Late-summer sun streamed into the dining room, turning every westward surface gold-French gilt mirrors on ivory plaster walls, redwood trim, oak floors and flea-market oak chairs, mismatched flea-market china and flatware on red-and-white-checkered tablecloths, one great vase of flowers with a white-linened table all to itself. On the stairway to the second floor, a woman, on her knees, was nailing down an Oriental runner.
"Alice?" called a waiter from below. "It's six o'clock."
Alice Waters rose and turned and descended the stairs. She was twenty seven years old but looked much younger, with the skin and guileless mien of a child. She was wearing a tan lace dress, of an earlier day, delicate, fine, exactingly chosen. She was tiny, barely five feet two, with wide-open, wide-set gray eyes and a soft, pensive mouth.
This little restaurant in an old house on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, California, was the dream of Alice's life, and tonight, August 28, 1971, was its opening night. She had named the restaurant in honor of Honoré Panisse, the most generous and life-loving character in Marcel Pagnol's film trilogy Marius, Fanny, and César. Alice wanted Chez Panisse to be an easygoing, unaffected gathering place, like César's Bar de la Marine on the Old Port of Marseille, where friends could laugh, argue, flirt, and drink wine for hours on end. At Chez Panisse, they could also have something simple and delicious to eat.
She threw her shoulders back, lifted her chin, and prepared to smile. She opened the door, and in poured a multitude. "We'd invited friends that first night," she recalls today, "but there was a line out the door and down the block. We just didn't know what to do."
Alice led them to their tables with a confident smile and a flourish of the hand as though she had been running a restaurant all her life. "In fact," she says, "my entire professional experience amounted to one summer making crab salad sandwiches at the tearoom in Bullock's department store, plus a little waitressing here and there."
The menu was chalked on a blackboard:
Pâté en croute
Canard aux olives
And that was it. There was no choice except of wine-Mondavi Fumé Blanc, Mondavi Gamay, and, by the glass, a fine Sauternes, Château Suduiraut.
The dining-room staff had no uniforms and so were hard to distinguish from the customers, but there were a lot of them, in both the kitchen and the dining room. Chez Panisse on its opening night had fifty seats and fifty-five employees.
The pâté arrived promptly. It had been made in advance, and required only to be sliced and plated at the last minute. It was simple, an archetype of French bistro cooking: tightly packed chopped pork and pork fat flavored with Cognac and wrapped in an egg-glazed pastry crust. It was accompanied by the little sour pickles known as cornichons and crocks of Dijon mustard. The customers dug in, and came up smiling. And then the wait began.
Behind the kitchen door was, in Alice's recollection, "sheer chaos." Victoria Kroyer, also twenty-seven, had been laboring at the sauce for the duck for three days, not shortcutting any of the many steps of the classical sequence set down by the imperious nineteenth-century master Auguste Escoffier. She had begun by making a fond brun, the classic long-cooked stock of vegetables, beef, and veal. She then thickened her stock with a roux of flour browned in clarified butter and set it to simmer through repeated skimmings of the scum that floated to the top. After six hours of that, she added tomatoes and mirepoix (minced carrots, onions, celery, and raw ham, with thyme and bay leaf ), and skimmed it some more, reduced it some more, and strained it again, yielding sauce espagnole, the base on which many more elaborate sauces are built in French haute cuisine. To the espagnole she added more fond brun and reduced that combination by half; and then she spiked it with a bit of sherry and again strained the result, a demi-glace, which was still only a base. From the duck bones and trimmings and white wine Victoria then created a second stock, which she cooked for four hours, skimmed, strained, defatted, reduced, and finally combined with the demi-glace. That amalgam, in turn, she cooked with the olives for two hours. The sauce was magnificent, if a bit salty, but the braising of the ducks was now falling desperately behind.
Until Alice hired her as chef a few weeks prior to the opening of Chez Panisse, Victoria Kroyer had been a graduate student in philosophy, at the University of California at Berkeley, who liked to cook at home. She had never made sauce espagnole or demi-glace or, indeed, canard aux olives before this night. She had never worked in a restaurant kitchen. "Victoria had a certain confidence," remembers Alice, "which I lacked completely."
The ducks were fresh, not frozen, from Chinatown in San Francisco. Most of the produce had come from either the Japanese produce concession at the Usave on Grove Street or the Berkeley Co-op grocery across the street from the restaurant. For the salad served after the main course though unlisted on the menu, the best they could get was romaine lettuce, and Alice ended up throwing away three-quarters of it. Alice and Victoria had worried for days about which olives to use in the sauce, and as it turned out, says Alice, "Neither of us was satisfied with the ones we ended up buying. Green Sicilian olives. They were much too salty." Alice and Victoria didn't even know that there were such things as restaurant purveyors. Not that it mattered, for the big suppliers didn't have fresh ducks, or beautiful salad greens, or the appropriate French olives either.
In the kitchen, casseroles of duck simmered on every burner and were crowded into the ovens, and still the meat refused to soften to the melting tenderness that Alice remembered from her seven months in Paris during her junior year in college. The dining room grew quieter as the diners' patience waned. Alice was in and out of the kitchen every few minutes, first cheering her crew on, then begging, then, finally, in a serious temper. Luckily, she did not know about the ash that had fallen from Victoria's cigarette into the sauce.
Between the pâté and the first plate of duck to appear in the dining room, a full hour went by. "I was going out of my mind," Alice remembers. "All these people waiting at the tables. More people waiting at the door to be seated. People waiting out on the sidewalk. And we just couldn't get their food out to them. And I was the one who had to talk to them."
