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Published: Saturday, 8/25/2007

A seat at Alice Waters table

BY JENNIFER DAY
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

The specialty is a salad: Baked Sonoma goat cheese with garden lettuce, $9.50. Two inch-thick rounds of cheese alongside fresh greens. Marinated in olive oil and herbs. Rolled in bread crumbs and baked until golden, just slightly gooey. The fresh greens cut the rich tang of the cheese; the bread crumbs rough up its smoothness.

What s more interesting about this salad is not how it tastes, but its pedigree. It s the signature dish of Chez Panisse, a Berkeley, Calif., restaurant founded in 1971 that, because of its creator, has been at the forefront of the eat local and organic-food movements.

That creator is Alice Waters, who, in turn, has become the patron saint of eating local and eating fresh. For example, the greens in that salad are grown using eco-friendly, sustainable farming; the cheese is made by Laura Chenel, a Sonoma County native who is credited with being the first American to make French-style goat cheese. This is the kind of thinking that spawned places like Findlay s Revolver, which takes full advantage of its farm country locale to create the kind of fare you d expect in Chicago s best restaurants.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee is an authorized biography of Waters and a history of the restaurant, which began as a far-fetched plot to bring French food to Berkeley. Inspired by meals she ate in France during college, Waters was determined to open a local watering hole that held the same charm as the bars depicted in old French movies. She wanted a restaurant that offered the same passion for food she d felt in French restaurants.

We re reminded throughout the book that Waters is less a chef than a visionary. Her talents are bound up with her impeccable palate and her unwavering tenacity. Ingredients, Alice cries [to McNamee], remembering those first illuminations in the farmers markets of France. Sure, you had to know technique. But if you didn t start with great ingredients, you could never make great food.

This realization is the core of food culture today. Last fall s The United States of Arugula by David Kamp told that story on a broader level, featuring Waters as one of many players who helped to improve the variety and quality of food available today. His book, which set a standard for storytelling and journalism that most food histories don t match, is a good companion to Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, if only because it provides a more balanced, less enamored view of Waters.

This book on the other hand, sort of assumes that if you bought the book, you ve probably bought into the myth of Alice Waters. This isn t a deal breaker the book is still entertaining but I got to a point where I was wondering whether I should be reading between the lines.

McNamee points out repeatedly how Waters greatest talent is creating an aura. By knowing exactly what kind of lighting and flower arrangements she wants, Waters made Chez Panisse into a cozy haunt that manages to be both relaxed and romantic. By having a pitch-perfect palate, she can direct her staff to cook really good food. So does it follow that by knowing exactly how she would like her work to be remembered, she can find the right man to write this book?

The thought pestered me as I read, but once I decided to think of it as a memoir, that fell away and left me to enjoy the lore of the whole Chez Panisse circus. Some of the most interesting sections of the book are about the lengths Waters and her crew went to develop relationships with farmers to allow them to serve truly fresh, truly diverse food. I would be willing to bet that Chez Panisse may stand alone in its willingness to spend good money to pay an employee to write about the history of chicken breeding dating back to 1849.

And food really is the draw here. Waters strategy for taking her politically and nutritionally correct food movement mainstream is to appeal to people through their stomachs. I only wish this book did as well. Although it promises recipes, they are more like unedited interview transcripts.

If you do plan to read this, pick up a copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables or Chez Panisse Fruit, too. You ll get the same strong Waters voice coming through the recipes, only you ll actually be able to follow them through to a lovely meal. And really, that speaks more fully of Waters place in history than all the words in Alice Waters and Chez Panisse.



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