez Panisse, you entered a restaurant and ordered one of a dozen appetizers, one of two dozen entrees, and one of half-a-dozen desserts. If you liked a Pork Roast, you pretty much ordered it every time. But at Chez Panisse, you had very few choices. The restaurant was making a fennel salad for an appetizer that night because the fennel was fresh. They had just brought in a catch of black cod or some newly killed quail and thus they were your two entrees choices. If blood oranges were fresh, you had blood orange sherbet for dessert. At Chez Panisse, you ate what they served rather than giving them an order to make what you wanted! What a concept. And people marvelled. The food--well, the food was unlike any food they had eaten before. The recipes were sparked with Tower's genius. The restaurant became the nexus of the transformation that has changed the way we all look at food.
It was Waters who really started those food collectives and farmers' markets you see throughout the country (one of the most famous is in Union Square Park in NYC every Saturday). The farmers and ranchers and fisherman were ecstatic that they had a new generation of customers for their products. Waters became a mega-star, and Chez Panisse rose to prominence as the country's best restaurant. Would we know the names of Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges and Eric Ripert and Alain Ducasse in this country today without her? I think not.
Waters started what today is known as the "Slow Food" Movement. Put aside the Five Guys' burger. Eschew the Taco Bell quesadilla. Eat fresh! Today, not only are food shows ubiquitous on some channels, but we have entire networks devoted to food preparation, restaurant rating, Top Chef discovering--we have what has come to be known as food porn.
Above is a segment Leslie Stahl did for 60 Minutes a while back. It will give you an idea of Waters' genius. Doesn't mean she's easy to work for, but being an obsessive perfectionist is very much a part of her gift. And how about that breakfast!
Ranney's Dining Hall looks very little like a cafeteria from forty years ago. I used to get served some vaguely established cut of beef known euphemistically as Salisbury Steak. We referred to it as "Mystery Meat". It was gray. It had no flavor. It was actually designed that way. It was edible and
inoffensive to the palate.
Alice Waters was appalled by what Americans fed their children in schools. President Reagan allowed school lunches to consider ketchup a vegetable! Most school lunches were calorie bombs, high in starch and carbohydrates. She came up with the idea for The Edible Schoolyard, a project that encouraged schools to offer students a plot of ground to cultivate and grow their own vegetables. She founded the initiative at a grade school in Berkeley, where the kids were stunned to find out how tasty fresh fruits and vegetables could be. You can see some of them in the video below. I can speak to this as my mother never served meat that wasn't gray and virtually all vegetables and fruits came in vacuum-packed cans. My grandfather was a farmer. I remember one day he brought us bushels of peas and green beans. I loathed peas from the can, but I shelled these newly-picked pea pods and my mom cooked them that night and I was floored by the difference.
Here's a simple demonstration of a tasty recipe:
One of the things I like best about Chez Panisse is that it introduced me to the graphic artist David Lance Goines. Alice Waters hired him to create menu designs, anniversary posters, and advertising. I have a signed litho of his 21st Anniversary poster for the restaurant. We have framed Goines recipes in our dining room. Check out his website for
spectacular poster art.
I first visited Chez Panisse twenty-five years ago. I had my first goat-cheese pizza at the Chez Panisse Cafe, the informal, no-reservation eatery upstairs from the main restaurant. It's California casual, so you don't need a suit and tie or a fancy gown. The restaurant had a bad fire a few years ago, but it's back and going strong today.
Check out the website. If you're headed to the East Bay, call well ahead of time for a reservation. Dinner will run you a little over a hundred bucks a head, not counting wine or tip. Well worth the price to eat like the gods. Put it on your bucket list. Here is the link: