When I was up in north Berkeley, I would walk by Alice Water's restaurant Chez Panisse twice a day as well as other expensive cafes as well as the homeless regularly begging on north Shattuck Ave. I thought the homeless beggars in front of pricey cafes was an odd combination. When I stopped to look at the Chez Panisse menu, I noticed that the dinner downstairs would cost about $75 and the second floor cafe, which I thought was much less, would cost about over $30 for lunch. I just couldn't bring myself to go.
I just read Thomas McNamee's book Alice Waters Chez Panisse
Cooking for me at Berkeley when I was an undergraduate long ago was a way of exploring the world; I explored everything from chop sticks to soybeans to cooking West African stews a high school friend taught me. French cooking I knew a little about as a teenager by going with my family to Robaires, a French restaurant on LaBrea in Los Angeles, because my dad knew Mr. Robaire a little. French cooking--Julia Child which I had read and Robaire's restaurant which I also liked--was to me part of the grown-up world where one had to dress to go to dinner. Some of my friends when their parents came to Berkeley and wanted to take them out to an expensive restaurant in San Francisco wore jeans in protest--that was shocking at the time. But I also had a grandfather who stared as a child in Russia, and since he had childhood malnutrition was very short 5' tall as an adult. His -American born son and daughter daughter towered over him.
According to McNamee's book on Alice Waters, the lady and her friends were trying to make a different kind of French restaurant at Chez Panisse. Waters herself based her ideal on Marcel Pagnol's movie trilogy, particularly a bar shown in the movie called "Cesar's Bar de la Marine, where friends could laugh, argue, flirt and drink wine for hours on end." What McNamee neglects to stress is this is a working class bar with a clientele mostly of fisherman.
For its first two years Chez Panisse seems to be run like loose hippie alternative French restaurant trying to serve a French country cuisine, but in 1973 Waters hired Jeremiah Tower as chef who brought the elaborate French aristocratic cuisine to the restaurant. With Tower's cooking the kind of food only the French aristocracy ate, Chez Panisse got it's first national recognition. It seems that Waters and Panisse near the beginning wanted to be both populist and aristocratic in their cooking.
When the chef cooks extremely elaborate cooking creations as Jeremiah Tower did at Chez Panisse, the chef is making himself an artist. In some ways Chez Panisse is a collective artistic creation that's offered for sale at lunch and dinner. Well, people spend a lot of money art. But if I were to spend $100 on art, I would rather get a print than a dinner as I can look at the print on my wall. At this point I would not want to eat as an artistic endeavor. And I also think of my grandfather starving as a child. I guess my world is too different from that of Chez Panisse.
I've written already on this blog about Waters creating the Edible Classroom at a Berkeley middle school where students grow food and then learn how to cook it. I much admire her efforts to bring back gardens and cooking to the public school. I learned to cook from cooking class in middle school and my high school Fairfax had a garden where students gardened. Both programs were abandoned by the 1990s in most schools, and Waters has done good work reviving gardening and cooking in the schools. Also she has done well in support farmers markets and small organic farmers.
The trouble with Chez Panisse's high prices for lunch and dinner is that it automatically eliminates many. What was wonderful about my own teenager Berkeley food experiences was that we used food to break down barriers, to share different cultures, to discover new foods like soybeans, and to explore the world. So my Berkeley food experiences are quite the opposite from today's Chez Panisse which puts up barriers. And the beggars still remain on Shattuck Avenue. Children still starve like my grandfather did in many parts of the world.The 1960s foodies I loved the most were the Diggers who fed the homeless runaways and then I admired my friend Carol Tarlen who went to jail for working with Food not Bombs feeding the homeless in San Francisco.