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Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas…

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

by Thomas McNamee

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Showing 1-5 of 10 (next | show all)
Okay, I admit I sped read through the last chapters, because after a while the saga of Chez Panisse and Alice Waters becomes the same story over and over again: Great Idea! Passion! Disaster! Revival! New People Just in Time! and so on.

But for a while it was fascinating at many levels: gossip, the sheer bravado of opening a restaurant with extraordinary (and often strange) concepts, the details of people coming and going and menus and recipes (recipes given in a prose recording of "well, then you take the butter, not too much, mind, and you go and get some of those radishes that we planted last week, the baby ones, wash off the grit, and then go grab the baby lamb and the knife..." sort of way). And the business details-- well, there aren't many in true business sense, but it is a tale of not being stopped by silly things like limited cash. Or fire.

Baby lamb brings up one of my problems with many a culinary book, which is that as a vegetarian I do start to shudder at the detailed pages on things like blue trout and baby lambkins. But that's just my problem.

Alice has been majorly influential, at least here on the left coast. Fun to read. ( )
  jarvenpa | Mar 31, 2013 |
Really this is a biography of two things: the woman and the restaurant. This book does an excellent job of describing how the two have influenced each other. It also wonderfully portrays their shared aesthetic, a sense of taste that is not just in the food, but in everything. ( )
  flemmily | Nov 22, 2011 |
A bio of both the famous restaurant in Berkeley and it's founder, sometime chef and public face of Waters.

It begins with Waters' childhood and I really thought that there was no need to go back quite that far, but as you go through her college years and the beginnings of her interest in food, and the fact that her father figures into the later success of the restaurant, it makes sense to have the background.

Chez Panisse has repeatedly been voted the best restaurant in America, but its rise happened slowly and in a way that probably wouldn't happen these days. Who could get away with being backed by drug dealers? And the success happened despite Waters' utter lack of business skills, and her confusing desire to attend the Sorbonne, to cook for her friends, to open a restaurant, but not to be the chef. I found it really strange that she built her life around food and held the title of chef while avoiding the actual cooking most of the time. Which brings up another thing about the book; I thought it would be a kind portrait of Waters and for the most part it is. But about halfway through McNamee begins showing cracks in the Panisse family and it gives a more realistic view of what it's like to have had such a group effort that benefits one person more than the others. ( )
  mstrust | Jun 19, 2011 |
This well-put-together book follows a petite child of the 60s - present at the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley - to her current status as the epitome of California - no, American - cuisine. Everyone who is at all interested in food knows Alice Waters, and this is her story. It is also the story of her restaurant, Chez Panisse. But it turns out that the restaurant is but a launching pad for Alice's global movement of cultivating and consuming fresh, local and mostly organic food.

Yes, a lot of time is spent on menus and preparation of the food at Chez Panisse, but it was just this careful, innovative and obsessive work that brought attention to Alice. Using that attention, she seeks, near the end of the book (taking her to age 62), to change the way the world eats.

The business of restaurants (not Alice's strong point) is examined, and the pivoting of Chez Panisse around its varied chefs over 35 years (Alice was rarely one) is well descirbed. Photographs of all the important folks in the story, and sidebars of recipes and cooking techniques, make the book a very attractive one, as does its Calfornia Craftsman style design.
  bbrad | Feb 25, 2010 |
I've got to hand it to McNamee: Not only did he make a lovely sense out of the lovely disorder going on at Chez Panisse, he carefully crafts the depiction of Alice Waters, so as to capture all facets of this prism personality. In the late 1960's, Waters, an admitted Francophile and dreamer, opens up the Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where she could serve the kind of food that she ate while in France, the idea of food that she had been chasing ever since returning to the U.S.

The early history on Waters is brief, and very fittingly so, because this is not a woman whose childhood seems like an improbable notion. Even into her old age, Waters bears a whimsical presence on the restaurant she founded, on her family, friends, colleagues, students, and business partners, on her fans and devoted followers, and this whimsy is fueled by a residing childlike notion of purity, cleanness, simplicity.

