In her “Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook,” Alice Waters writes,”It is a fundamental fact that no cook, however creative and capable, can produce a dish of a quality any higher than that of the raw ingredients.” It is that premise that guides all the dishes served at her world-renowned restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, CA.
The menu of the week at her restaurant for the last four decades is crafted around the flavors of the season. Tomato recipes reserved for the summer when they naturally burst with flavor and persimmons in the fall when the juice leaks uninhibited from their skins.
To execute a recipe like Charcoal-Grilled Oysters with Chervil Butter, she requires the freshest oyster caught the same day from the Pacific Ocean; the butter, creamy and golden from pasture-raised cows from coastal hillsides; and bunches of chervil foraged from backyard gardens.
It is her weekly quest for the finest and freshest ingredients available that sparked the local, seasonal food movement that grows like the tendrils of sweet peas. It is what guided her to start a school garden in Berkeley, a model that has been replicated all over the planet.
She is as much an agent of change as she was unwilling to change. The sixties and seventies marked the transformation of our modern food system. The size of farms grew while the number of farms began its rapid decline. Cows, pigs, chickens… were plucked off the pasture and placed in feedlots or concrete structures. The continuous mist of chemicals on crops became conventional. She held tight to food as it was, not as it had become.
We each have the opportunity to nurture a Chez Panisse in our own home kitchen. We can plan a weekly menu based on local, seasonal foods using the fruits and vegetables growing in our backyards, figuratively and literally. My own backyard garden grows sage, thyme, basil, mint, lemon verbana and arugula at full-capacity and soon the green plums in my yard will see deep magenta (local friends are free to forage my yard).
Alice Waters seeks flavor and in doing so supports food systems that work in synchronicity with nature. I seek food that is best for water, air and soil and by doing so I attain raw ingredients at the height of flavor. From every angle the result is good.
Eat less water at your kitchen table!