Chez Panisse: Forty Years Later
August 30, 2011
The museum in Berkeley has a particular smell, a combination of cool concrete and dry oil paint that always sends me right back to the seventies. On Friday night it was also filled with food, and for a moment I was back at The Swallow, the restaurant a group of us once ran downstairs, right by the Pacific Film Archive. Making my way through the crowd that had gathered to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Chez Panisse, I kept running into fellow members of The Swallow, and before long I was in tears.
It was that kind of night, and then that kind of weekend: emotions were never far from the surface. There were speeches – by the Governor, the Mayor, and assorted dignitaries. There was drinking and dancing, too much food and too little sleep. But more than anything, there was the recognition of how much this restaurant has meant to those of us who care about the way we eat.
The feasts went on for days. The major meals began with Scott Peacock’s shrimp boil at Alice’s house on Thursday night – lights in the garden, peach cobbler for dessert – and ended with an invitation only staff party on Sunday night. In between so many people fanned out into so many places that you kept missing your friends. Michael Pollan had a pig roast, Joan Nathan concocted a Roman Jewish dinner, Angelo Garro roasted a wild boar at his forge…. I was at Cecilia’s Chiang’s banquet, some 20 courses cooked by an astonishing woman who seems to laugh at time. With the help of chefs Henry He and Alex Ong this 93 year old woman created a feast – in a tiny kitchen that has no gas.
We ate with sterling-tipped ivory chopsticks. “These,” said Cecilia, “were part of my mother’s dowery.” Abalone was astonishing, so tender you could inhale each delicate white slice. Ethereal kidneys were like spicy clouds, numbing your tongue with the tingle of Sichuan peppercorns. Beggar’s chicken was stuffed with sticky rice, wrapped in lotus leaves and then coated with clay. I hit it with a hammer, and as it fractured, a burst of scent leapt into the air and filled the dining room. As one dreamlike dish followed another director Wayne Want, quietly elegant, documented each bite. “I wanted," he said, "to do something for Alice. In the early days, when I had no money, she always fed me.”
She fed us all. And she's still doing it. When the feasts – all of them – had ended, we gathered in the street in front of the restaurant, reluctant to let the party end. At some point Alice came over and put a grape into my mouth. “Taste this,” she said.
Sweet, intense, slightly perfumed, the flavor resonated in my mouth for a good hour. It was just a grape. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Even after a week of extraordinary food, Alice Waters can offer you one single bite that blows you right away.