Sunday, July 8, 2012

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

Originally Posted on Friday, February 20, 2009

I am currently reading and enjoying a book written by Nassim Taleb titled “The Black Swan - The Impact Of The Highly Improbable”.  It is truly a fascinating book, and I highly suggest everyone reads this fabulous tome.  In this book, Taleb speaks of events which happen all the time that have an enormous impact on the world we live in.  Some of the outcomes of these events are absolutely horrible (i.e. the world trade center 911 attack), and some of them are absolutely wonderful (i.e. the discovery of penicillin).  We really have no way of quantitatively knowing when these “black swans” will emerge.  They just happen, and they happen all the time.  All we can do is hope that when they do emerge, we are prepared for them, and, if not, hope they are one of the good black swans.

Chez Panisse, that wonderful little restaurant in the heart of the “Gourmet Ghetto” in Berkeley, California is one of those wonderful black swans.  No doubt about it.  Nobody could have ever have imagined that this little gem would rise out of its roots as a sort of food lover's co-op Alice Waters started as a young food lover in Berkeley, hoping to feed her friends and family the best food she could get her hands on.  Nobody could have imagined that she would give rise to a trend in cooking which continues on to this very day, and has forever changed the world of cooking, as we know it, for the better.

God Bless You, Alice Waters !  God Bless You and all your granola loving Berkeleyian friends.  You are truly my modern day culinary superhero.

Let me explain, oh dear reader, why I worship what Alice has done so much.  Let me fill you in.

Brace yourself, this is a long story.

We have to begin with my initial foray into the world of professional cuisine.  It all began in the mid 1980’s when I was hired as a busboy at York Steak House, in the Great Lakes Mall in Mentor, Ohio.  I was 17 at the time, and I had been cooking for myself and my family for approximately 10 years.  The fascination with all things gastronomic began at an early age for me, being the child of a Sicilian Mother and Iranian Father, who both came from families who can cook food so delicious you would drool just thinking about supper.  I am not sure how old I was before I realized that bread also came from a store, or that yogurt also came in little cups with fruit concoctions cleverly nestled in the bottom.  Everything was essentially made in house, just like I still do it today.  It was a wonderful way to learn how to appreciate food, and it made me love culinary arts with a passion.

Although I started as a mere busboy at York Steak House, I embraced the duty with fervor.  I remember being told that, as a busboy, always make sure that you are paying attention to the needs of the guests.  If I noticed that a guest had an empty soda glass (or pop glass as we called it in Ohio), I got him a refill.  If I passed by a guest and our eyes met, I asked her if I could get her anything else.  I did this with passion and with a smile, for they were my guests, and they had come to MY establishment to dine on MY food.  It did not matter that I did not prepare it.  I treated them as if they honored me with their presence.

Yet, it was not really about the guest, as much as it was about the food.  I did not care that they were eating sirloin tips that had been ordered at one end of a line and served to them a minute later a the other end of the line, along with a small dish of chocolate pudding topped with canned whipped cream, a Maraschino cherry, and plastic wrap.  It did not matter to me that they were drinking Lite beer from bottles.  What mattered is that they were there to partake of one of the most spiritually fulfilling activities we all partake of on a (hopefully) daily basis.  They had come to pay their respects to food, and food is worthy of our respect, oh indeed it is !

Food is life.  Food begins as life (plants and animals), and we take the life away and we then use the food to nourish ourselves, perpetuating more life.  Ancient religions the world over talk of the sacrificing of animals and the consequential feeding of the masses from their flesh.  Legends have been passed down through the ages which proclaim the beneficial healing and rejuvenating powers of plant life, and these same legends have prevented scores of progeny from untimely deaths through the consumption of toxic substances which took the lives of their ancestors.  Without food, we would have perished long ago.  Without the interaction of mankind with food, our demise would have been just as certain.  It is a powerful force worthy of the utmost respect, and I inherently understood this at a very early age.

