Chez Panisse at 50: Alice Waters, ‘We Are What We Eat’ and the Slow Food Revolution

It’s likely that many people will never dine under the hallowed recycled redwood ceiling of Berkeley’s revered Chez Panisse. Opened in 1971 by restaurateur, chef and food activist Alice Waters, the establishment’s upscale reputation and long waiting list for reservations is preventative for all but economically advantaged or determinedly patient diners. Practicing for 50 years “slow food movement” concepts—more on that later—the restaurant is heralded as the birthplace of California cuisine, or at least as its kind-hearted, earnest, flea-market-decorated, food-fetishizing, revolutionary MC.

Created with fly-by-the-seat-of-your-soil 1960s-style radicalism, the Chez Panisse menu has long emphasized simple presentations, the meal as a multi-sensory experience and the highly respectable use of sustainable, organic and seasonal ingredients obtained from local farmers, ranchers and dairies. Waters’ formative years in France inspired the restaurant’s name that pays tribute to Honoré Panisse, a character in French novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol’s 1930s movie trilogy about everyday life in Marseille. The menu changes daily and—due to the pandemic—as of June 2021, Chez Panisse continues to remain closed to indoor dining. Takeout service Wednesday through Saturday and an often sold-out Sunday Market organic farm box and flea market collectibles are available in the interim.

While history establishes that a Chez Panisse meal—or takeout order—is incredibly tempting and noble and very likely delicious, the produce and meats and dairy obtained with high ambition for sustainability come with high prices. Thus, contemplating paying $145 for a takeout Friday Night Dinner for Two—plus $60 for the suggested wine pairing—versus buying a week’s worth of groceries is not in the cards for all. Such a meal is just not in the budget—even if it is Pennyroyal Farm goat cheese pudding soufflé with golden beets and herb salad, a Wolfe Ranch quail grilled with sage and new garlic with roasted spring onions, Bintje potatoes and sautéed spinach on the side, and a crispy meringue with strawberries, raspberries and crème chantilly for dessert.

And so it’s immensely appealing to discover in her new book, We Are What We Eat, that a person can, and even more insistently and editorially, should enjoy the bounty of Waters’ ambitions. For the same expenditure as a Chez Panisse Saturday night 12-inch pizza with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, red onion, hot pepper, capers, parsley and basil ($26), the book—co-written with Bob Carrau and Cristina Mueller—is a delightful and recyclable treat. Buy it from a local independent bookstore and bump Amazon off the table, then share it with a friend or place it in a free library. Or, unlike a meal, enjoy it repeatedly, and be reminded and reassured that Waters never plates up or serves an if-you-like-that-you’ll-like-this algorithm. Savor her call-to-action words slowly, in honor of slow-food traditions and to show respect for Waters’ obvious disdain for fast food and strong arguments opposing its destructive force on cultures and communities.

We Are What We Eat’s primary posits circle around land, plant and animal biodiversity and food seasonality and the ways in which disconnections to those areas introduce obvious global  problems—hunger, disease and agricultural decay. The violations of fast-food culture, according to Waters, also result in burdens and conflicts related to “addiction, depression, water use, the abuse of workers, immigration, political dishonesty, the overarching threat of climate change … you name it.”

Coining the phrase “fast food values,” Waters unravels and demystifies the temptations of fast food culture: efficiently slaying the basics as if welding a sharp-bladed butcher’s knife. Convenience reads as passivity and ignorance, uniformity lends itself to systemic social bias and an overall monoculture mindset, availability brings on irritation and impatience, “fake” facts cause trust in advertising and science to erode, cheapness hides the true cost of food that slaughters human health and destroys the planet, and “more is better” means the volume of waste explodes even while the USDA reports that 35 million people in America struggle with food insecurity and hunger. Fast food’s final bruising, shin-buster blow—speed—has a multigenerational impact as adults employed in the industrial, chain gang-like system bemoan “work as drudgery,” and children ingest dehumanizing lessons about labor or lose the skill to focus or attend to tasks or even to each other.

The book’s far more uplifting second section is therefore a relief. Seven chapters address beauty, biodiversity, seasonality, stewardship, pleasure in work, simplicity and interconnectedness. It’s not all woo-woo flower child talk, either. Waters, like the best songwriter, displays the ability to tell a vivid story that simultaneously displays extensive, evidence-backed truth and poetic, economic language. A wild strawberry experience of “tiny fragrant, vibrant fraises des bois” opening in her mouth invites an entirely new interior realm of taste and appreciation for experiential, not just observational, beauty. Describing lessons learned about wild prairie perennial polyculture delivered by Kansas researcher Wes Jackson, she recounts one of his visits to the restaurant. “Wes came to Chez Panisse and brought a plant with him that he had dug up from the prairie,” she says. “He proceeded to demonstrate the depths of the roots to us by unfurling them across the dining room—and they stretched from one end of the restaurant to the other.”

Along with an obvious fondness for quoting and crediting all manner of scientists, agricultural experts, artists, chefs, philosophers, cultural influencers and people such as Carlo Petrini—the creator of Italy-based Slow Food International—Waters’ prose supplies liveliness and joy that are pleasant, surprising takeaways. Learn and laugh with Waters as she dumpster dives for fish bones—yes, it’s true—and eats an entire McDonald’s meal—also true, or at least a great yarn told effectively. Find sweetness and fond respect for farmer Bob Cannard, who not only coached the dumpster experience and anchored her culinary practices and advocacy in connectivity, but also introduced Waters’ father to a superlative carrot miraculously unearthed from a weed-covered field.

Revelation upon revelation during the last 50 years caused a renovation in Waters’ mind, awareness, lifestyle and professional practices. Isn’t that what reading a good book should do? So saunter to a bookstore, pick up a copy, dig a carrot or pluck a bean out of your garden, and eat and read to find out who you are or who you might choose to become.

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