by Tracey Taylor, Berkeleyside
Alice Waters admits there have been times — many times in fact — when she and her team have considered relocating Chez Panisse.
“We have thought about moving,” she said on Friday, as, all around her, cooks and carpenters, contractors and chefs made final preparations for two sold-out fundraising dinners that were to take place at Chez Panisse that night. The iconic restaurant, which re-opens to the public Monday after being closed for reconstruction following a serious fire in March, is in a building that was originally designed as a home and, with its various nooks and crannies and rabbit-warren-like layout, is hardly conducive to housing a world-class restaurant.
On every significant Chez Panisse anniversary, Waters has discussed with her staff whether to move somewhere else, she said.
“We were going to do it when we were 20, then 30, because it can be such a struggle here. We dreamed about having a large space, like they have at Camino,” she said referring to the Oakland restaurant co-owned by Chez Panisse alum Russell Moore, “with a big old fire, a place for teaching and room for interns to gather.
But, 42 years later, it is still to the rambling, shingled wood building at 1517 Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley that hundreds of thousands of devoted customers and eager Chez Panisse newbies from around the globe flock for a taste of Waters’ original, slow-food-inspired Californian cuisine. “The more we talked about it, the more we realized the charm of this place is this place,” she said. “It has all these irregularities, and it doesn’t all fit. But it feels like a home for us. So we decided to invest in it.”
That decision was reached after the first fire at the restaurant. It was March 1982 and the conflagration was described as coming “within 10 minutes of destroying the building.” Afterwards, Waters redesigned the space with architect Christopher Alexander and cabinetmaker Kip Mesirow. The partially burned wall that had separated the kitchen from the dining room was removed, creating an early example of an open-plan restaurant kitchen.
Mesirow was just one of many of Waters’ friends and supporters who came to her aid once more after the March 8 fire. And, again, it was decided to turn a crisis into an opportunity. The restaurant has been given an extensive spit and polish, with new paint, sanded floors, and the addition of a new, private bussing station and a new bathroom.
Most significantly, Mesirow drew the blueprints for a new elevated dining alcove. The original one needed to be ripped out because of fire damage. Beautifully crafted in salvaged redwood without the use of a single nail, with lovely, custom-made Craftsman-style copper light fixtures, it is likely to be the most sought-after spot for customers making reservations in the coming months.
While the fire has provided the opportunity to refresh the restaurant and make small, functional tweaks, the changes are subtle. For, if the Chez Panisse crew knows one thing, it is that its customers, particularly those who are local, feel very proprietorial about the restaurant. “They kept telling us, ‘don’t change anything,'” said restaurant spokesperson David Prior.
Local residents also offered enormous support.
“When something bad happens here people rally,” said Waters. “It reminded me of the reason I want to live in Berkeley. There are lots of like-minded people here who share the same values. I feel very lucky to be the recipient of this kind of community support.”
Waters describes how people walking by the restaurant while it was being rebuilt would ask if there was anything they could do to help. With tears in her eyes, she recounts how a young girl took it upon herself to organize a lemonade stand with Meyer lemons from her garden, and brought Waters a check for the $37 she raised. Waters used the money to buy a small wooden stand which is used in the restaurant.
Fans from further afield made their support known, too. The Michelin-starred Noma, run by chef Rene Redzepi in Copenhagen and regarded as one of the best restaurants in the world, sent a gift box that included pickled capers and lingonberries, as well as bottles of special beer.
“I was touched,” said Waters. “I know of them of course, and would love to eat there, but I don’t know them personally.”
The Cheese Board Collective across the street on Shattuck helped out by feeding the teams of staffers who made themselves available to do whatever work was necessary.
“Staff members revealed talents that we didn’t know about,” said Waters, “whether it was master woodworkers, polishing copper or oiling wood. We discovered who we couldn’t live without at the restaurant – and they were not necessarily the managers.”
The forced hiatus from the normal working schedule at Chez Panisse in the wake of the fire also provided a chance to take a fresh look at some of its day-to-day practices.
“We had a most interesting discussion about table placement in the cafe,” said Waters, explaining that she hadn’t loved the position of every table. “Some of them were really undesirable.” Gathering in groups, the team came up with some new solutions and considered other elements of the restaurant with a new eye.
The menu at the cafe has been redesigned, and will continue to evolve over the next month or so, said Waters. There is now a hot dessert option and smaller portions of pasta that can be ordered as first courses. There are also more vegetables as side dishes.
“I always want to be able to eat twice as many of my peas,” she said.
The cafe wine list has been shortened to 10-15 bottles, so they are “really good with the meal.” And the bread basket has been changed a little. A brand new Montague stove has been moved in and storage areas cleared out.
During the months when the restaurant was closed some staff took temporary chef jobs elsewhere or worked on the farms that supply Chez Panisse with produce. When they returned, there were more new suggestions for Waters to consider.
The reorganization also offered the opportunity properly to introduce newer employees to the whys and wherefores of Chez Panisse, as well as its history.
“Anyone who is new here has the hardest time understanding why we do things the way we do – like why are the glasses kept in that particular way,” Waters said.
Insurance money and savings have covered most of the work done to rebuild the restaurant, but Waters said there has also been a conscious decision to invest in the place once more to ensure its longevity.
“We worried it would burn down. This building is not built with bricks and mortar,” she said. Now the restaurant is equipped with more sprinklers and fire extinguishers and, Waters said, the risks have been addressed.
“Before the first fire we were doing everything by the seat of our pants,” she said. “We didn’t feel we were professionals.”
Asked when the moment came when she felt she and her team were professionals, Alice Waters said: “For a long time it felt like we had never quite arrived. But by the time Chez Panisse turned 20 we weren’t shooting from the hip anymore.”
Which is not to say Waters still isn’t still open to learning more in her area of expertise.
Describing her relationship with her team, Waters said she is “definitive” and “a critic, but in a good way.” She always encourages her staff to think for themselves, she explained, asking them not only to do things, but to know why they are doing them. But if she’s making a lunch or dinner for friends she knows just where to turn. “I ask five to 10 people at the restaurant how they would prepare something if I’m cooking at home.”