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Dear Alice…

December 13, 2011
by Jonathan King

Excerpts from letters sent to the legendary restaurateur, typos and all

As the fame of Chez Panisse grew beyond the Berkeley city limits, the volume of mail addressed to the restaurant and its co-owner, Alice Waters ’67, likewise increased. When she was merely the most famous woman chef in America—not yet a nationally known food activist—some correspondents turned to Waters for culinary advice. One 1983 letter in the Bancroft archives is from a man attempting to recreate a ravioli recipe he’d been given half a century earlier, which “specified what sex garlic to use.” Could Waters help? She tried, then replied: “I have checked all of my garlics and they all appear to me to be of the same sex. Which sex, alas, I cannot say.”

That writer was lucky. It appears to have been rare for Waters to answer her mail personally, though she and other Chez Panisse principals were more likely to respond to a complaint than to a note of praise.

What did people complain about? Price was a popular topic, as was portion size: “There is NO EXCUSE,” wrote one unhappy 1980s-era diner, “for the size of the salad, at the price; and believe you me if one gizzard was cut up on the pasta (the sauce was left off, and it was served VERY dry) I am exaggerating. For $7.00 you should be ashamed.” Clearly a first timer.

But even regulars griped about the cost, as in this 1976 letter: “The beet root and onion salad [served on March 18] was a unique association but hardly a match for the spinach with sherry vinegar and mustard of February 27. In summary, the price and food left much to be desired.”

Perhaps March 1976 was just a star-crossed month. Another writer, from San Francisco, quoted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 34 (the words “haunted me after I left your restaurant…”), then launched into his skein of complaints. “It began badly when the waiter over-ruled me on my choice of wine telling me that a Pinot Chardonay [sic] was the only wine possible with a strong salt cod. How right he was. Only stiff wine for strong cod could salvage its rubbery saltness.”

Another less-than-transcendent dining experience inspired a Peninsula writer to eloquence in 1985: “On this most recent of many visits to Chez Panisse, my good wife leaves, with some justice, with a feeling of insubstantiality. By this, she (and I) refer to cuisine minceur hypertrophied; to fractional bowls of soup; to scant, thin slices of (admittedly excellent) lamb; [to] tartlets abandoned during their filling….”

Service was the issue for a San Francisco couple in 1977: “[W]e were each served only half a trout … [but] noticed that our neighbors were being served the expected whole trout…. [W]e were further angered that we, as a younger yet appropriately dressed couple, were selected over our older neighbors for such discrimination.”

Trout seemed to cause more than its share of trouble over the years. One woman apparently didn’t enjoy a bite of her 1986 meal—an augury of which, from her perspective, was the first course of “warm new potato salad with smoked trout without any trout….”

That gaffe earned the writer a confessional note from Waters herself: “[W]e were just too busy, did not have a sufficient supply of ingredients, and did not make the necessary changes in our menu in a careful and considered manner. Our dinner that night was no more up to our standards than it was up to yours. I am sorry.” And she was—to the tune of dinner for two in the downstairs restaurant.

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