How sex, drugs and rock and roll built a restaurant and a movement

April 29, 2007|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution

By Thomas McNamee

Penguin Press / 400 pages / $27.95

Irrepressible Alice Waters was 27 when she decided that what she wanted most was a place where she and her friends could gather around a few tables, eat good food, drink a little (or a lot of) wine, inspire one another, fall in love, talk and thereby divert the world from its terrible path toward destruction, hatred, war, commercialization and alienation. Chez Panisse - in many ways her baby, although she would insist it was a group effort - was the astonishingly successful result of that simple desire. From the start, it was more than a restaurant; it was a quiet revolution, fueled in part by a vision of life in a Marcel Pagnol movie, an idea of France, an idea of what life should look like, an idea of what it means to be human.

One of the most charming things about Thomas McNamee's Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (which is just as much about the Berkeley, Calif., restaurant as it is about the woman) is how clear it becomes that, in the three and a half decades since the restaurant served its first meal on Aug. 28, 1971, the original ideal of building community by eating good food together has become part of the culture of this country. It has rippled outward geographically, first to include the small-scale farmers and artisans working in Northern California, whose ingredients Waters has always insisted on using; then to the schools around the country that have benefited from the Edible Schoolyard, a program of the Chez Panisse Foundation to create school gardens that grow ingredients for students' lunches while inspiring children to bring their families back to the table; and then outward to the world, through Waters' very active participation in the international Slow Food movement, which combines bio-regional eating with the idea of the table as the nucleus in community-building.

The book also makes excruciatingly clear that this has not always been easy. Resisting commercialization - looked at through the Looking-Glass - can mean not being able to pay your employees a living wage (sometimes true in the early years); building community might mean $30,000 worth of wine spilled, in the first year, for workers and friends.

Waters spent her early years in New Jersey and then moved with her family to Van Nuys, Calif., where she attended high school. She went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, then transferred to Berkeley in 1964 and graduated in 1967. Waters was active in the Free Speech Movement. In 1965, she and a friend took a life-changing trip to France; Waters returned, Sabrina-like, with a changed palate and a new appreciation for all things French. She and the Free Speech Movement leader, David Goines, set up a household full of music and art and friends and books by the likes of Elizabeth David, Richard Olney and M.F.K. Fisher. Waters' reputation as a cook grew, and dreams for a restaurant coalesced around the name (after a Pagnol character).

McNamee is fascinated by the cultural context - namely Berkeley in the 1960s - and its effect on the creation of Chez Panisse. Much mention is made of the amount of sleeping around, as well as the quantities of marijuana and cocaine that "were so thoroughly integrated with the rest of the Chez Panisse experience."

Waters' somewhat chaotic love life also comes under careful scrutiny. "Alice falls in love," Fritz Streiff, who cooked for a while at Chez Panisse, tells McNamee. "This is the story of Alice's life. She falls in love with a dish. She falls in love with a lamp. She falls in love with a bowl of cherries. She falls in love with a man. Alice loves men." The author is at once charmed, bemused and sometimes a little hard on Waters' modus operandi, including her "unfinished sentences" and her "childlike tone of voice."

Much of the restaurant's character, unsurprisingly, has depended on the personality and style of its chefs, and although the transitions have not always been smooth, each new cook has ushered in a new era. Jeremiah Tower's flamboyant, decadent French style was the perfect antidote to the 1970s malaise in American cuisine, with its emphasis on convenience, and pangs felt over the death throes of the family farm. Tower took the restaurant in an increasingly bourgeois and celebrity-oriented direction. Diners flew in their Lear jets up from L.A. It was a far cry from the first days. The cost of eating at Chez Panisse, still far cheaper than the nation's other top restaurants, was beginning to creep up to levels unaffordable for Waters' original clientele.

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