busyfood.net – Lessons from Berkeley’s Historic Chez Panisse

Go back in time with us to 1971, the year that changed the way we eat forever.

Educational. Demanding. Magical. These words come up again and again when you talk to past employees of Chez Panisse, arguably the most influential American restaurant in history. Alice Waters opened the café in Berkeley, California, in August 1971, making simple food with local ingredients. Though “farm to table” is now so common it’s a cliché, at the time a restaurant like this was novel, and so was her way of running it: paying farmers a premium for their best produce, changing the menu daily, giving employees higher than usual wages—and vacation time—and encouraging them to trust their intuition.

“The most important thing to me is that we were able to create something that was greater than the sum of its parts,” said Alice Waters in a recent phone interview. “Everyone brought their talents to create Chez Panisse.”

The ripple effect of this one little restaurant has been wide. We spoke to just a small corner of the Chez Panisse universe about how the restaurant influenced them and what lessons they took with them when they left: how to treat your employees fairly, cook with confidence, resist overthinking your menu, and so much more. The chefs, authors, and bakers we spoke to have become industry leaders in their own right, passing these values on to the next generation.

“They have taken the values of Chez Panisse and interpreted it in their own creative ways,” Waters said. “And I’m just in love with what they created.”

Steve Sullivan

Illustration by Bijou Karman

Your employees come first.

“Chez Panisse was set up to benefit employees as much as the business, providing the most sick pay possible, paying people as well as you could, paying for vacation time and health insurance. When we started Acme Bread Co., these were not normal for a bakery or restaurant to offer, but they were baked into our notions of operating a business.” —Steve Sullivan, busser and baker at Chez Panisse from 1975 to 1983 and founder of Acme Bread Co. in Berkeley

Know where your ingredients come from.

“There was such an emphasis on where vegetables came from at Chez Panisse. All the names of the farms we worked with were on the menu, and we took field trips to visit and stay at those farms. That got ingrained in me. So now when I buy mezcal for my beverage shop, I’m thinking about where it’s from, who grows it, what’s the story. We call this ‘grain to glass.’” —Jessica Moncada, busser at Chez Panisse from 2005 to 2010 and co-owner of Alkali Rye in Oakland

Trust your cooking intuition.

“Chez Panisse is not like any other restaurant, even today. Cooks are encouraged to trust their intuition. You can’t read a book on how to stew onions, for example. You just have to do it, feel confident in your own judgment and be open to all possibilities. That philosophy extends throughout the kitchen. Even if you are the newest cook and have never held an onion, you can say what you think. Every idea is valued.” —David Tanis, baker to co-chef on an off-and-on basis from 1981 to 2011, cookbook author, and ‘New York Times’ food columnist

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