This was not the case with so many I worked with at York Steak House.  It is not the case with so many I encounter in some of the less lofty eating establishments we have littered our world with.  Some view the production and serving of food, and the management of the shrines in which the food is meant to be revered in, as nothing more than a paycheck.  My dear reader, the reverential treatment of the life giving sustenance is no less appropriate in a fast food chain than it is in the finest 5-Star dining establishment.  The food in the local greasy spoon is no less life sustaining than the food in your mother’s kitchen.  I shudder at the way some places treat this most noble of gifts, and I weep inside every time I see such sacrilege.  I was not at York Steak House because I was a busboy.  Being a busboy was only my vocation.  My PURPOSE was to create the environment which would lead to the nutritionally spiritual enlightenment one receives from food, and the management saw that in me, and they quickly promoted me to the coveted position of “Broiler Chef”, the most revered position of all.

I cooked my heart out on that broiler line.  I was making something that someone else was going to eat, and I knew that was no small matter.  I went home each evening smelling of fryer grease, beef fat, and sweat, and went back every day I was scheduled for more of the same.  It was heaven to me, and it terrified my parents.

I went on to become a line chef at a local supper club (Nate’s), where I learned how to cook food like they showed on those fancy cooking shows.  Back then there was no Food Network with 24 hour a day, 7 day a week cooking. had to FIND a cooking show on TV back then.  You would occasionally see Julia Child slurring her speech as she sauteed slices of milk fed veal with mushrooms and wine.  You could sometimes see Graham Kerr slurring his speech as he proclaimed the virtues of slowly cooked scrambled eggs.  There was a lot of alcoholism among celebrity chefs back then, but also a lot of great cooking, and I wanted more...much more.

I made it through the summer after my senior year in High School sautéing shrimp scampi for clubgoers at the supper club, and learning how to make Hollandaise sauce without curdling the eggs.  I laugh now thinking about how difficult it was to learn this tricky sauce, because I now make it as effortlessly as some people open a can of soup.  Patience and passion paid off.

I was going to attend College at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in the fall.  My parents made sure that my aspirations of culinary greatness did not interfere with their plans to see me become a medical doctor.  My father, as it turns out, had a doctor fetish.  It was beyond weird.  He literally knew more doctors than most medical professionals do, and he was an engineer.  From the earliest age I can recall, he made sure to let me know that I was going to be a doctor.  I realized, in my adulthood, that this was because it was his ticket into the inner sanctum of doctors.  You could get into the “VIP Lounge” by either being a doctor, or having offspring who were doctors.  Except for his incessant hypochondria I really had no understanding about why he was so fascinated by those who wore the Caduceus Symbol. Suffice it to say, his mind was made up.  His eldest son was going to become a doctor.

I really had no problem with this.  I liked fixing things.  I liked taking care of people.  I heard doctors made lots of money, and that certainly sat well with me at the time.  I embraced my new digs at Case, and looked forward to years of long, hard studying as I aspired to become a brain surgeon, or neurosurgeon, or whatever else could bring in the big bucks.  I was going to be rich and make my family proud.

Yeeeeah...not so much.

You see, dear reader, my college campus happened to have a fine dining establishment right in the middle of campus, about 500 feet from my dorm.  The restaurant was known as “That Place On Bellflower”, which was located on Bellflower Road (hence the quirky name), and I passed by it every day on my way to classes, and I savored the aroma of shallots, mushrooms, herbs, and whatever else was on the menu that day as I pictured myself among the staff, cooking for the cheerful masses.  It was a well loved culinary shrine at the time, spoken of in the most prestigious local culinary publications.  It was a “mecca” of Haute Cuisine fused with the newly popular surge in California Cuisine, brought to the world by none other than the originator of California Cuisine herself - Alice Louise Waters.

I was on a work-study program at the time. I got to clean lots of glassware for a lab located within the very fine medical school at Case.  The lab itself was quite fascinating, as they were cloning ducks at the time, if I recall correctly.