It's also fitting, then, that the bulk of the background behaviors at Chez Panisse could be described in opposing terms. In lesser work, the personalities and presences of so many people coming and going would read as an impassable blur, a messy, ill-defined group of misfits, romantics, artists, cooks, outlaws, etc. But McNamee's patience is well utilized. He handles each kitchen personality with careful character crafting, following their story to the very end of their time at the restaurant, and many of them long after. He sketches such clear pictures of the supporting players, that they stick with you throughout the entire history, much like their actual presence in Alice Waters's life.

The ultimate achievement of this book is that it accessibly relates the story of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse without sacrificing the spirit of mercurial disarray and sentimental disaster. The reader can understand how botched the accounts were for 30 years, how close the restaurant came to financial ruin (the many, many times), and yet, nothing dampers the sentimental glow of the dining room, the idea of fresh, simple foods served lovingly, the endless search for better, finer, fresher, local ingredients. The perfect radish, the perfect lemon, the perfect bunch of herbs, the perfect lamb. To track down the freshest ingredients, as told from the perspective of even the most freelance of scavengers for the restaurant, is a devotional task to a higher calling of a glorious slow food revolution.

To sink your teeth into something ripe from the vine, or to liven a dish with herbs freshly sprung from pots in the window. Wild vegetables and fruits. In a way, McNamee makes sense of Waters and Chez Panisse the same way they make sense of their work: In his mission to provide the best history of the woman and her groundbreaking restaurant, the author keeps it simple, fresh, and goes straight to the source for the perfect information. It's slow, tedious work, but at the end you have a literary meal hearty, delicious, and soul-satisfying. ( )
  efear | Nov 23, 2008 |
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Late-summer sun streamed into the dining room, turning every westward surface gold.....
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0143113089, Paperback)

You can't tell the story of Chez Panisse, Berkeley's famed restaurant, without relating that of its diminutive founder, proprietor, and sometime chef, Alice Waters. This is what Thomas McNamee does most handily in his Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, a chronicle that begins with the seat-of-the-pants opening night of the "counterculture" venture in 1971, and ends 35 years later with Waters's restaurant an American institution--one credited with birthing California Cuisine, a style devoted to simplicity, freshness and seasonality. The book also limns, with tasty gossip, the ever-evolving Chez Panisse family, including the cook-artisans uniquely responsible for dish creation; follows the attempts, mostly failed, to put the restaurant on sound financial footing; shows how dishes and menus get made; and of course pursues Waters as she broadens her commitment to "virtuous agriculture" by establishing ventures like The Edible Schoolyard and The Yale Sustainable Food Project.

The success of Chez Panisse--Gourmet magazine named it the best American restaurant in 2002--has everything to do with Waters, yet she remains an elusive protagonist. Sophisticated yet naive, professional and amateur, hard-driving but emotionally blurry, she invites reader interest but doesn't always satisfy it, as least as presented here. If McNamee cannot quite bring her to life, and if his tale lacks an insider's full conversance with his subject, he still engages readers in the considerable drama of people finding their way--blunderingly, with talented intent--to something new. With menus, narrated recipes, and photographs throughout, the book is vital reading for anyone interested in food, period. --Arthur Boehm

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:50 -0400)

The authorized biography of Alice Waters and the San Francisco 1970s counterculture food revolution that invented "American cuisine." Not so long ago it was nearly impossible to find a cappuccino or a croissant in this country, most people had no idea what "organic" food was, and even fewer thought about "sustainable farming." But in 1971, in Berkeley, a young Francophile opened a small restaurant for her friends and launched an entirely new way of thinking about food in America. With no business sense or financial discipline, Alice relied on the coterie of devoted friends and followers who developed around her and on her strong principles of, among other things, using only locally grown and organic ingredients at the peak of their seasons, to keep her restaurant afloat. It was a reckless, extravagant, inexperienced venture that could have failed, but instead--somehow--turned into a revolution.… (more)

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