Forty years ago Alice Waters opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. Since that time she’s had a huge influence on the American culinary scene – both in the way that food is bought and the way it’s cooked. My friend Mathew, who I was staying with in Vancouver lent me his copy of Alice Waters’ biography and I’ve been dipping in and out of it throughout the trip. Thomas McNamee writes:
“Alice Waters has transformed the way many Americans eat and the way they think about food. Her insistence on the freshest ingredients, used only at the peak of their season, nearly always grown locally and organically, is now a ruling principle in the best American restaurants and for many home cooks. Her conception of a moral community based on good food and goodwill has helped to spawn a new generation of artisans and farmers. Like her, they are committed to the stewardship of the land and waters. They settle for nothing less than the highest quality in what they produce.”
I was especially taken by one story in the book; a group of chefs from across the world had been invited to Le Manoir for a conference, each chef would have to prepare a meal for their fellow delegates and each had brought the best produce from their respective areas. Alice Waters came empty handed, and sought out the best local, seasonal ingredients close to Le Manoir and cooked a very simple dish. It was the standout dish of the conference, and the one that most of the chefs remember.
Today was to be my Alice Waters day. However, things didn’t start out too well. Both Googlemaps and my Sat Nav said that the journey from Fairfield to Berkeley would take 38mins. Forever cautious and calculating there’d be some rush hour traffic I gave myself an hour and a half to do the journey so that I’d have time for coffee at some point too. I was due in Berkeley at 9, my initial arrival time on the Sat Nav was 8:14, at 9:08 I arrived at the final destination directed by the Sat Nav. However, it wasn’t the right place, and through blind luck more than anything I drove three blocks and found Martin Luther King Jr Middle School. Getting a visitor pass and finding a parking space was the next hurdle, so out of breath, late and a little flushed I arrived at the entrance of The Edible Schoolyard.Back in 1995 Alice Waters approached Neil Smith the principle at MLKJrMS (snazzy acronym don’t you think) with the idea of building a garden for the children and the wider community on an empty one acre lot adjacent to the school. At the time the school was failing – truancy was high and they had issues with gang violence. Step by step the garden was built, teachers started bringing students outdoors for their lessons, and the progression of the full garden and kitchen program developed under the supervision of the Chez Panisse Foundation. Today, the site has developed quite a bit, a central pergola called the Ramada forms the main outdoor classroom and students get to work in all aspects of growing – from cultivation, composting, weeding, harvesting, pruning and even basic animal husbandry looking after the chickens. The students take the produce from the garden to the kitchens and produce healthy, fresh foods that they cook and eat. We had a brief tour of the kitchen space, three groups of 8th graders were tucking in to their recently baked apple galettes, it smelt beautiful in there.The main project that the children do before leaving the school is to make ricotta cheese, fresh pesto and tomato sauce, they then grind their own grain to make flour for dough and bake their own handmade pizzas in the wood fired oven in the garden. It’s such a special task that it’s become some kind of right of passage, and students look forward to their final year when they get to make their pizzas.
I know that most of the local schools where I live have a garden, but thanks to the weather, the space here was utilised so much more as a physical classroom. The kitchen element also provided a real understanding to the children about where their food comes from. It’s also an empowering exercise – teachers are able to relax and mix with their students on a different level, students who are often disruptive and unruly in a classroom environment are able to excel in their new surroundings.Lunch was next, and where else but at Chez Panisse. This was a reservation I had managed to make! As it was lunchtime, I was eating in the upstairs cafe, and had expected a relatively relaxed atmosphere. Truth be told I did feel a little conspicuous to begin with, the other clientele were affluent, middle class Americans and I felt like the farmer in their midst. However, once the food arrived on the table, it was a different story. I relaxed, and concentrated on the eating.
I’m a sucker for duck confit, and the first bite I took was incendiary, I kept on shaking my head from side to side (I’m not quite sure why, but it appeared to be my natural reaction of disbelief at how good it was) one of the serving staff took this to be a sign that I was hugely disappointed in the dish. How wrong could he be.
I was hugely impressed by the food there, it was very simple, there was a bias towards parings of simple but delicious vegetables, and I found myself tucking into olives and peppers, two vegetables I often steer clear of. Stuffed and fulfilled I headed out to explore Berkeley – a few doors down from the restaurant the all organic Farmers Market was setting up. Amongst the stalls were some of the producers who supply the restaurant with produce. As I was early everything wasn’t quite up and running but I did get the chance to chat with one of organisers who explained that the local Ecology Centre has run a series of markets in Berkeley since 1987. He also suggested some charcuterie producers in the East Bay Area for me to visit.
The Selby has an incredible set of pictures of both the Edible Schoolyard and the 40th Anniversary celebrations for Chez Panisse, check them out (and his other photos sets for that matter).