Chez Panisse: Front runner of slow-food movement

Sweet red, orange, and yellow peppers, picked fresh only a few days before. They sit in the kitchen, ready to be used in a meal.

Fresh bell peppers sit near the pizza oven
in the cafe upstairs. Photo by Jessi Carman

BERKELEY, Calif. — In 1971, after a trip to France, Alice Waters was enamored with the taste of good food, shopped for each day and prepared with what looked best at the market. She and a group of friends started a restaurant here not far from the University of California’s campus.

In 2015, as the owner of Chez Panisse, she and her restaurant remain the standard-bearers for eating local food in season.

The old house turned comfortable dinner destination is open six days a week nearly every week of the year, and follows a unique menu— one that changes daily in both the cafe and the dining room. 

Hilde Coucke was visiting the restaurant from Belgium as a member of Slow Food International to see for herself the restaurant that has moved many to embrace and aim for connecting over food, supporting small farms and eating with their health in mind.

Coucke is a manager of an organic farm, “but farmers don’t make a good living,” she says. She said Europe has a better relationship with food than the United States, but that slow food is still a necessary organization, as Europe is at a crossroads in which fast foods and slow foods are battling for dominance. Chez Panisse, like many European restaurants, buys vegetables, fruits and meats from local organic farmers, only purchasing what’s ripe and never freezing or preserving out-of-season foods to use as a constant staple of the menu.

From this healthy relationship with nature, the restaurant has developed a great appreciation for agriculture. General Manager Jennifer Sherman said, “We would absolutely not be who and where we are with out the farmers.” She added that the restaurant’s biggest achievements are supporting small farms and bringing people together. “All of her passions are about food, but it’s really about connecting people,” Sherman said.

Slow Food International, started in 1986 in Italy by Carlo Petrini after a campaign against the opening of a new McDonald’s. Alice Waters is its vice president. The organization now has an American chapter known as Slow Food USA, founded by Richard McCarthy in 2000, and a youth outreach program that teaches young people about the slow food message.

The Slow Food movement is a revolution which aims to support farming and agriculture and provide clean eating to people everywhere. It reminds the public that traditionally meals were meant as a time to come around the table to talk, joke and be with one another. Enriching food culture is a mission that is often combated by traditional fast food and the growing sentiment that food is merely to be eaten, not always enjoyed and truly tasted.

In the United States following the slow food philosophy is not only difficult, but expensive.  In 1971 the cost of a three- course meal, including a carafe of wine, was $6.25 at Chez Panisse. Today the number is upward of $100 per person for a four-course meal – excluding wine. “It’s just very expensive,” says Sherman.

Chez Panisse does its best to provide employees with livable pay, despite the high cost of operation and the high cost of living in Northern California. Sherman said the restaurant set an internal minimum wage of $15, higher than the national average of $7.75. Even then, it’s still difficult to support employees, and the restaurant essentially runs as a nonprofit, she said.  They also offer health benefits, paid vacation leave and sick days.

Numerous alumni have left and started restaurants of their own that follow the same ethical and moral principles—supporting slow food, farmers and employees. Coucke described an ideal of good eating that permeates European culture and continues to spread worldwide.