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Know the West

How a restaurant changed the world


Chez Panisse is a French restaurant in an old home in Berkeley, Calif. Its menu is set, like that of a dinner party, and changes every night. Whether or not you've eaten there, you've felt its influence, which has rippled through the West and the world over the past 37 years. 

The organic craze and its more recent cousin, the local-food movement, owe more to Chez Panisse than perhaps any other institution. The late food writer R.W. Apple Jr. declares it "indisputably the most influential" restaurant in the United States in the introduction to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, by veteran nature writer Thomas McNamee. 

Chez Panisse is generally thought of as the brainchild of Waters, its primary proprietor. But that's not the whole story, and McNamee tells the rest of it, tracing the restaurant's roots back to 1960s Berkeley. 

Waters, a University of California at Berkeley graduate, fell in love with food during a semester abroad in France, and long nurtured a dream of a restaurant imbued with that country's flavors - culinary, aesthetic and cultural. She brought her exacting taste to bear not just on the restaurant's food and decor, but on its cooks, servers and purveyors, whom she chose more for their mindset than their experience. She made a fetish of freshness above all: "We gathered watercress from streams, picked nasturtiums and fennel from roadsides, and gathered blackberries from the Santa Fe tracks in Berkeley," Waters recalls in the book. Over the years, Waters' emphasis on local sourcing grew into larger crusades for environmentally informed eating of all kinds, particularly healthy school lunches. 

McNamee quotes Julia Child chastising Waters in 1981 as "unduly doleful" about American produce. "Visit any supermarket and you'll see plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables," Child said. But Waters has since won that argument, having helped convince much of the culinary world that vegetables bred for toughness, raised on pesticides, transported in shipping containers and stored in warehouses are not just tasteless, but fundamentally immoral. 

A strength of the book is its population of colorful personalities, from the flamboyant chef Jeremiah Tower to an eccentric, depressed psychiatrist-turned-forager named Gerald Rosenfield. Unfortunately, the recipes sprinkled through the text are intentionally vague - too much so to be useful. Although Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is not a cookbook, it offers one very important recipe: how to create a small business that can change the world. 

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution

Thomas McNamee

351 pages, hardcover:


Penguin, 2007.