If you come away from Thomas McNamee’s riveting new book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (Penguin Press, $27.95), not sure whether you’ve just read the story of a woman or a restaurant, do not panic. You have read both, the twist being that the two tales are so embraided as to become one. The book makes quite clear that Chez Panisse as we know it would not exist without Waters, and it makes equally clear that Waters as we know her would not exist without the restaurant she helped launch in 1971.
"Helped" helps remind us that Chez Panisse is not and never has been a one-woman show. Waters has long been the restaurant’s public face and spiritual guide, but from the beginning Chez Panisse has been a family affair with a distinctly nomadic flavor. People chefs, servers, investors, bakers, winemakers, managers, others have pitched in as needed, sometimes wandering off for a time, only to wander back, usually to the mutual benefit of both wanderer and restaurant. Yes, Virginia, there are bedouins in Berkeley, and they look out for one another as well as for the worthy institution to whose vitality and fame so many of them have contributed.
McNamee’s factoid that Chez Panisse did not become profitable until it was nearly 30 years old would be more surprising if it were not widely known that the restaurant wasn’t started to make money. Its deepest impulse was and is to reconcile the aesthetic and moral to square the joy of eating with the responsibility we all bear for minding the health of our small blue planet. This is as unradical a proposition today as it was radical 35 years ago. The indifference to money, on the other hand, while hardly remarkable in Berkeley at the end of the 1960s, seems almost otherworldly now, after more than a quarter century of supply-side evangelism and CNBC.
Waters, of course, is also an evangelist, a bringer of good news. She tells us it is possible to eat well in the company of loved ones and to know, at the end of the meal, that the circle of life on earth has been strengthened, not frayed. We might not have eaten that particular meal at Chez Panisse but if we did, lucky us.