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. 


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  • I’ve been waiting to hear some juicy morsels of news from the Chez Panisse 40th celebrations, thank you for transporting us into the delicious festivities for a few moments, Ruth, how fabulous to have been a part of such rich history

  • What an amazing four day weekend that must have been: filled with tastes, smells, and memories from 40 years ago. No wonder you got teary eyed. It must have felt like a “This is Your Life” kind of experience in many ways.
    I’m so glad for you that you were able to touch those memories again, to be re-united with friends from days gone by, and to fully experience tasting that glorious grape.

  • Elycooks says:

    Sigh. Looks like I missed an opportunity to reconnect with fellow Swallow alums. Who all was there? The whole series of events looked wonderful!

  • Regine Ibold says:

    On the subject of cooking corn – this may sound blasphemous but I find that the microwave does a lovely job. Left in husks, somewhat trimmed and using the timing in Barbara Kafka’s Microwave Gourmet…two ears five minutes, four ears 14, etc. Then, I present the ears on top of husk leaves sprinkled with a combo of Lawry’s seasoned salt and chili powder.

  • Dave Walker says:

    So here is a coincidence. In the past week, Fresh Air has aired interviews with you and Alice Waters. And apparently, you are both the daughters of women who could not cook. I thought that was pretty funny.
    Also, when I heard you talk about spaghetti carbonara, it sounded so good, I made it for dinner last night. As you said, it takes under 10 minutes to prepare and my wife, my son and daughter and my daughter’s friend devoured it. Gone in a matter of minutes. That might be the perfect meal. Thanks!

  • I left Berkeley to go to culinary school but I miss and I know, I KNOW that smell. And Chez Panisse. (I’m still reeling from the closure of Elephant Pharmacy.) Ah well, at least I got a culinary education and a book out of it (here’s the book, if you’re interested: “Culinary School: Three Semesters of Life, Learning, and Loss of Blood” – – John Thorne wrote the foreword for it). Cheers from homesick me!

  • What a beautiful tribute, what wonderful memories of special times. And you are both amazing women, you and Alice Waters both xx