kermit lynch sits in his berkeley backyard with the cat
Garden variety: Kermit Lynch sits in his Berkeley backyard with the cat.

Sipping an aperitif of fresh grapefruit and prosecco, I watch Jean-Pierre Moullé top a chicory salad with cardoons, prosciutto and a farm egg. The executive chef walks two steps and puts the plate in front of me with a casual “Bon appétit.” Not only do I have the pleasure of dining at Chez Panisse tonight, I’ve also got the best seat (or rather, stool) in the house: a butcher block across from the pastry chef in the heart of the kitchen.

Chez Panisse: California Kitchen

Imagine a California bungalow kitchen where copper lamps and pots hang from the ceiling above big bowls of vegetables while seven top cooks quietly buzz around you. This is a place where guests and suppliers are encouraged to walk in and (quietly) say hello, a space where nothing is hidden behind closed doors. In fact, there aren’t any doors – from my seat, I can see every station in the kitchen as well as the diners out front. And as I work my way through the four-course meal (the chicory salad, bouchot mussel pasta, quail with new-onion ragout followed by warm buckwheat crepes with sautéed apples), countless guests breeze through to speak to Moullé. While most are food nerds like me, curious to see the inner depths, others are locals like authors Michael Pollan and Tom McNamee, who chat up the staff as if they were at a garage sale. Ah, Chez Panisse: the ethos of the neighbourhood restaurant manifest.

chez panisse kitchenThe kitchen at Chez Panisse

How and why this became (and still is) the scene behind America’s original food scene is due to what one could call an overdetermined phenomenon: In the 1970s, Berkeley was at the heart of a perfect culinary storm, with Panisse at the epicentre. Now you can’t swing a baguette in this gourmet ghetto without hitting someone who’s connected to Panisse, and you could spend a week going to restaurants (I did) whose chefs are all disciples of the small cottage on Shattuck Avenue – Eccolo, Oliveto, Zuni Café and the entire Ferry Building in San Francisco, to name a few.

A Berkeley Sensibility

Berkelites, or “Berzerklies,” are known for their anti-establishment rhetoric, especially when it comes to business models, or rather, anti-business models. In the early days, Alice Waters (chef and Panisse founder), Kermit Lynch (author and wine importer) and Steve Sullivan (of Acme Bread fame – one of the Bay Area’s first artisanal bakeries) were wary of going to a bank for capital, so they borrowed from family and friends. Sullivan, who worked nights baking at Panisse when he was in his early 20s, borrowed $3,000 from the Vietnamese family who did the night cleaning at the restaurant; he now has four bakeries running day and night to satisfy demand from across the United States. The fact that their businesses exist within five minutes of each other – and that Waters and Lynch are godparents to each other’s children – is, well, just very Berkeley.

Over a cup of French mint tea, Alice Waters says, “In the beginning, it didn’t matter that I didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. I liked to eat and cook and so did my friends – that’s what empowered me. It’s a set of values that existed before Panisse and hopefully will exist after.”

Kermit Lynch’s Corner Lot

Inside Kermit Lynch’s large English-style cottage, perched high on a Berkeley hill, he tells me about opening his eponymous shop in the early ’70s and how today’s economy is eerily similar to what it was then. As the dollar collapsed, he saw an opportunity where others saw devastation. There were maybe five good liquor stores in Berkeley, all of which sold mostly good vintage Bordeaux – a wine whose price point skyrocketed with the weakening dollar. They were loaded with expensive inventory with no one to buy it. “I was broke, but I got a loan from my girlfriend and opened the store. It was just a space with cases of new Burgundies and obscure Rhônes lying on the floor.” He attracted a clientele by selling $25 bottles of wine for $4.95, but barely broke even, relying on his girlfriend to feed him. The cases are still on the floor, but there are a lot more of them now. He’s still drinking inexpensive wine, not because he has to, and the space is bigger, in a corner lot that Lynch shares – naturally – with Waters’ Café Fanny and Acme Bread.

alice waters
Forty years later, Alice Waters still puts her best foot forward when it comes to food.

“We’ve always just wanted to bring great bread to the neighbourhood,” Sullivan tells me in his office among the smells of buttery apple turnovers and leaf-shaped fougasse right out of the oven. As the trucks are loaded for morning deliveries, he recounts his first Panisse memory. “My dad wondered how long it was all going to last. But you wanted to be there because the scene’s energy meant that it could also blow itself apart.” Improbably, the community only got better with age. Drawing on the talent and energy of friends and neighbours who believe they can influence the way we think about food, Berkeley is still quietly changing the way we eat in our own backyard, and in theirs.

The Salumi Warehouse

I take a cab crosstown to visit ex-Panisser Paul Bertolli at his Fra’ Mani salumi warehouse, where over handcrafted salami gentile, he recounts his early days as executive chef. “Fishermen would show up at the back door with a trout they’d just caught – the same with foragers and black truffles,” he remembers. These days, two people are hired for each position at Panisse, but that doesn’t mean there are two people working the same job at the same time: Two people contribute recipe ideas, different experience and – most importantly – split the 70- to 80-hour work week, almost guaranteeing creativity and stamina at each station. Case in point is Moullé, who spends six months of the year in the restaurant (if not more, as he lives upstairs) and the other half in Bordeaux at his family’s château and cooking school.

As I thank everyone for their service and am preparing to leave my coveted stool in the kitchen, a local family of four walks in. The oldest son has a gift for Moullé: a cobalt-blue ceramic bowl that he made in school. “This would be perfect to serve clementines and figs,” the chef says. “Can you make another hundred?”

 


 

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