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. 



Think Pink: Strawberry Ice Cream

August 1, 2011

I found an old recipe for "Strawberry Cream Ice" in a Victorian cookbook, and I was fascinated by its sheer simplicity: “2 pints of strawberry juice, 3 pints of cream and 4 ounces of sugar to every pint of the composition.”

It really is that simple.  I swooshed 2 pints of strawberries in a blender and then put them through a sieve; it made about a cup of strawberry juice.  In place of ordinary granulated sugar, I used confectioner’s sugar, which dissolves more easily.  It also throws the weight off;  you won’t need more than a quarter cup or so for the cup of strawberry juice.  Stir the sugar in, and then swirl in a pint of good cream. Now taste it to make sure it's sweet enough for you. Cut up up another handful of strawberries and add them to the mixture before starting to churn the ice cream.  It should not take very long to freeze; about 15 minutes.  Leave it on the slightly soft side.

 The flavor is so pure and lovely – just strawberries and cream – the essence of pink. I can't think of anything nicer on a hot summer day.