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The Great Alice Waters
March 21, 2004 6:32 PM   Subscribe

Go Ask Alice When She's Ten Feet Tall: Alice Waters's extraordinary influence on the way we shop, cook and eat makes her one of the great American heroes (and European too, check out the Larousse Gastronomique), mostly to those of us who have never been (and will never be) lucky enought to eat at Chez Panisse. [More inside.]
posted by MiguelCardoso (25 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
Her uncompromising devotion to what's local, organic, fresh and seasonal, simply cooked in order to lovingly respect the ingredients, is almost dogma today (thank God) but there's still a long way to go.

Now that Spring is here, checking Chez Panisse's weekly menu is just about the best way of finding out all the exciting new vegetables, fruits and treats now coming into season.

Ah, Spring....!

(She no longer cooks there, of course - she's too busy trying to overhaul the quality of the food served to schoolchildren in America: a mammoth job if ever there was one, I'd imagine.)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:33 PM on March 21, 2004


What's wrong with tater-tots?
posted by Stynxno at 6:43 PM on March 21, 2004


That would be shop, cook and eat I imagine. Preview is your friend.
posted by fvw at 7:30 PM on March 21, 2004


She just won a James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award a few days ago, too.

I thought the New York Times article about her school menu crusade made her seem like a bit of a crackpot, though.
posted by bcwinters at 7:32 PM on March 21, 2004


I ate there last month, not so great, La Folie on the other hand mmmmmm mmmm mmmmmmm.
posted by zeoslap at 7:38 PM on March 21, 2004


If you are in Berkeley, the café upstairs is accessible and good - excellent calzone, a very pretty space, just put your name on the list and wander over to Black Oak.
posted by luriete at 7:44 PM on March 21, 2004


I love the cafe upstairs, I've eaten there a bunch of times and it was one of the first "nice" places I ever ate out of college. It opened up a whole world of food to me.
posted by mathowie at 8:06 PM on March 21, 2004


Chez Panisse is still wonderful -- I ate there last month.

"Cuisine is when things taste like themselves." -- Curnonsky
posted by digaman at 8:07 PM on March 21, 2004


I'll have to remember her "I refuse to operate in a paradigm of scarcity" next time I'm over budget.
posted by MegoSteve at 8:12 PM on March 21, 2004


Thanks, fvw - how kind of you to correct my link to the Ruth Reichl program and how sporting of you to use the same text. I owe you! :)

I had no idea there were MeFi members who'd actually been there for lunch or dinner. Any chance of a fuller description of what was eaten and the impression it made? If it's too much work, I'll understand. Well, I'll try to.

digaman - Ah, Curnosky. You can keep your Brillat-Savarin, your Escoffier, your Dumas, your everyone. That guy did know about food! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:41 PM on March 21, 2004


I have a story that illustrates the essence of Alice's sensibility, and yet isn't about her [smile].

One of Alice's role models was the great British food writer Elizabeth David, author of An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Summer Cooking, and other books that are a breath of fresh air and uncommon sense in the fad and folly-ridden food-lit field. For a long time, I waited tables at a San Francisco restaurant called the Hayes Street Grill. One day, we heard that the wine writer Gerald Asher was going to bring Mrs. David in for lunch.

The chef, Anne Powning, was understandably beside herself planning dishes for Mrs. David's lunch. For days beforehand, she was anxious about what Mrs. David would order, trying to make sure that every dish on the menu would be both worthy and something reflecting Mrs. David's simple and yet refined taste. I came in on my day off for the privilege of waiting on her.

Asher and Mrs. David ordered petrale sole, a local specialty. Several extra appetizers and side dishes were also sent out. Anne was biting her fingernails by the stove as they ate. Finally, Asher waved me over to the table, indicating that Mrs. David had a question. I then relayed Mrs. David's query back to Anne.

When I walked in the kitchen, Anne blurted out, "What did she say?!"

"'This butter is marvelous. Where do you get it?'"
posted by digaman at 9:31 PM on March 21, 2004


I've eaten there a couple times. I would say she can consider it "mission accomplished" that the food is no longer all that different that what you could get at hundreds of other California restaurants.
posted by y6y6y6 at 10:23 PM on March 21, 2004


I can't believe I hadn't heard of Curnosky before this thread. Now for another book to track down...

But I really like M.F.K. Fisher, too...
posted by Vidiot at 10:45 PM on March 21, 2004


Her uncompromising devotion to what's local, organic, fresh and seasonal, simply cooked in order to lovingly respect the ingredients

Maiale al finocchio: spit-roasted Laughing Stock Farm pork loin and belly, rolled with wild fennel and garlic; with cannellini beans and broccoli rabe

Funny way to respect a pig :)
posted by ed\26h at 1:30 AM on March 22, 2004


Alice was profiled on public broadcasting's American Masters series here in the States. It appears to be from an older series, but I saw a replay of it yesterday, so USAians might still be able to find it. The PBS web site has additional material.