At last, at intervals, waiters burst out of the kitchen to rush to a table with a few plates of unctuous, glistening, and delicious duck with olive sauce. At some unlucky other tables, as the kitchen bogged down further, the wait stretched to two hours. It was a good thing that so many of the diners were friends or family. "We had fifteen or more people in the kitchen," says Alice, "way more than we needed. Way more than there was room for. Not one of them professionally trained. Making it up as they went along. Same in the front of the house. Waiters and waitresses who were actually painters or poets or dancers. I hired them all, because I liked them. I didn't want professionals. We were just going to figure it out. That's what we were all doing, making it up as we went along. It was totally insane."
The plum tart-straightforward, almost austere, the plums at their peak of ripeness spread across a light custard and baked in a buttery crust-was the work of Lindsey Shere, a longtime friend of Alice's, who worked in calm isolation in a shack in the backyard and was, therefore, protected from the infectious nervous breakdown that had taken hold of Chez Panisse that night. The tart was perfect: warm, delicate, intensely fragrant, and ready to be served on time.
At the end of the evening, as the last late diners trickled out, Alice stood beaming in the doorway, her heart still pounding. One hundred twenty meals had finally been served. How many of those were actually paid for, no one would ever remember precisely. How much it cost to serve them was certainly much more than what they brought in.
There were still at least fifty people waiting in the street. "I'm sorry," Alice called to them. "We just don't have any more food. Come back tomorrow!"
Past midnight, Alice and the staff and the friends who stayed on opened some wine in the half-finished café upstairs and sat quietly together, exhausted, elated. "We were so happy. We were so young," she reminisces. "We were in love with what we were doing. And we were in the right place at the right time. It was sheer luck, really."
Thirty-five years later, Alice Waters is arguably the most famous restaurateur in the United States, Chez Panisse the best-known restaurant. In 2001, Gourmet magazine deemed it the best restaurant in the nation; in the magazine's next assessment, in its October 2006 issue, Chez Panisse fell to number two (behind a Chicago newcomer called Alinea).
How the slapdash, make-it-up-as-we-go-along little hangout and its harried mistress became such icons is a story of adventure, misadventure, unintended consequences, steel will, pure chance, and utterly unrealistic visions. The characters who thread through its history range from hedonists to Machiavellian careerists, from the crazy to the coolly rationalist; nearly all have been driven by passion, passion sometimes so fierce as to be blind. The road Chez Panisse has traveled from there to here is neither straight nor smooth. It is potholed, booby-trapped, cliff-hanging, devil-daring, sometimes not quite a road at all.
In some ways, Chez Panisse today goes no further than Alice's first, modest desires for it. It still occupies the same old house in Berkeley. It is still an easygoing, unaffected gathering place where friends laugh, argue, flirt, and drink wine for hours on end-and have something simple and delicious to eat. Some of the same stoned hippies who were fumbling plates of duck on opening night are now polished professionals and still there-though their practiced manners mask the same antic, cerebral inner lives that attracted Alice to them years ago. There is not a Chez Panisse outpost in Las Vegas, or anywhere else; there is no Chez Panisse frozen pizza; and it is only in the last few years that Chez Panisse has become a genuinely profitable enterprise. Alice is a hero and a celebrity, hounded for endorsements and autographs, but she can still seem the same childlike, slightly out-of-focus dreamer who opened a restaurant without knowing anything about restaurants. Chez Panisse is a place of pilgrimage for gourmets and chefs from all over the world, but it offers no culinary fireworks, no vertiginous architectural assemblages on the plate, no wild combinations of exotic ingredients. It's still just a place to have fun and eat very good food.
But for many people, including many who will never eat there, Chez Panisse is a much larger enterprise than a restaurant. It is a standard-bearer for a system of moral values. It is the leader of a style of cooking, of a social movement, and of a comprehensive philosophy of doing good and living well. It is also a work of art-the work of many, the masterpiece of one.
With eight books, hundreds of talks, dozens of honors and awards, ceaseless media attention, and one not very big restaurant, Alice Waters has transformed the way many Americans eat and the way they think about food. Her insistence on the freshest ingredients, used only at the peak of their season, nearly always grown locally and organically, is now a ruling principle in the best American restaurants and for many home cooks. Her conception of a moral community based on good food and goodwill has helped to spawn a new generation of artisans and farmers.Like her, they are committed to stewardship of the land and waters. They settle for nothing less than the highest quality in what they produce. They see themselves as an increasingly potent force in American culture and politics. Under the leadership that Alice has reluctantly and somewhat awkwardly assumed, this new community has seen its ideals and methods spread across the country. You can now walk into a co-op or a farmers' market, or even a supermarket, in Montana or Mississippi, Ohio or New Mexico, and find fresh, delicious, organic foodstuffs, grown by people who share the values and vision of Alice Waters.
By the time Alice turned sixty years old, in 2004, she had far-reaching ambitions. Already she was seeing students, from grade school to college, being taught to grow and cook their own food. On a larger scale yet, she envisioned the soul-deadening machinery of corporate agriculture supplanted by a profusion of small organic farms, sustainable fisheries, and humane and ecologically benign animal husbandry. She dreamed of the fractured American family coming back together, and back to health, around the dining table. She saw that people worldwide could be drawn by pleasure to a new way of thinking about the earth and a better way of living on it.
Alice today is much changed from the girlish twenty-seven-year-old of 1971; Chez Panisse is in many ways much changed as well. But together-and their identities have become inseparable-they are still making it up as they go along, and every dinner is still a passionate experiment, often changing up to the moment it is served.
Excerpted from Alice Waters And Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) Thomas McNamee, 2007.