Alice Waters writes, in her Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, ”It is a fundamental fact that no cook, however, creative and capable, can produce a dish of 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, California celebrating 44 years.
The menu of the week at Water’s restaurant for nearly four and a half decades is crafted around the flavors of the season. Tomato recipes are 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, the freshest oysters are 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.
Her weekly quest to find finest and freshest ingredients available 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 20 years ago, a model that has been replicated all over the planet.
In 1971 when Chez Panisse entered the food scene, the transformation of our modern food system was well underway. The size of farms grew while the number of farms began its rapid decline. Cows, pigs, and chickens were plucked off the pasture and placed in feedlots or concrete structures. The continuous mist of chemicals on crops became conventional. Even as global food production systems where changing, this small restaurant in the heart of Berkeley held tight to food as it was, not as it had become.
The birth of Chez Panisse as the incubator of the local food movement is something to celebrate. Even if you didn’t drive great distances to Berkeley for the special birthday dinner, you can celebrate in your home kitchen by cultivating the spirit of Chez Panisse.
Start by planning a weekly menu based on local, seasonal foods using the fruits and vegetables growing in our backyards, figuratively and literally. My backyard garden grows lemongrass, thyme, rosemary, and mint at full-capacity. My local farmer’s market is teeming with stone fruit, Ojai Pixies, and deep magenta eggplant.
When we seek raw ingredients at the height of flavor, we support food systems that work in synchronicity with nature. As patrons of Chez Panisse have experienced over the course of 44 years, the result is delicious.
Eat less water at your kitchen table!
There is power in the collective.