At Berkeley's Chez Panisse, the 'foragers' insist on getting the freshest and best

August 25, 1991|By McClatchy News Service

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Today Berkeley's guiding culinary light, Chez Panisse, is celebrating its 20th anniversary.

As only Chez Panisse can do, it will close down the Cedar-to-Vine block of Shattuck Avenue, one of Berkeley's busiest byways near the local campus of the University of California, to clear the way for a street market. The one-day event intends to honor not the legendary restaurant's loyal or far-traveling customers, but instead the farmers, purveyors and suppliers who have met the restaurant's strict requirements for quality.

The public will have a chance to meet these hand-picked individuals, and to buy their fresh, local and seasonal food.

The purveyors' operations may be small or large, but what they have in common is that they have passed the scrutiny of a certain kind of Chez Panisse employee.

Call them the foragers.

That's what their business cards say -- forager.

"We are the conscience of the restaurant," said Chez Panisse cook Allen Tangren, who also forages. It is the foragers, a term coined by owner Alice Waters' father, who ultimately decide which foods make it to the menu.

At the same time, a synergistic relationship between the farmer and the restaurant is formed that may last for years -- at least as long as the forager remains satisfied with the food, its taste and his gut feelings.

"The standards are high," Mr. Tangren said. "You have to be able to tell people that what they're doing is not acceptable."

The foragers look for growers who fulfill the written requirements of the California Certified Organic Farmer guidelines, which apply to plants and animals. Beyond that, they must sniff the air to round out their final decision on whether a product will be used at Chez Panisse.

Said Mr. Tangren, who gets into his car twice a week to cruise fairs and roadside stands and check out tips: "I visited two organic farms last week and I'm very interested in buying things from one and not the other. The reason is the attitude of the grower."

Mr. Tangren decided that one of the farmer's feelings about his organic products "didn't come from inside. It seemed like something he decided to do because 'organic' is marketable. That feeling is just as important as any written regulation -- to ensure that flow of energy from the land right to the table."

The foragers also have found new foods within categories. "Cooks get bored easily," Mr. Tangren said. "Any new wrinkle is ** welcome." Brown tomatoes, green tomatoes, and tomatoes with yellow stripes are but some of the unusual produce being grown for the restaurant. The result? A tomato salad with three or four different colors of tomato, "and people are just knocked out," Mr. Tangren said.

Perhaps the restaurant's first forager was Ms. Waters herself. Back in the '70s, she was disappointed in most of the produce and meats available. Mr. Tangren remembers that she would approach the green beans in a supermarket and forage for the VTC smallest ones and drive everyone crazy in the process.

Foraging became slightly more formalized when Sibella Kraus got involved. Ms. Kraus was working at the restaurant as a cook, while also acting as a liaison between the restaurant and a garden. She was also sitting on the board of a committee for sustainable agriculture. "I suddenly found myself in the position of knowing dozens of organic farmers," Ms. Kraus said. Out of these contacts emerged her Farm-Restaurant Project, taking in nine restaurants including Chez Panisse.

After this, the restaurant never went back to any other way of procuring food.

Foragers have put their assessments in writing, now bound in a serious-reading foragers' handbook. If this seems like a hard way to go when a delivery truck could bring food from a wholesaler directly to the kitchen, it is. "It's Alice's way of getting the customers close to the foods they eat," Mr. Tangren said.

"Alice doesn't give up," said Catherine Brandel, who in 1986 was named the first official forager. "She wants to know why don't we have good chickens? Why isn't someone raising them?"

Ms. Brandel sought sources everywhere she could. She went to seminars and farm conferences, and checked county farm-trail publications. "We wanted the most healthful food we could get, and we wanted to help support the people who take care of the soil."

Word of mouth worked as well as the California Certified Organic Farmer lists. "The first thing we managed to get were eggs from chickens that pecked around and didn't get feed with additives. The yolks were this wonderful yellow color because the chickens were eating bugs and greens."

Treatment of animals became a more serious criterion when Ms. Waters went on a public rampage against the cramped, squalid conditions of veal calves.

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