Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee

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 the 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.

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