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November 17, 2016

WHY ALICE WATERS’ CHEZ PANISSE IS STILL THE LEADER IN SLOW FOOD

It must have been a little over 20 years ago when I first had dinner at this famous place in Berkeley called Chez Panisse. At the time I had no idea about “farm to table” or Slow Food. I simply agreed to try out a new restaurant that my brother-in-law read about in the San Francisco reviews. There were no clear memories of what I ate or drank, just that it felt and tasted good.

Then I met and heard the lady behind this restaurant. She spoke at a jam-packed hall in Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre in Turin, Italy last October 2014. Together with Jamie Oliver and Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, I remember her weak voice say so much and strongly about what she has been doing to advocate for good, clean, and fair food. Chez Panisse is a restaurant she opened in 1980 in Berkeley, California.

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So I finally found time to sit down and make an online reservation 10 days before my return to the San Francisco area. And there we were, my family and I walking over to the upstairs café for a nice Tuesday lunch. The downstairs area is just for dinner and it is booked all of November. I chose to book for lunch and it was good because one can choose ala carte at lunch. Dinner, which starts at $75 per cover, is Prix Fixe. Some days it is $100, some $125, depending on the main courses I guess. There are two seatings for dinner, while at lunch, it is a free flow from 11:30 am to 3:30 pm.

Our host, Mark, seated us at a nice corner overlooking the trees of red and orange set amid an overcast autumn California sky. It is fall already after all.

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Our waitress, Coleen, suggested three different ala carte dishes from a menu that changes daily, depending on availability of ingredients largely due to seasonality and the farmers’ produce from the California area. She suggested her favorite Pizza topped with Arugula, Parma Ham and thin slices of Pecorino. 

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The Rockfish with celery root puree and broccoli ciccio and Lamb slices with Polenta cakes and assorted rainbow carrots. I had a glass of Graves Sauvignon Blanc 2012 to complement the Rockfish but which also went well with bites of the lamb and the pizza.

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Every so often Coleen would check if everything was alright (what we call a “checkback” in Food service lingo). The flavors are natural and needed nothing more, not even a dash of salt or pepper. Everything tasted fresh and only lightly pan-fried (as in the polenta cakes) if ever.

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After the sumptuous meal Colleen asked me to check out the desserts. Today’s selection featured: Meyer Lemon Tarts, Pave of Chocolate and a side of ice cream, and an Apple Galette with a scoop of Sauterne Ice Cream (How ingenious! Instead of sipping Sauterne after dinner, this came with dessert already).

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“Let’s have one of each, “I said. We were three diners anyway. And the featured Sightglass coffee from a French press went well with all three desserts.

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Since I became a Slow Food advocate, I knew my second visit to Chez Panisse would be different. I felt Alice Waters’ influence on the menu and on her staff. Coleen asked me to write a note to Alice (who was traveling at the time) and I obliged so I could also send a note of congratulations along with my Slow Food-inscripted business card.

The mood is light. The food is heavenly. This is what good, clean, and fair food tastes like. Everyone who comes expects only the best of the season and is fine with having a different dinner or lunch choice each day. Each menu is dated and is changed on a daily basis, as promised. I cannot even remember what I ate 20 years ago!

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But, it’s the feeling that doesn’t change—the feeling of connecting to the very producer of what we eat and the feeling that we were fed well because someone labored with love in the fields and in the sea. That’s the real feel of “Farm to Table” and I surely felt that way at Chez Panisse.

By the way, Chez Panisse is serious about real food. Don’t even try to ask for a diet soda.

 

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