The influence and impact of Alice Waters on the American restaurant and culinary landscape is extraordinary. Today aged 70, back in 1971 Waters was the embodiment of avant-garde as the first and most prominent voice to espouse the need to eat both sustainably and seasonally. Fast forward forty years and you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant not boasting this philosophy.
Whether you call it ‘California cuisine’, (she apparently doesn’t like the phrase) or ‘New American Cooking’, Waters was the mother of the movement, but she has previously claimed that she wasn’t really doing anything new: ‘It’s really the way people have been eating throughout most of human history. Until about fifty years ago, there was always local, seasonal, organic production of food.”
There is of course one restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which has been at the vanguard of New American Cooking more than any other. We were lucky to squeeze in a last-minute dinner visit there after a few days in San Francisco and Napa. I booked in the downstairs restaurant, where a set 3 or 4 course dinner is served, while upstairs more à la carte options are available in the slightly cheaper café.
The service was warm and gracious, while the dining room (renovated painstakingly following a fire last year) was so relaxed that it felt like we were eating at a friend’s house.
What we actually ate that night doesn’t matter. The restaurant menu changes every single night of the week, so there’s little to no chance of it being served up again. Obviously this allows them to best reflect the availability and seasonality of produce. Here’s an example of a recent menu:
It’s not showy or flashy and there are no gimmicks or tricks. I imagine that, if they have one, the sous-vide is gathering dust somewhere. The menu may read pretty simply, but of course there’s a huge amount of artistry and effort and love that goes into delivering it – and that’s the trick. To make local produce utterly compelling, to forgo the foams and froths and just allow the ingredients do the talking.
Chez Panisse – 1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, California