The Food Revolution of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse With her famed Berkeley, Calif., restaurant, Alice Waters helped give rise to a new cuisine based on locally grown, seasonal ingredients. Waters and her biographer look back at her offbeat and memorable eatery, Chez Panisse.
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The Food Revolution of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse

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The Food Revolution of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse

The Food Revolution of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse

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This book title goes a long way to explaining the book's subject, although it will take a moment to say, "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution." The famous chef help give rise to a new cuisine based on locally grown, seasonal ingredients.

Renee Montagne joined author Thomas McNamee and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.

Ms. ALICE WATERS (Owner, Chez Panisse): Could you do me a favor, Max, could you tell him not to scrape the chairs across the floor here. It's one of my obsessions.

RENEE MONTAGNE: One of Alice Water's obsession that the staff lifts up, not drag the chairs when they arrange the seating. She also keeps a close eye on the kitchen.

Ms. WATERS: Somebody is using the (unintelligible). These nuts are going with a rocket salad that is served with red wine and garlic vinaigrette and topped off with a little shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.

MONTAGNE: On the spring morning we sit down in the amber-lit dining room of Chez Panisse. The restaurant is readying for lunch. Looking back, Alice Waters would say it all began for her with a bowl of cafe au lait. It was the '60s, she was on a student sojourn in Paris, and she had never sipped anything so good. Soon, trips to the countryside introduced her to the power and pleasure of local food: mussels just off the boat, freshly pressed virgin olive oil.

Alice Waters came back to Berkeley transformed. She hatched a plan to convert a rundown old house into an elegant bistro. Opening night was in August 1971.

Ms. WATERS: I didn't know what to expect when we opened. I hadn't worked in a restaurant or opened a restaurant, and at the beginning, I mean, I was still hammering the rug in on the stairs as people were coming in the front door.

Mr. THOMAS MCNAMEE (Author, "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution"): The character of opening night has had ramifications throughout the subsequent very odd years of Chez Panisse. It derives from Alice's way of bringing people aboard to do things that they're technically not qualified to do. The chef was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. On opening night, there wasn't a single person who had professional training.

MONTAGNE: There was this very simple menu by standards of - I mean, there was one menu.

Ms. WATERS: We started out with that one very inexpensive - I know, I think it was $3.95. It was a pate en croute in a pastry crust.

Mr. MCNAMEE: Which at least could be served right away. All you have to do is cut a slice, put it on a plate and take it out to the dining room.

Ms. WATERS: Pre-made, usually made (unintelligible).

Mr. MCNAMEE: Yeah, and the next course, as Alice will tell you, was a little more complicated.

Ms. WATERS: Hopefully I was like doing duck with olives.

Mr. MCNAMEE: And they were fresh ducks, which in those days was a miracle. You couldn't find fresh ducks. All the ducks seem to come from one farm, frozen hard as bricks. And Alice had found farm-raised ducks in Chinatown. So from that very first night there was a difference in the raw materials served at Chez Panisse.

MONTAGNE: On that first night Alice Waters positioned herself where she always wanted to be, in the front, reading and mingling with the diners. Back in the kitchen would be a succession of creative and colorful chefs, one of the most outsized talents was Jeremiah Tower.

Ms. WATERS: Jeremiah Tower showed up, and of the many qualifications that he presented, was that in Australia he was taught by an aborigine to roast barracuda and wild parrots on the beach.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATERS: I had forgotten about that. He was very confident about what he was doing in the kitchen, and I had no confidence at all.

MONTAGNE: So wait, this is two years into the restaurant and it was quite successful already.

Ms. WATERS: It was, but I hadn't been in the kitchen. I was in the dining room at the beginning.

Mr. MCNAMEE: He was a swashbuckler and he loved to do things in very complicated ways. Both he and Alice shared an enthusiasm for the best ingredients. Jeremiah tended to go for the baroque in terms of the preparation and Alice tended to go for a greater simplicity. That created conflict, but the conflict in turn became a synthesis.

MONTAGNE: The baroque sensibility led to menus like one in honor of Salvador Dali featuring a cannibal parfait, and one menu where every dish contained a single wine, sauterne.

Mr. MCNAMEE: Now, sauterne is a very, very sweet, very, very expensive wine. The ham was braised in this wine and served with prunes, which were in turn stuffed with green olives. And it was served with not just any sauterne but a 1947 one.

MONTAGNE: And there was imbibing in the kitchen as well. In the first year alone, $30,000 worth of wine was unaccounted for. In those early years, culinary creativity was fueled in part by champagne and drugs.

Mr. MCNAMEE: There was one guy who liked to make brunch on a mild dose of LSD.

Ms. WATERS: I didn't even know about that.

Mr. MCNAMEE: That was Willy.

Ms. WATERS: Willy Bishop(ph), who's one of the other big, full-blown characters in the book.

Mr. MCNAMEE: Wonderful, wonderful character, had big frizzy hair. He looked kind of like Allen Ginsberg. He was, I think, a beatnik and still is.

When Chez Panisse got its first big review in Gourmet magazine, Willy said, we're going to get the food weenies in here; we're going to lose all our friends, to hell with it. And he left.

MONTAGNE: While many chefs have come and gone, one constant at Chez Panisse has been the growers. This is one of Alice Waters's innovations, cultivating personal relationships with organic farmers. Like the 20 years-long connection she's had with Bob Canard(ph).

Mr. MCNAMEE: He's a very Chez Panisse character. His crops don't grow in rows. He loves the weeds. He loves the bugs. He says, I'm not (unintelligible) it but he's reputed to sing to the plants. I know he plays music to them because he's got speakers outside his house. The ground, when you walk on it, doesn't plow. When you walk on the ground it's like walking on a soft mattress. And he'll pull a carrot out of the ground and basically stick it in your mouth with the dirt still on. He's, like, taste that carrot. Isn't that the greatest carrot you've ever tasted? And, well, it is.

Ms. WATERS: And he brings in the majority of the fruits and vegetables that we use. But we have a network of other peoples that we buy from, some that, you know, just have one peach tree.

MONTAGNE: And that one peach tree might be picked in July for just one week. Thirty-five years on, Alice Waters hopes to impart this intimate approach to food to kin. Through her Chez Panisse Foundation she's created a garden-to-table project called the Edible Schoolyard, which began with a middle school in Berkeley where students grow their own food.

In a world of fast food and childhood obesity, the Edible Schoolyard Project has the ambitious aim of luring children into eating right.

Ms. WATERS: We have to create a circumstance that is really irresistible. And fortunately, nature is irresistible.

MONTAGNE: Alice Waters at her restaurant along with Thomas McNamee, who's written the biography, "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse."

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find photos and a recipe from the book at Now, after visiting the restaurant, Renee Montagne headed off to London - such a difficult life. She'll join us from there on Monday as we begin a series of reports on global warming.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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