“Mmmmm...ducks”  I thought, as I washed and autoclaved Pyrex beakers, flasks, and pipettes for what seemed like an eternity, picturing a crispy roast duck skin glazed with a delicate fruity sauce.  It was Hell, but it paid me enough money to prevent me from begging my parents for cash.

Then came the bad news one day, as I walked in to collect a batch of slimy glassware.  I was told that I had earned the maximum amount of money I could earn and still qualify for my grants.  I was jobless and penniless, and the weekend was only 5 days away.  I had to act fast, because there was no way I was going to go home and beg for money.  As I walked home from my former place of employment, I caught yet another scent emanating from our local 4 star eating establishment (yes, I mean “That Place on Bellflower” or “That Place” as the employees called it), and decided to walk in and ask for a job application.  What did I have to lose ?

As it turned out, one of the prep cooks had recently dear friend Alex.  In fact, I remembered him telling me he had quit his job there.  The position had not yet been filled, and my brief experience at the supper club was enough to land me a job as a prep cook.  I was elated beyond belief.  I was going to earn money while cooking AND eating great food.  Oh the joy !

It was a wild ride from the very beginning.  I was playing with the big boys (and girls) now.  I thought that my experience in the supper club back in Mentor was the big leagues, but THIS was light years ahead of that.  I was surrounded by people who spoke several different languages, gay waiters, artists, entertainers, you name it.  Hey, I know it is no big deal to many of you, but I was an 18 year old kid just out of High School and living in “The City”.  I was NOT used to this at all, and I was absolutely fascinated by the entire experience.  Most fascinating of all, however, was the menu.  It was, in a word, eclectic.

I have cooked menu menus in my years as a chef, but I remember none more vividly as the first menu I was exposed to at “That Place”.  I will never forget seeing dishes like “Smoked Trout and Cold Pasta with Fresh Greens in a Mustard Vinaigrette”, and “Chilled Whole Artichoke with Black Currant and Grapeseed Oil” ,  and “Sauteed Buffalo Mozzarella with Fresh Herb Salad”, which was finished with a mysterious black liquid they called Balsamic Vinegar.  Sure, you may chuckle at these dishes today, as they are commonplace fare in many establishments you may frequent (or have frequented), but in 1984, IN OHIO this food was WAY ahead of its time.  It was like landing on an alien planet, with delicious food served by strange creatures with lisps, out of place piercings, and multi-colored hair.  I had graduated to another level of Heaven, and I did not want to leave.

I had a voracious appetite for learning, and the executive chef, Bernard, who had recently been chosen as the PM Magazine Chef (a local favorite TV show), was happy to share all he knew, and boy did he know a lot !  I was assigned mundane and messy tasks like cleaning pounds of monkfish, or shucking oysters, or making gallons of salad dressings.  If I got my job done quickly, Bernard would take me aside and show me how to make a walnut torte with coffee buttercream frosting, or a dacquoise with whipped cream and tart Michigan cherries, or raspberry sorbet, or whatever else he was inspired to create.  Soon he started letting me come up with ideas of my own, and he helped me bring them to fruition.  He was one great chef...yes he was.  I loved good old “Barney” as we affectionately called him.

One evening, as I was enjoying a nice glass of Haute Medoc with Barney, at the end of a particularly long service, he handed me a book and told me to read it.  “What is it, a cookbook ?” I inquired.

“Not exactly” he replied. “More like an inspirational guide for great chefs”.  The book was “Chez Panisse Cooking”, by Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli.

“Strange title for a book”, I thought.  “Sounds Chinese”.

I took it home and read it from cover to cover in one evening.  I awoke the next morning and knew I was destined to break my father’s heart.  I had to understand cooking like Alice understood it before I could consider moving on to something else.

