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A Place of One’s Own

[SF Bay view, June 2006]

I am reading Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: the Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, on a day that makes you glad to be alive, and gladder still that you live in Northern California. Or perhaps that’s just me. After years in Washington, DC, missing and wishing for the West Coast, there are times I pinch myself (gently) to remember I do actually get to live here and I’m not simply on vacation. And then I am grateful all over again.

I have never been to Alice Waters’ restaurant, and after looking at the menu for this week (all prix-fix and with set courses), I don’t think I’d be able to go anytime soon (too much meat). But I do hope to dine at the cafe, which has more non-meat options. I feel like I won’t be a properly repatriated Californian without visiting it (and the French Laundry, if I ever strike it rich); for those of us who try to eat as locally as possible, Chez Panisse is the place to go.

I’m very much enjoying this book because it’s a biography, and a history, but it’s also a bit like a soap opera (all the falling in and out of loves, the dope, the gossip are detailed). Scattered throughout the tales of Berkeley during its formative years are recipes in Waters’ own voice for simple and fresh salads, almond tarts, and vegetables soups. I especially love the inclusion of menus from various meals served at the restaurant — one, for M.F.K. Fisher entitled “Serve it Forth!” of course — and a large part of me wishes I had been around during that time to be a part of it. How exciting to witness the birth of a whole “food movement,” and one that is so wonderfully simple and real. To grow your own vegetables, or to buy from local farmers, and to cook only free-range meats and locally caught fish seems an incredibly simplistic concept — and yet, it had never really been explored before.

I imagine my own restaurant would be similar to Chez Panisee — at least, my little dreamings of it have always included the freshest, and the best, ingredients possible. There are two options: in one scenario, it is located in the big, blue, abandoned dance hall in Marshall, alongside Tomales Bay; and in the other, it is in the Napa or Sonoma Valleys.

If I had it along the coast, I would most definitely cook fish and mussels and clams and all the other bounty pulled from the bay and the ocean. I would probably not cook any other meat, but for some reason fish does not bother me in the same way, though I could see myself learning how to gut and fillet and remove the bones and all those other slightly gory endeavors. I think it would be great if people who came in had spent the day out on the water and then brought in whatever they had caught; it would be cooked according to their specifications and served with whatever vegetables looked good that day. It’s a lovely spot — directly along the water looking out to sea, though a bit isolated. (I like it for that.)

But if I had it land-bound, I would have an enormous kitchen garden from which all meals would be cooked. Each morning, I would go into the garden and see what was ripening and ready to be picked, and then make up the day’s menu. The restaurant would be in the first floor of a sprawling white Victorian house surrounded by lots of trees and near to the mountains. Upstairs, I would have a bed and breakfast — very simple and bare and clean with hardwood floors and white curtains. There would be flowers everywhere, and cats, and an orchard for pie-making and fruit desserts, and a long porch. The sun would always shine, the bees forever buzzing, and the wine always crisp and sparkling.

I doubt I’ll ever have a restaurant of my own; I have no experience (though Waters did not, either), I don’t have any money (real estate here is out of control), and I don’t know if I’d really want to devote my life to the business. There are not enough hours in the day as it is! But I hope Chez Panisse’s style will slowly spread across the country, and we’ll have many more good-food options in the coming years.



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