Up on the midcoast here in Maine we have a bright young chef named Tom Gutow. Tom and his wife host what they call producer's dinners at their inn in Castine once a year. He invites the producers (farmers, fishermen, etc.) and guests to dine together for this event. The menu contains all locally produced food. We've been to four of these over the years and it's great fun (and great food). In addition, he does a great job of promoting local food source throughout the year.
posted by SteveInMaine at 3:22 AM on March 22, 2004


I've heard good things about the Point Reyes joint Manka's. Does anyone have a first-hand report?
posted by liam at 7:04 AM on March 22, 2004


no longer all that different that what you could get at hundreds of other California restaurants


If you mean the way the food is described on the menu, I'd agree. If you mean the food on your plate, no.

Certainly Chez Panisse is the most globally influential restaurant in the last 20 years -- but the imitators rarely rise to the same level of quality, subtlety, and radical simplicity.
posted by digaman at 8:20 AM on March 22, 2004


I can't believe I hadn't heard of Curnosky before this thread.

And you won't hear of him after this thread either, because his (assumed) name was Curnonsky. Quite a character:
In l927 a public referendum crowned Curnonsky Prince of Gastronomes and from then his name became a household word throughout France. Fifty culinary academies and clubs vied for his presidency and solicited his presence at their feasts. All of which was fine with Cur, as he was known to his intimates, for this was a man who loved public attention nearly as much as he adored his food.

Gertrude Stein wrote that Curnonsky resembled nothing more than a "physically amorphous creature, not dissimilar to an unfinished tub of butter." With his huge white napkin knotted bib-like around his huge chins, he became a familiar figure in every kitchen and restaurant of Paris.

In addition to being a gourmet of impeccable taste, Curnonsky may also have been one of the world's most delightfully pompous inhabitants. He enjoyed issuing forth such proclamations as: "Never eat the left leg of a partridge, for that is the leg it sits on, which makes the circulation sluggish." Although such pomposity leads to a chuckle, one must respect honor, and Curnonsky's honor was beyond reproach. Once, upon being offered an enormous lifetime income simply for stating that margarine was the equal of butter, he refused indignantly. "Nothing," he said, "can ever replace butter."
posted by languagehat at 8:49 AM on March 22, 2004


I've had the pleasure of eating at the café twice. The first time I went, I started with a plate of baby squid baked in a wood oven with hot pepper sauce and rosemary. For the entree, I ordered the duck leg with pork crépinette and fava bean toast, an excellent combination; the earthiness of the fava beans was a perfect counterpart for the duck. My dessert was three tiny scoops of an utterly revelatory Meyer lemon sherbet. The second meal was also quite good but less memorable, so I'll skip the description of that one.

As with all great restaurants, it's not just the food that makes Chez Panisse so special. You feel welcome from the moment you enter, and the wait staff are friendly and gracious without being intrusive. The restaurant's furnishings and decor are perfectly in keeping with the food—understated and beautifully made. But the key to it all is Waters' philosophy of cooking, and I counted myself among her acolytes by the end of the meal.

Anything else you wanted to know, Miguel?
posted by Hegemonic at 10:08 AM on March 22, 2004


languagehat: I did, you know, spell it right. But the spelling drifted.

I still remember the dusky, perfumy, creamy, sublime taste of a prune and Armagnac sorbet I ate at Chez Panisse cafe 20 years ago.
posted by digaman at 10:14 AM on March 22, 2004


Whether your smug, scrawny neck, Hegemonic, will be available soon so I can throttle it with my bare hands, such is the envy? :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 10:16 AM on March 22, 2004


Heh. Fair enough. The Bay Area is an easy place to get smug about food, that's for sure.
posted by Hegemonic at 11:50 AM on March 22, 2004


You feel welcome from the moment you enter, and the wait staff are friendly and gracious without being intrusive. The restaurant's furnishings and decor are perfectly in keeping with the food—understated and beautifully made. But the key to it all is Waters' philosophy of cooking, and I counted myself among her acolytes by the end of the meal. -- Exactly!

We went there last year for my wife's birthday. It was the best place I've eaten in the Bay Area, to be sure. They're very nice as well, and took us on a kitchen tour.

FWIW: Although I've never eaten at the French Laundry, we've had two different couples tell us they prefer the food & atmosphere at CP, even if the "experience" at the laundry is more overwhelming.
posted by emptyage at 12:06 PM on March 22, 2004


I ate at the café four years ago, and remember it as a wonderful experience. I only wish I could remember what I ate! I suppose there's a analogue gastronomique to the photographic memory?
posted by Songdog at 12:19 PM on March 22, 2004


That's why I take notes at a good place, Songdog...I've been told that I could keep the menu at some places, as well. (And it sometimes makes the managers wonder if you're some sort of critic.)
posted by Vidiot at 10:08 PM on March 22, 2004


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