Alice is the reason American Cuisine and American Chefs are now revered here and throughout the entire world of cooking.  Before Alice began her quest to find the essence of what made California Cuisine the crown jewel of American Cookery for decades to come, American cooking was little more than a reflection of the melting pot America had risen from.  Traditional California Cuisine was little more than the traditional foods prepared by Mexican farm workers, Chinese laborers, and rugged cowboys who had shlepped their way West in search of their fortunes in lodes of gold.  Mind you, it was, and still is tasty AND popular.  Who doesn’t enjoy a tortilla topped with beans and grilled meats infused with cumin and chile, with a sprinkling of cheese ?  I smile as I walk down the street of San Francisco and peer in at the restaurants in Chinatown, watching serious looking Asian men and women tossing vegetables and meats in large woks sizzling over hot flames, as I drink in all the wonderfully hypnotic aromas of this most ancient of cuisines.  I still enjoy a fat, juicy burger accompanied by a side of fries and a thick chocolate malt, born of the obsession early California had (and STILL has) with burger joints.  It is all quite delicious, and NONE of it is a reflection of what California is about.  You could take any of those establishments and drop them anywhere you like, and it would not make one iota of difference at all.  This all changed when Alice entered the building.

Alice ventured to France in the 1960’s and fell in love with the French passion for food.  Inspired by a meal she enjoyed in Brittany, she decided to bring it all home to Berkeley.  Here is a quote attributed to Alice:

I've remembered this dinner a thousand times,” she says. “The chef, a woman, announced the menu: cured ham and melon, trout with almonds, and raspberry tart. The trout had just come from the stream and the raspberries from the garden. It was this immediacy that made those dishes so special.

Alice was not studying to be a chef, but the seductiveness of the fresh local ingredients and simple yet delicious cooking techniques sucked her in like a jet engine sucks in migrating birds, and she was forever changed by the experience.  I KNOW how she felt quite well...indeed I do.  When she returned home to Berkeley she set out to show everyone the way cooking should be.  She gathered together her team of food loving friends and set out to show the world what California Cuisine was truly meant to be.  Gathering the freshest and finest local ingredients, creating menus based on what the FOOD told her to create.  Alice was not the first person in California to cook this way, but she was the first person that burned with the passion to the extent that she could not be stopped, much like a nuclear chain reaction.  Her vision and undeniable dedication to the gifts of the Earth fueled a growth in the food industry like no other before it, and perhaps since.  SHE was the one who made organic farming the pinnacle of food production it is today, by supporting those dedicated to the art.  SHE was the one who gave dishes their pedigree, such as “Frog Hollow Farms Peach Tart” and “Brentwood Corn Chowder” (I am paraphrasing a bit here).  Before that, food descriptions on menus generally consisted of names attributed to people or dining establishments (i.e. “Veal Oscar” or “Waldorf Salad”), and did not attribute anything to the place the FOOD itself came from.  It simply honored the shrine and preparer, and not the soul itself.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse were indeed the Black Swan of the culinary world that changed all we know and love about food today.  She inspired MILLIONS of Americans to look at their local food in a completely different way, and gave rise to American Cuisine as a tremendous force to be reckoned with throughout the entire world.  She, quite literally, changed the entire course of American Cooking from the tiny little restaurant on Shattuck Street in Berkeley, and the industry is STILL building on the same exact method she (and those she influenced) introduced.

For me to simply write a review of a meal at Chez Panisse would not come close to doing it justice.  It is like writing a review of a Roman Cathedral, or the Uffizi art museum in Florence, Italy.  What could you say in a review that would even come close to explaining the significance of such institutions ?

Alice Waters is still with us today, as of this posting, and spends most of her time as more of an ambassador to the world of cuisine than as a chef.  She has done more than enough to influence so many in the world of cooking, and she can now sit back and ponder her magnificent achievements.  The world of food is a much better place because of the love she brought to it.

Is it any wonder I gush about her ?

Enjoy in good health !

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