Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chez Panisse is 40

book bday

I have a funny connection to Chez Panisse.  Many of the people who came to celebrate the 40th worked there for years, cooking or waiting tables, growing lettuce or berries, baking bread, washing dishes.  I actually did work in the Chez Panisse kitchen, early on.  It was the summer of its 3rd birthday, the summer that Nixon resigned, the summer I was 11 years old. 

I was more an arranger than a cook.  I worked lunches, putting together the hors d’oeuvres plates.  For the pâté plates I sliced cornichons not quite all the way through, and fanned them out next to a thick slice of pâté.  A spoonful of mustard and a little greenery—was it parsley?—sat on the other side. Sliced baguette accompanied the plate.   There were also cold artichokes or hard cooked eggs, served with house made mayonnaise.

It was a lot of responsibility for an 11 year old, and on a bad day I can still feel how it smarted when Susie, the head waitress, brought a plate back to me, saying it looked a little ‘funky’.  Later, in my early 20s, I worked in the office.

But then I left: married, moved to Portland, and concentrated on raising my own family.

Last week, along with a few hundred others, I went home to Berkeley and to Chez Panisse. I’ve been away for longer than I was there in the first place, and consider Portland my home now.  This weekend I got the chance to think about what Chez Panisse has meant to me.

The visit was a bit like touring a childhood home—which, incidentally, I also got to do.  You think you know what you remember, what it meant to you. But then you’re surprised. In the case of the childhood home, seeing my bedroom was fairly anticlimactic. But going into the basement and seeing the cupboard where Mom stored her pear marmalade and applesauce (made with fruit from my grandparents) took me instantly back to breakfasts 40 years ago. 

Our backyard was largely changed, but Mom’s pear and apple trees are still there. And her Meyer lemon tree, heavy with fruit, is still against the back fence, the one that separated our yard from Mrs. Bertolli’s. Her fava beans used to twine between her side and ours.  I loved to open them and see the beans wrapped in their bright green sheets,  resting in their cushioned beds. Those beans ignored the divide between our yards.  Later, lettuce for the restaurant grew in Mrs. Bertolli’s yard, beyond the fava bean fence.

meyer lemon tree 3

The separation between Chez Panisse and our home and family was similarly blurred.  I was 8 when it opened; it’s been around for nearly my whole life.  I suppose my forgotten formative years weren’t directly touched by it. 

But maybe they were.  Perhaps in my earliest years the restaurant was a gleam in my parents’ eyes (and especially in Alice’s eyes).  But the kind of gleam that gleams used to be, before the era of high-tech family planning and businesses started only after properly laying the groundwork: business degrees earned, business plans written. 

Those were real gleams in the eye.  Sparkles of passion, desire, curiosity, and interest, but without a clear vision.  Just a calling, one you followed, blindly.

You probably wanted to hear about the actual festivities. So I will add some links below. Do check them out—there were many things to see, touch, and of course to taste all weekend.

menu 1

But for me, the weekend was about going home. Friday night (after the exciting cocktail party at the Berkeley Art Museum for the unveiling of Alice’s National Gallery portrait) I had dinner at the café with Pavel, my parents, and my sister and her husband. My brother couldn’t make it. It was rodeo weekend, as important a part of his family’s life as the restaurant is.

fruit bowls

You think Chez Panisse is all about the food, but it’s also all about community.  I have no idea which comes first—it’s like the chicken and the egg. At Chez Panisse, the food and community are completely inseparable.  You can’t have one without the other. You wouldn’t want one without the other.

after party

Sunday there was an after-party for people who’ve worked at Chez Panisse.  People came from far away—from France, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.  There were people like Steve Sullivan, who started out as a teenaged busboy, then started baking the bread, and now runs Acme Bread.  People who have worked at the restaurant for more than 20 years.  The amount of loyalty the restaurant fosters is startling. And the affection.  So soon after my 25th wedding anniversary, it’s also inspiring. 

