Alice Waters on Chez Panisse: ‘50 years is proof this works’

Farm-to-table chef reflects on restaurant that’s ‘meant to feel like a home’

When Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters and her friends started Chez Panisse, they wanted to create menus that capture the beauty and deliciousness of exclusively seasonal produce.

Through the decades, connections with farmers grew, to the point where growers would bring their fresh foods directly to the eatery’s kitchen door.

“Fifty years is proof that this works,” Waters said on Saturday at a small 50th birthday celebration in front of the restaurant’s understated metal-and-wood entrance on Shattuck Avenue.

“Our goal from the first day was to make a restaurant feel like a home where our friends and neighbors would come,” Waters, considered by many the mother of the farm-to-table movement, said. “Our collaboration right from the beginning was with artists and people who love food.”

On opening day, on Aug. 28, 1971, pâté en croûte, duck roasted with olives and plum tart were served.

“We’ve done one menu downstairs ever since the beginning,” Waters said. “It pushed us. We had to make a great meal every night.”

(Now serving takeout but closed due to the pandemic, Chez Panisse’s iconic downstairs restaurant and more casual upstairs café are slated to reopen in October, according to the website.)

Joining Waters for the celebration was California walnut farmer and sustainability expert Craig McNamara, who called Waters “a philosopher with ideas for how we should live,” adding, “Her impact has been tremendous. She put the farmers market back at the core of our food system.”

From left, Craig McNamara and Matthew Raiford joined Alice Waters for Chez Panisse’s 50th anniversary in Berkeley on Aug. 28. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

From left, Craig McNamara and Matthew Raiford joined Alice Waters for Chez Panisse’s 50th anniversary in Berkeley on Aug. 28. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

As Waters spoke, a truck from Acme Bread drove up, prompting her to share that founder Steve Sullivan started baking in his dorm before he became a supplier to Chez Panisse in the 1970s.

“’Why don’t you start a company and we’ll buy the bread?,’’ Waters said, adding, ”This is what could be happening in the public schools.”

Among Waters’ other projects is the Edible Schoolyard, established in 1995 at a Berkeley middle school, where students learn by doing with a garden as their classroom.

And in the works is the Alice Waters Institute for Edible Education, a training center and collaboration with University of California, Davis at its Aggie Square campus in Sacramento.

Organic farmer and chef Matthew Raiford, in town from Georgia, called himself a fanboy of Waters, while Sharon Jones, one of Waters’ friends who worked as a server and host at Chez Panisse in its first decade, said the staff initially knew they had a good thing going, but never imagined their project would start a cultural movement.

Alice Waters, left, and Sharon Jones served up fresh fruit at Chez Panisse’s birthday gathering. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

Alice Waters, left, and Sharon Jones served up fresh fruit at Chez Panisse’s birthday gathering. (Leslie Katz/The Examiner)

Waters, who opened Chez Panisse when she was 27, said she first appreciated its remarkable impact at the 20-year mark, but added, “It’s been like a child growing up.”

As the gathering concluded with tastings of succulent berries, peaches and plums for all, Waters graciously responded a query about what she had for breakfast. She said, with relish, “a scrambled egg with a tortilla, and a quick chopped salsa of hot pepper, tomato and olive oil, mwah!”

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