The Underwater Architect and the Naked Chef

The ex-topless dancer wanted to cry on my shoulder, so we met at a San Francisco cafe. She poured out her heart. She had just been humiliatingly fired, she said, and not from some stupid dancing gig. She had been working as chef de cuisine at a just-opened French restaurant in Berkeley.

From topless dancer to chef wasn't such a stretch for my friend. As a thoroughgoing sensualist, she had worked her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and made Viennese pastries in her spare time. But the restaurant had lost money because she'd ordered too much meat and produce. Who could blame her for that? she cried. How could anyone be expected to know how many customers would show up at a brand-new place?

Well, there had been that other problem: Some of the employees had objected to her preference for cooking in the nude. They should just learn to deal with it. This was Berkeley, for God's sake. By the time the coffee arrived, my friend was giving way to bitterness. "Chez Panisse!" she hissed. "That's what they're calling it. This is an awfully precious restaurant, Charlie. It's never going to last."

Truer words have definitely been spoken. Within a few years of its opening, it had become quite possibly the most influential restaurant in the country, inspiring a whole new style of American cookery based on the freshest ingredients used in a sophisticated but earthy—and largely Mediterranean—way.

Out of loyalty to my friend, I suppose, it was about two years before I finally went to Chez Panisse myself. By that time, I'd met its owner, Alice Waters, and her then chef, Jeremiah Tower—and I think that, like the fact that Chez Panisse had once had a naked chef, the way I met them says something about the Berkeley of that era. A high-school friend of mine was one of a group of architects and their wives who had fallen under the spell of Julia Child while at Harvard. The group moved to Northern California more or less en masse, and brought their enthusiasm with them. They got together regularly to cook ambitious dinners for each other, and I became a peripheral member of their crowd. Another member was Jeremiah Tower. He'd majored in architecture, and gone to work as a chef at Chez Panisse in the first place—he later told me—to earn money to be able to pursue a career in underwater structural design. He came to the dinners with Alice, and the thing about them was that I had no idea they ran a restaurant. They just seemed to be two more passionate Berkeley cooks—though they were particularly good ones.

In those days, of course, nobody thought of Berkeley as a place to dine. Its only grown-up restaurants were a couple of seafood joints and a dowdy French place patronized mostly by visiting parents of undergraduates. Otherwise, pizza ruled. Students wanted quick, cheap fodder. The political and social radicals for whom Berkeley was famous were no better, being hostile to the mere idea of fine cuisine—that decadent indulgence of the pig-dog Establishment. And the hippies were a lost cause. They were sure their food should be natural and organic, but they didn't much care how it tasted.

For some reason, however, a real proto-foodie underground developed in Berkeley. And Chez Panisse wasn't its first expression. When the restaurant opened in 1971, there was already a first-rate coffee roaster and retailer called Peet's Coffee, Tea & Spices around the corner; nearby was The Cheese Board, which sold a stunning array of European and American cheeses. Chez Panisse, though, inspired a whole new community of food-related enterprises—a regular Gourmet Gulch. In 1985, the Berkeley City Council actually voted to limit the number of restaurants on Shattuck Avenue, where Chez Panisse stands, to 27.

When Alice Waters launched the place, she saw it not as a trendsetting restaurant but as something between a salon for her friends and the sort of unpretentious neighborhood cafe portrayed in the 1930s film versions of Marcel Pagnol's Fanny trilogy—one of whose characters was a kindly sailmaker named Panisse. Significantly, Waters was greatly influenced by Elizabeth David, whose book French Country Cooking, published in England in 1951, was really a form of escapist reading—a vision of a rural France where fresh, high-quality ingredients were readily available. David emphasized that French restaurants depended on an infrastructure of food suppliers for their success, so Waters cultivated fishmongers, cheesemakers, backyard gardeners, Northern California wineries, and a local wine importer named Kermit Lynch (who actually wandered around France discovering little wineries). It was hardly a surprise, then, when one of her early chefs left to open an American charcuterie, Pig-by-the-Tail, across the street from Chez Panisse, and another went on to start The Acme Bread Company (arguably the first modern-day American artisanal bakery)—or when a French-inspired confectionary called Cocolat opened nearby. It was even less of a surprise when such one-time Chez Panisse chefs as Mark Miller, Mark Peel, Jonathan Waxman, and Deborah Madison went on to gain renown in their own right, reshaping American cooking on their own terms.

Why did Berkeley become a foodie capital in the '70s? Julia Child, who was just then gaining popularity, was certainly an influence, and the '60s sensibility did tend to include a certain self-conscious taste for hedonism. Then there was the bohemian quest for "authenticity", which gave us the back-to-the-land movement (and got people into raising their own vegetables, even in the city). But these factors were common to college towns all over America. I can only guess that nearby San Francisco's self-image as a mecca of fine dining had something to do with it—as too, probably, did the craze for wine. (Remember, the California wine country was just a short drive away.)

My topless dancer friend, incidentally, rallied wonderfully after Chez Panisse's rejection and became a syndicated food writer and the author of several cookbooks.