Stirring Up History

The Bancroft’s Chez Panisse Archives give a soupçon of the restaurant’s early days.
By Jonathan King

The inch-high Help Wanted ad was placed in a Bay Area newspaper sometime in the early 1970s by a “small, successful, innovative Restaurant” in Berkeley seeking an “inspired energetic CHEF to plan and cook single-entree 5-course dinners weekly, Fernand Point and Elizabeth David style.”

That scrap of newsprint, taped casually to the center of a vintage sheet of Chez Panisse notepaper, sits in a folder labeled “Staff: miscellaneous” within the Chez Panisse manuscript archives at the Bancroft Library. Possibly it’s the very one that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1973. It may indeed be the one that, as foodie legend has it, brought only a handful of applicants to the kitchen at 1517 Shattuck Ave. But none were satisfactory to the overworked but committed young Alice Waters ’67 and her comrades in cuisine, who’d converted the old house to a restaurant just two years earlier. Only then did an unknown Jeremiah Tower stride in, “fix the soup” by adding salt and a bit of cream and white wine, and instantly land the job. It’s been said that Tower’s glittering career, the enduring reputation of Chez Panisse, indeed California cuisine itself—whatever that may prove to be when all is said and done—were all born at that historic moment.

That story, though long since debunked by all participants (apart from Tower himself), persists as a creation myth—a challenge to either confirm or rebut on the strength of primary documents from the Bancroft’s “Chez Panisse, records, 1966–2011.” Donated to the library a decade ago, and continuing to grow with periodic infusions of paper from the still-thriving restaurant, the archive’s patchiness is perhaps its most striking characteristic. Though they are voluminous, as befits an institution that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, the Chez Panisse records aren’t deeply illuminating about the restaurant’s earliest (and, in memory, most romantic) years. Apart from a run of photocopied menus dating back to 1973 and some selected correspondence from that era, the cartons, boxes, folders, and files in the Chez Panisse archives cast a detailed light primarily on the latest two decades of the restaurant’s life.

That’s by no means surprising. Anyone familiar with the restaurant’s early years—perhaps from reading Thomas McNamee’s authorized popular history, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse (Penguin, 2007)—is aware that standard business practices were, shall we say, undervalued by those engaged in the living process of constructing a restaurant. After the restaurant opened in 1971, the young staff were consumed by developing their skills as cooks and servers, building clientele, sourcing ingredients, and all the myriad, focused activities needed to launch their labor of love. It was a hectic time, by all accounts.

“Hectic is a good word,” agrees Victoria Wise, who on opening night was the restaurant’s chef and served in that role for nearly two years before opening Pig-by-the-Tail, the first charcuterie in Northern California, across the street from the restaurant in 1973. “A better word would be chaotic. It was a community of likeminded people where no one exactly knew what part they were playing. These people came streaming out of UC Berkeley as artisans and intellectuals … and as people who were burned out on politics and wanted to do something different, a little more positive.”

In addition to Wise herself, a former grad student in philosophy at Berkeley, other major figures in Chez Panisse history had campus connections. They include early partners Jerry Budrick, a student when the restaurant opened, in the then-new School of Journalism; Paul Aratow, who earned a master’s of art in comparative literature in 1963; and Tom Luddy ’66, who later curated the Pacific Film Archive. They were among those drawn to this fledgling effort to, again in Wise’s words, “get into the marketplace and do something the community can be active in, and that’s, frankly, fun. And what’s more fun than food and drink?”

Not secretarial work, apparently. In fact, it was not until well into the restaurant’s third decade, with the hiring of personal assistants for co-founder Alice Waters—by then the personification of Chez Panisse in the eyes of most—that any concerted effort was made to examine and organize two small seas of paper flotsam.

“There were some boxes at the restaurant, while menus and artworks were at Alice’s house,” recalls Cristina Salas-Porras, who became Waters’s first dedicated assistant in 1996. “We just started going through everything in both places, noting what was trash, what was treasure, and what was really personal and would be retained.”

Some time later, Sylvan Brackett, a former Chez Panisse cook, shifted gears to begin work as Alice’s new right hand. “One of my first jobs when I started there,” he says, “was to create a filing system. I created a zillion tabs for a zillion manila folders and started stuffing things into them … most of which turned out to be completely useless.” Still, it was a step in the right direction, as was the development of a scheme for selecting future items for retention and filing.

