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The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution

by Thomas McNamee

Pub Date: March 26th, 2007
ISBN: 1-59420-115-3
Publisher: Penguin Press

It was hard to get a decent meal in America before 1971. Alice Waters helped change all that.

Not single-handedly, of course. But Waters, in France for a semester abroad in 1965, had an awakening: Like Julia Child, whose My Life in France (2000) McNamee (The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone, 1997) nicely bookends, she learned to eat simple food that was fresh and well-chosen. She came home disillusioned with the monstrous cuisine of her native land. “I wanted hot baguettes in the morning, and apricot jam, and café au lait in bowls, and I wanted a café to hang out in the afternoon, and I wanted civilized meals, and I wanted to wear French clothes,” she recalls. She set out for Berkeley, where she absorbed radical ideas and mind-altering substances and opened a restaurant-cum-commune whose inaugural meal, in 1971, was a nice pâté, duck with olives, a plum tart and coffee. It cost $3.95, expensive at the time but nothing like the tariff today. Chez Panisse, named after a French film character, was instantly successful, though Waters, as McNamee clearly shows, wasn’t the most scrupulous businesswoman. She hired people who thought it might be cool to cook or bake or wait tables, and she watched huge amounts of inventory—especially wine—walk out the door. She refused to dress the staff up in tuxedos and such or impose much discipline on a difficult but brilliant bunch, and her stubbornness nearly proved fatal to the restaurant several times. Even when she took on partners with an eye to imposing budgetary reason, she did what she liked: “No matter what the legal papers said, Chez Panisse, from day one, was Alice’s, to be operated, populated, decorated, redecorated, reconceived, fussed over, fiddled with, and loved as Alice saw fit.” Amazingly, as McNamee chronicles, the place survived, and thrived, and Waters—likable on every page, if perhaps a touch scattered—helped change the way Americans ate.

A great pleasure for foodies, chronicling an unlikely revolution.