Chef Alice Waters on Her Restaurant, Chez Panisse

Just as the restaurant is connected to a community of local suppliers, the Chez Panisse kitchen reaches out to diners, offering a better understanding of what goes into a meal.

Restaurant: Chez Panisse
Location: Berkeley, CA

The inspiration for Chez Panisse goes back to all those little family-owned neighborhood restaurants in France, where the owner was present and there was a little counter in the dining room that was used to display food, make coffee, and serve drinks. There was a sense of the kitchen and dining room as one place. And certainly the sense that the chef was in the dining room, even if it was behind the door: there he was, always walking out and talking to people.

There was also a restaurant in an old house, called the Gibson House, that I used to love eating at, in Bolinas, California, way back at the end of the sixties. It had patchwork quilts hanging on the walls, a great front porch, and flowers. I had filed that away someplace in my mind, so I could imagine having a restaurant in a house. Then when we had a fire, in the tenth year of the restaurant, that burned down the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, I just said, “We’re not putting it back up again.” I never liked the idea of a restaurant where all the beautiful things are in the dining room, and all of the things you don’t want to see are in the kitchen. If I was going to cook in the kitchen, then I wanted it to be beautiful, and that came with a combination of influences such as hanging copper pots, France, and the Royal Pavilion, in Brighton.

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I always sort of stood at the door of the kitchen to see what people were eating; if they weren’t eating their food, I ran out to the dining room to ask them why. I liked being both the cook in the kitchen and the person who was talking to them in the dining room—and it’s a little difficult to do if you have a door. If I had my way I would have one big room with a fireplace on one side where people are cooking, and then one big old table where we put the food out and serve people.

The kitchen is way too small! In terms of space, it needs to be almost as big as the dining room. It has a ­fireplace —about four feet tall and five feet wide—that is like a regular open fire with just a chimney and a large opening where the grills and turning spits are. There is also a long table that the dishwashers have access to on the left side; the cooks are on the cooking line to the right. And of course there’s a table up front where we display some of the food we’re serving, like fruits and vegetables—whatever we have on the menu we put out on the table. The making of pastries should really be all in its own little room, but we’ve never had that luxury, so it’s kind of at the end of the kitchen. We also have a special room where we make ice cream, and we have another room that’s only for rolling out dough.

The cabinetry has a certain Arts and Crafts aesthetic, mostly because Kip Mesirow, the guy who was building it for many years, was a Japanese woodworker who did all this Greene & Greene–influenced woodwork, and later made the copper lamps. Originally this was a nondescript 1930s two-story stucco house with, I think, two bedrooms upstairs and God knows what else. It had nothing to do with the Arts and Crafts—absolutely nothing. We built completely to the end of the lot, all the way out in the front, and so everything has been added. The whole facade, the porch, and the railings are Kip Mesirow, and the details are very much influenced by him.

The dining area as a space comes back to the French. At the beginning it was influenced by the films of Marcel Pagnol. It gradually got more elaborate as we moved on: we moved the café upstairs and made the downstairs into a fancier dining room. It’s always been crowded, seating fifty people at a time, and we serve one hundred people a night, so it’s very small really.

In terms of the menu, I have a taste in my mind, and I was looking for ingredients in the United States that tasted like those in France. I was looking for the same kind of buying experience of the farmer’s market, the local butcher, and the fisherman just bringing his catch from the sea. I didn’t know where to find it back in 1971 except in the ethnic markets. There were also a few people who at least had ducks that weren’t frozen, and there were a few fish swimming in the water tanks of some shops, so I was going in that direction. It still works the same way. We have a network of probably eighty-five people that we buy from during the course of the year; a couple of them we buy from every day. We have a farm that we’re connected with: we take our compost up to the farm, and we bring back the vegetables. It’s a beautiful arrangement.

Architects really need to think about all the waste a restaurant creates. That relates completely to an important part of the restaurant—welcoming the suppliers into the kitchen. I’m obsessed with the fact that the back of the house has to be as beautiful as the front. When we do an event someplace, there’s no dirty laundry behind the counter. It’s as if you could go anyplace at the party. You could go in the kitchen and have the sense that it is just an extension of the dining room.

I’ve always wanted a table in the kitchen. We have a tiny one that can seat two, and we have stools that we pull up to the counter, but we sometimes have three or four people who will eat in the kitchen. I would have loved to have a real table. I’m very disappointed, but there’s just not enough room. We’ve done everything possible to that place. We’ve grandfathered in a lot of things that are unbelievably illegal now, so we are in chains here. We’ve taken over the whole next building, and we have our offices there. We can’t go underground, and we can’t go up—I tell you, it’s a mess!

I wanted to have local craftsmen work on the restaurant, and we had this ironworker who did a little panel that goes over the top of the fireplace. It’s a very strange little thing—it doesn’t look like anything you can recognize until he tells you that what he pounded into it is the Marin Headlands. It’s just another reminder that you’re eating in Berkeley, and you’re eating this food, and it’s this time of year.

That’s why I wanted to design all of the tables for the Edible Schoolyard with recycled wood that we would engrave with the name of the tree, so that as kids were eating their lunch they would be learning all about the trees and the botany of the place. The Edible Schoolyard is an idea for a curriculum in the public schools that will bring children—all children—into a new relationship with food. It’s an interactive program that ultimately connects with the school lunch so that the children will have an opportunity to see where food comes from. They will be able to work in the garden and in the kitchen, and to serve food to their classmates in the dining room. It teaches children the ecology and the big picture of gastronomy. I think all foods for schools should be locally sourced and that schools should become an engine for sustainability. The architects have to get ready because we’re going to need to rebuild the schools in the most beautiful ecological way—because our kids think we don’t care about them.

This is terribly, terribly important. It’s not just about food. We’re indoctrinating a population with values of fast, cheap, easy, and disposable. They’re digesting these values, and it’s affecting entertainment, architecture, and the whole culture. That’s the reason we all have to be interested in what our children are eating.

This is one of my obsessions: we’re pretty starved for beauty and meaning in our lives, but we finally have an opening. It’s the reason I want to collaborate with artists, architects, and landscape architects—because we can make something that is greater than the sum of the parts. And when we collaborate—whoa—you better hold onto your hat.

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