Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

Autographed drawing of Chef Alice Waters at Chez Panisse

Back to my culinary collection. There’s nothing like a lockdown-our third and counting-to catch up on things that need catching up. In this case, Rick Stein’s 2017-18 series ROAD TO MEXICO, where he starts in Northern California and follows the cooking trail south to Mexico, inspired by a journey he made in the late 1960’s. In the opening episode he visited the legendary food activist and humanitarian Alice Waters at her equally legendary landmark restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay.

Alice pioneered ‘California cuisine’, which is driven by local seasonal and sustainable ingredients. It was the source for the ‘farm-to-table movement’. She was part of the Free Speech Movement that swept the UC Berkeley’s Campus in the 1960’s, and developed a love of cooking, hosting small gatherings to discuss politics with her peers. As an undergraduate, majoring in French Cultural Studies, she continued her studies and culinary interests in France, living on fresh, simple local produce, discovering the concept of market fresh cooking.

Influenced by her European experiences, Alice opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley in 1971, named after a favourite character in a trilogy Marcel Pagnol films. It was described as the culinary outpost of the West Coast counterculture that defined the 60’s. She established a network of local farmers, artisans and producers believing that “food is a way of life, not just something to eat.” The upstairs Chez Panisse Cafe was established in 1980 with a more modestly priced a la carte menu.

Chez Panisse has survived two fires, the first in 1982 came within ten minutes of completely destroying the building resulting in an extensive rebuild. The second in 2013 damaged the front patio and facade resulting in a four-month closure.

The restaurant was awarded a Michelin Star in 2006 and for the majority of that decade Chez Panisse was ranked as one of the top 50 Restaurants in the World by Restaurant magazine, reaching #12 in 2003. The prestigious publication also presented Alice with a Lifetime Achievement Award, citing her as one of the most influential figures in American cooking over the past fifty years. One of the restaurants many culinary innovations is the Goat Cheese Salad, which first appeared in the 1970’s. It consists of rounds of chèvre marinated in olive oil and herbs, coated in bread crumbs and baked, served with lightly dressed mesclun.

In 1996 Alice established the Chez Panisse Foundation, a non-profit organisation that funds the Edible Schoolyard Programme at the Martin Luther King Middle School as part of Alice’s ‘edible education’ ideology where students participate in planting, harvesting and preparing fresh food as part of their school day. She is a national public policy advocate for school lunch reform and access to healthy organic foods.

After watching Rick’s programme I drew this quick portrait sketch of Alice and sent it to her for signing. Due to the pandemic, post is a little erratic to say the least, so I wasn’t expecting a quick response, if any. But to my delight it came back this week.