Chez Panisse: ‘A sense of things being made by hand’

 

Chez Panisse patio

The patio of Chez Panisse showcases reclaimed redwood paneling. Photo by Jesse Pagulayan

BERKELEY, Calif. — In this bustling college town is the world-famous Chez Panisse, which will celebrate its 44th anniversary later this month.

The restaurant is known for fresh, local produce and its menus hat change daily to reflect that.

Teen Observers staff got a preview of a typical day recently on a tour with General Manager Jennifer Sherman, who describes their preparation time as a constant effort to create a “dinner party” atmosphere.

Founder Alice Waters and friends opened the restaurant in 1971 after she returned from a trip to France, and said she felt that Americans had lost the art of talking with each other over dinner.

poster

The various French film posters at Chez Panisse reflect Alice Waters’ fondness for the country that inspires her culinary career. Photo by Jesse Pagulayan

In addition to her unique idea of only making dishes based on fresh produce brought in that day, it is “classic Alice” to “look at things as an opportunity instead of an obstacle,” Sherman said, noting that the reason diners can see through from the front of the house to the back of the house is because of a fire 30 years ago that destroyed the wall separating them.

Sherman said Waters’ response on seeing the damage was, “Isn’t that wonderful, I can see all the way to the kitchen!”

While waiting to write the daily menus until chefs know what’s freshest “makes for a lot of extra work, it’s really worth it,” said Sherman. From the wildflower arrangements to the grilled quail, from the posters to the reclaimed redwood porch, Sherman said, “It’s really important to Alice that when you come to a place, you have a sense of things being made by hand.”

Pastry chefs scrutinize fruits, which is used within a day or two of being picked. They looked closely and picked through raspberries, blackberries and strawberries on a recent weekday and decided what to use in desserts. The less-than-perfect pieces would be puréed or used in sauces.

headless lamb

The meat is brought in daily. Photo by Jesse Pagulayan

Whether an employee is washing lettuce or setting up the bar or making an ice cream crepe with peaches, Sherman said they look for staffers who are “hardworking and reliable with an interest in food and wine.” They also want people who have other passions and interests outside the kitchen, she added.

She said “everyone’s opinion matters” at the restaurant, where they strive to create a collaborative work environment.

One of Waters’ and the restaurant’s greatest accomplishments, Sherman said, has been the connection that developed over the years between farmers and ranchers, and between those who are growing the food and those in the kitchen turning that food into three-course meals.

“All of her passions are about food, but it’s really about connecting people,” she said.

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