How much can one little restaurant matter? If the restaurant in question is the fabled Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., the answer is “quite a lot.” Founded by then-27-year-old Alice Waters in 1971, Chez Panisse changed the way Americans eat. Along with the growth of farmers markets and the influence of food personalities such as James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, and Julia Child, the example of Chez Panisse and its seminal cookbook helped to transform American gastronomy, shifting the search for flavor from the provinces of France to the farms of the United States.
For anyone curious about the roots of Chez Panisse, Waters’s memoir, Coming to My Senses, is a useful and often entertaining source of insight. But although the book examines many of the green shoots that grew into the garden of Chez Panisse (and all that follows), “Coming to My Senses” should come with a warning label: This volume will bring a reader up to the founding of the restaurant and no further, with only fleeting glimpses into the restaurant’s history. It’s possible that a future Waters memoir will cover the years when Chez Panisse was fully established, flourished, and changed the American dining scene – and that is perhaps the memoir most readers would prefer to read.
As it is, “Coming to My Senses” is a mixed salad. But if some of its elements are less appealing, others are very tasty. The insight Waters offers into her New Jersey upbringing seeds the story admirably and engagingly. And while recounting her own childhood and travels, Waters plants many seeds for what is to come – here, a great-aunt who helped inspire the candle-lit shabby chic style that would in part define Chez Panisse, there an encounter in Nice, France, with the mesclun salad mix that would help define the menu.
The book also provides many revealing glimpses into the way Waters met, cultivated, and formed lasting alliances with the farmers and other artisanal food producers who provided the restaurant’s sense of identity.
But there are also pages – and pages and pages – recounting the author’s innumerable affairs and infatuations, and physical descriptions of various Chez Panisse servers that are intended as flattering but land awkwardly at best. From a political history perspective, there’s a mostly-from-the-sidelines recapping of the Berkeley free speech movement seen through rose-colored glasses. Disappointingly, it lacks any linkage to anything contemporary that would add vitality and edge.
Like any good memoir, “Coming to My Senses” is more than the telling of a life story – it’s an argument. However, much of that argument seems to be the following: Waters was really rebellious, wild, and countercultural. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of celebrating the raucous roots of someone who, at this point in her career, is practically embalmed in accolades. Flitting back to more carefree days is an understandable impulse, but one that a rigorous editor should have tempered.
For those interested in the behind-the-scenes drama of Chez Panisse – for example, the legendary alliance-turned-blood feud between Waters and the mercurial, brilliant chef Jeremiah Tower – prepare to be disappointed. Tower merits a single mention. He’s depicted bungling a salt cod dish, leaving the front of the house to brazen it out by telling guests to drink more wine. (Those interested in Tower’s side of the Chez Panisse story have the newly released and engaging documentary “The Last Magnificent,” and while it gives Tower’s perspective, it doesn’t sell Waters short as the vital force that established and launched the Chez Panisse empire.)
All that said, hearing about Waters’s childhood and formative food experiences in France does help a reader understand the continuing appeal of Chez Panisse, with its signature mix of the simple and the sublime, informed first and foremost by connections to farmers and their land. If I seem frustrated by the relative lack of restaurant anecdotes as compared to love affairs, that’s in part because I once ate at Chez Panisse. I went ready to be disappointed by a wildly hyped legend but left completely charmed.
The years have eroded the details of that meal, but what remain are the impressions: a lack of pretense, warm service, excellent food that was well edited and straightforward, plus a check far smaller than we’d feared. Dessert was a local nectarine and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and the flavors were so pure and perfect that they remain with me to this day. Being able to read in “Coming to My Senses” about the so-simple-it’s-brilliant pairing of fresh fruit and house-made ice cream was a treat. It’s the back story for a taste that has lingered on my palate for a decade.
James Norton regularly reviews books for The Christian Science Monitor and edits ‘The Heavy Table,’ a daily journal of food and drink in the Upper Midwest.