Chez Panisse: more than just a restaurant


Employees always hand-pick the best produce to ensure that it is fresh. Photo by Makena Huey

Pastry chefs begin sorting fresh fruit to use in desserts and sauces hours before the restaurant opens.  Photo by Makena Huey

This month marks the 44th anniversary of Chez Panisse. General Manager Jennifer Sherman recently gave a behind-the-scenes tour of the restaurant to the staff of the Teen Observer.

When creating Chez Panisse in 1971, Alice Waters was inspired to have her customers feel as if they were going to a “dinner party” where “generosity and attention to detail” would radiate.

Waters has a strong “passion for food and bringing people together,” Sherman said.

And for almost 44 years, her goal has been to provide people with a “Slow Food” experience, which emphasizes the importance of fresh, organic food as well as bonding with friends and family.

“It’s really important to Alice that when you come in, you have a feeling that everything is made by hand,” she said. This not only includes the food, but also the interior and exterior features of the building that make Chez Panisse so much more than just a restaurant.  “All of her passions are about food, but it’s really about connecting people,” she said.

The restaurant, which serves about 500 people per day, was the first of its kind to have a visible fireplace and an open-floor plan, so diners can see the chefs doing what they love from their tables. This concept is ideal for small, intimate groups of people. Sherman said one table seats 10 but they recommend that no more than eight eat together.

The menu changes daily based on what is fresh and looks best at the markets, and the restaurant maintains a strong relationship with many local farmers to ensure that only the best and most seasonal foods are served. “We go look at the things and decide what’s really best,” Sherman said.

“We would not be who we are without farmers who are beyond organic,” Sherman said. When Waters first opened the restaurant in 1971, a three-course dinner was $6.25 including a bottle of wine. Today, the average price for a four-course meal is $100, not including wine.

Waters decided to take out the wall separating the two areas after a kitchen fire 30 years ago.
Photo by Makena Huey

The staff is a very tight-knit community, which is unique considering there are over 115 employees. Sherman describes the restaurant as a collaborative work environment where “everybody’s opinion matters.” When hiring people, she said she looks for individuals who are hard-working, reliable, interesting, diverse, skilled and most importantly, passionate. This passion for the art of cooking and connecting people is what makes Chez Panisse have such a warm and friendly atmosphere.

vChez Panisse features a Craftsman style exterior, which gives it an inviting feeling, almost as is you are going over to a friend's house for dinner.  Photo by Makena Huey

Chez Panisse features a Craftsman style exterior with reclaimed redwood, which gives it an inviting feeling, almost as is you are going over to a friend’s house for dinner.
Photo by Makena Huey

Not only does this restaurant provide a five star dining experience, but it also features live music several times per year including jazz bands, accordion and piano players, as well as a French group called the Baguette Quartet. Up-and-coming cookbook authors often have their book signings at their cafe, while locals and tourists alike come together to celebrate special occasions.

On Aug. 28, the restaurant will be celebrate its 44th anniversary. There will be live music and delicious food fresh from the farmer’s hands. For more information,  click here.