How well all that has worked in practice is not entirely clear today. A researcher poring over the archives, formally organized by the Bancroft’s Western Americana curators following the documents’ donation to the library in 2001, soon notes that several boxes are filled with folders and files from carefully denoted periods of time corresponding to the tenures of Salas-Porras and Brackett. Outside those windows of time, however, single files may hold a scattering of documents or letters received between the ’70s and the early ’90s. As for the materials that have survived, the documents pertaining to the business of running Chez Panisse (board of directors minutes, budget papers, and the like) are only marginally more interesting than the files of a national steakhouse chain, providing little insight into Waters or the ethos of her establishment. The same is true of a somewhat random collection of later documents ranging from USDA agricultural bulletins to Slow Food Movement manifestos. Although these recent papers are doubtless intellectual grist for Waters’s current life as an activist for school gardens, “food justice,” and related causes—and thus clearly pertinent to the ongoing revolution in American farming, cooking, and dining—they say little about her personality and spirit.

More compelling and wide ranging are the hundreds of letters that testify to Waters’s growing status as a celebrity and icon. Most of them are incoming rather than outgoing (“I can’t imagine that Alice ever typed!” laughs Salas-Porras about her famously technophobic former boss). They include sheaves of fan mail from satisfied diners … as well as a great many letters of complaint. There are neighborly notes from the restaurant’s legions of Berkeley-area customers and friends, and intimate letters to Waters from such gastronomic icons as Elizabeth David, Marion Cunningham, M.F.K. Fisher, and Richard Olney. And, especially in recent years, there are solicitations and invitations from groups and organizations worldwide, seeking something from Alice Waters personally: her time, her attention, her support, her presence, her words, her insights, and her wisdom.

On this level, at least, the archives might as well be named for Waters herself. They make clear the extent to which the Cal Alumni Association’s 1999 Alumna of the Year—who readily acknowledges that it’s been a quarter-century since she actually cooked at the restaurant—has become not only synonymous with Chez Panisse in the public mind but virtually indistinguishable from it. By the late 1980s, when Waters undertook to become a public figure campaigning nationwide for locally grown foods, improved school lunches, and a broad spectrum of related causes, nearly every piece of mail that came into the Chez Panisse office seems to have been addressed to her personally, whether the correspondent had ever met her or even visited the restaurant.

From the letters emerges a sense of the struggle Waters must have faced as a pioneer of the farm-fresh, simplified cuisine that would later sweep the nation: She was the focal point for the expectations and reactions of diners who “got it” … and of those who did not. For example, in 1983, a Dr. Barricks from Minneapolis wrote to complain about his meal: “… the portions were dreadfully small, the menu somewhat bizarre, the presentation and preparation average, and the cost (with wine) out of line!” Waters responded in general terms, then added, “My feeling, to be honest, is that perhaps you made the wrong choice in coming to Chez Panisse. Your objections are really objections to the very philosophy of the restaurant, to our ideas about what makes for a ‘good’ dinner….”

Another response to dissatisfied diners—written by Waters’s close friend and comrade, the artist David Goines—comes about as close to expressing the fundamental philosophy that has fueled Chez Panisse as any formal declaration of principle ever could. In early 1982, two East Bay couples sent a detailed letter of complaint to the restaurant (“We could see that our ‘charcoal grilled shellfish’ was pan fried …”), with copies mailed to that era’s most prominent Bay Area restaurant critics. In a calligraphed note on Saint Heironymous Press letterhead, Goines responded:

“Dear sirs & madams: … no human enterprise can be faultless, & by their very nature, some, when they err, are more conspicuous both in victory & in defeat. The only path which ensures against failure is also, painful as it may be, one which simultaneously prevents excellence…. [H]aving eaten at Chez Panisse a few thousand times, I have the ability to view the work as a whole, & philosophically accept error as the child of enterprise, rejoicing in an adventurous attempt to shun mediocrity even at the price of really blowing it once in a while….”

Jonathan King’s credits include senior editorial stints at Sierra, Mother Jones, and Sunset magazines. He most recently edited The Berkeleyan weekly faculty newspaper.
From the Winter 2011 Taste issue of California.
Image source: The Bancroft Library
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