One summer night in 1971, Victoria Wise cooked the first-ever meal — duck with olives — at a nascent Berkeley restaurant called Chez Panisse. It happened “serendipitously,” she said, but she’d been in love with food all her life.
“Both of my parents were avid for food and family,” Wise said. “My father, who was Armenian, is the one who brought the deeply grounded food culture. We always had a small vegetable garden: He grew tomatoes; my mother grew the parsley. Shish kebab was a big deal in our family. … He always prepared the leg of lamb himself,” later using the bone for stew.
“In graduate school, I was much happier cooking for a dinner party than writing essays for my philosophy classes,” said Wise, who after a stint as Chez Panisse’s first chef opened her own charcuterie, Pig-by-the-Tail, across the street in 1973.
Those early Gourmet Ghetto years were “such a jam-packed, life-full time. Every day was a challenge and a treat because I loved my work.” She also loved the “like-minded intellectual artisans that made up the spirit of the neighborhood, from those of us who had storefronts to those who came to shop for food and dine, and discuss film and their family matters.”
Some of those folks will reunite on Sunday, January 30, at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley), where a panel of legendary Gourmet Ghetto chefs includes Wise along with award-winning restaurateur Joyce Goldstein, sausage superman Bruce Aidells, chocolate queen Alice Medrich, and garlic guru John L. Harris. All of them are authors and will sign their books; Wise’s thirteen volumes include The Armenian Table and Big Bold Food.
“American Charcuterie is definitely one of my favorites,” she said. “I was pregnant with my son Jenan and writing my first cookbook. It was an intense, passionate, and glorious time as my baby grew and my new career in writing grew in tandem.”
At the Books Inc. event, vegan entrepreneur Barry Schenker will serve samples of his nut-based gelato, Genuto. This Berkeley-born product is another example of what Wise describes as “the organic, fresh, seasonal, make-it-at-home, pay-attention-to-the-earth, pay-attention-to-what-you-are-eating, shop-at-the-farmers’-market-or-buy-organic-foods-at-Safeway consciousness.” Now ubiquitous, it’s a consciousness with Gourmet Ghetto roots.
Other neighborhoods elsewhere “have a lively spirit of food culture. But they are by and large ethnically based,” Wise explained. “What’s different about the Gourmet Ghetto is that it was created by a diverse group of radical, cultured, educated, world-traveled individuals who came streaming out of [UC Berkeley] at the beginning of the Seventies, looking to turn away from the politics of the Sixties and create a more pleasant, life-affirming way of being in the world, with the communality and sharing that food brings to the table as a guiding light.”