Chez Panisse, bringing the farm to the table for 44 years and counting

A chef runs the first of ten sheet-cake sized trays of pasta to the kitchen. Photo by Hannah Litt

BERKELEY, Calif. — It is 10 in the morning and while in some parts of town the day is just beginning, the day at Chez Panisse in the “Gourmet Ghetto” here is in full swing. Chefs are unloading whole lambs and pigs off trucks and running them in through the back entrance; others are inside chopping red peppers and sorting fresh blackberries.

Meanwhile, the bartender is washing and organizing wine glasses and the florist is cutting and arranging wildflowers. Dozens of the 115 staffers are also are setting the tables for the day ahead of them: The fixed-price dinner in the dining room, and the lunch and dinner meals in the café. Over the last 44 years, Chez Panisse has got its morning routine down to a science.

The 500 customers a day who dine at the restaurant are meant to experience a restaurant meal that feels like at-home dining. However, in order to make it all happen, General Manager Jennifer Sherman says that the establishment needs all hand on deck to make the “wheels turn.” Employees have a passion for food and wine and are hardworking, Sherman said.

At Chez Panisse, ingredients are brought in fresh each day from farms and ranches. Here, a chef sorts fresh blackberries for use in desserts and sauces. Photo by Hannah Litt

Founder Alice Waters and friends opened the restaurant in 1971. The first four-course meal costed $6.25, including wine. Now, an average meal can cost $100, excluding wine.

When the restaurant first opened, Waters had recently come back from studying abroad in France, where, according to Sherman, she is said to have fallen in love with the daily shopping for ingredients and the long dining experiences.  A student of the French culture, Waters was inspired by French restaurateurs, who made dining at their restaurants feel like a community passionately coming together over food.

Another special aspect about Chez Panisse is its practice of only using ingredients that look the freshest at the market each day. Since freshness is key, there is a new menu daily. Sherman said, “The food is different twice a day, every day.” The restaurant is open Monday through Saturday.

Chez Panisse takes pride in serving dishes that are never frozen, never artificial and always organic. Sherman, who was a chef at Chez Panisse before becoming General Manager, said that they also use only ingredients that are in season.

Thirty years ago, Chez Panisse had a bad kitchen fire, which destroyed the wall between the kitchen and the dining room. Sherman said, “[Alice is] always someone to look at something as an opportunity rather than a hurdle.” She saw the openness from the front of the house to the back of the house as yet another way to make diners feel that they were at a dinner party in someone’s home.