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Chez Panisse is a very similar—though much larger—community as a family.  Which means it’s also got its crazy uncles and eccentric aunts, as well as its black sheep.  But that’s families for you.

And then there are the family members who are gone, but not forgotten. I thought of them often this weekend, of Helen and her tea; of Jack, the dishwasher who spent his breaks smoking Gauloises and quoting classics; of Craig and Clay, assistants to my mother; of Lisa who was like a second mother to me, of Alexandre, and of course of Tom, who had the kind of heart that makes his presence still palpable, even 20 years after his death.

I wonder how much I learned about family from my own parents and grandparents, and how much came from Chez Panisse.  The desire for a central gathering place: the kitchen or dining table in my own home, or at family, friends, or Chez Panisse. The truth is, I rarely eat there.  I hardly ever even visit Berkeley any more.  But when I do, walking up the stairs of Chez Panisse I feel instantly at home.

One last thing. This fall, the Chez Panisse Foundation will become The Edible Schoolyard Project.  A few artists (Maira Kalman, David Byrne, Dave Eggers, Sofia Coppola, and Alice Waters) partnered with Levi’s and designed t-shirts for the Edible Schoolyard.  At Friday’s portrait unveiling, I was surrounded by people wearing the Kalman shirt. ‘I Like PIE and ThAT's No LIE’ (I did buy one, and you can too).

                 cake 1cake 5  cake 4
          cake 3
Since this was, after all, a birthday, I think there should be a companion shirt. ‘I Like Cake Make No Mistake’.  But at least there was cake, at the after-party. More than 40 cakes, I think, baked by various people. 

Therese cake
                           Photo and cake © (and copybake) Thérèse Shere 
A few links:
The book: 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering—with contributions from everyone from Calvin Trillin to Scott Peacock (who, by the way, I got to meet. He is maybe the nicest man there is).

Chronicle articles

Food Republic: An Insider's Look Back at Chez Panisse

Edible Education 101, the UC Berkeley course. You can watch all the lectures (by people like Carlo Petrini, Marion Nestle, Raj Patel, and many more) here.

Alice’s interview on Fresh Air

Alice serves lunch in Maiden Lane

Videos of the parade and Alice’s speech for the Edible Schoolyard Foundation.

OPENrestaurant’s website, with info about their OPENeducation event at the Berkeley Art Museum.

Some accounts of the weekend from SFGate, Ruth Reichl, David Lebovitz, Lettuce Eat Kale, Berkeleyside.


Alice Q. Foodie said...

Really nice story - thanks for sharing! Do you think a mere civilian could purchase one of those 40th Anniversary posters?? :)

Giovanna said...

I don't know if the posters are available--I'd check at Chez Panisse or David Goines' site. Good luck!

David said...

That was really a great post. It's amazing all the thoughts and stories and feelings it stirred up. You caught it all...so great to see you, albeit briefly...there was so much to see, do, and taste!

Therese said...

Aww...thanks for posting a pic of my cake! And lovely post.

Alice Q. Foodie said...

Actually I checked out the "official" poster, but what I want is that after-party invitation. Wonder if anyone would sell me one? :)

Charles Shere said...

“a little greenery—was it parsley?”
Watercress, as I recall…

nice post, Giovanna, as always…

Giovanna said...

Watercress. I bet you're right.

Alice: I have no idea if anyone would sell you one--seems like the kind of thing you'd hold on to, but I realize not everyone likes to keep paper mementos as much as I do!

Therese and David, thanks--it was fun, wasn't it? I'm still thinking about it, remembering people I'd hoped to see who hadn't been there...

Anonymous said...

Lovely post! Made me want to eat cake, and also to work in a restaurant again.

Giovanna said...

Thanks, seabrightly--I'm sure there will be cake in your future--and maybe more restaurant work as well?
I was thinking of you when we met Scott Peacock!

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