Thursday, October 28, 2010


Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Thomas McNamee, Penguin Press, 2007, 351 pp

 Chez Panisse is the famous restaurant in Berkeley, CA, which opened on August 28, 1971, with the credo, "fresh, local, seasonal and where possible organic ingredients," and is still going strong. I know that for a fact because my husband and I had dinner there on September 22, 2010 in celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary.

  I have been intending to read McNamee's biography of Alice Waters, founder of Chez Panisse, ever since the night about three years ago when I cooked a meal with local, seasonal and where possible organic ingredients for my brother-in-law, a preeminent natural foods guy. He had been under the weather that day and almost did not appear for this gathering at my mom's house in Michigan. When he finished eating, his color improved from pale to glowing, his spirits revived, he told me it was a meal worthy of being served at Chez Panisse. It was a high point in my cooking life.

 So when husband and I set off for our roadtrip to the Redwoods and the Bay Area, I brought the book along. Roadtrips are not conducive to reading for me. After driving, sightseeing, hiking and all, I can read about ten pages before falling into delicious sleep. By the time we returned home, I was only about 35 pages in. But I read the rest over the next two days, which was perfect because I had been there, I had visited the kitchen (as all guests are invited to do) and I had experienced one of the best meals of my life.

 Like most successful undertakings, Chez Panisse began as an impractical dream, under financed and built with love and enthusiasm by a group of dedicated people. The book captures those beginnings in all their crazy glory. In fact, the restaurant never showed a profit for almost ten years, but it also stayed in the same location and never closed.

 The most entertaining aspect was the wealth of stories about Alice Waters, the chefs, the staff and the incredible adventures they had. The most enlightening was my realization that before Michael Pollan and his Omnivore's Dilemma, before Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, before the whole entire movement towards responsible farming and eating habits, came Alice Waters.

 Having been intimately involved with the beginnings of the organic food movement in Ann Arbor in 1970, I felt completed when I had finished Alice Waters' story and learned what it was like to live through those days in Berkeley while I lived through them in Ann Arbor.

 Finally but not least at all, there is Alice herself. In a tiny body, barely over five feet tall, with a huge heart and mercurial temperament, she has bravely, rashly, incorrigibly followed every dream she ever had. She has created a huge impact in the world with her slow food movement (as opposed to fast food). She has scores of admirers and enemies and is the embodiment of one of my favorite realities: well-behaved women seldom make history.

 If you believe in the power of food, dreams and/or women, you will love this book.

(Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is available on the non-fiction shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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