Berkeley staple Chez Panisse celebrates 50th anniversary

photo of Chez Panisse
David McAllister/Staff
Chez Panisse, a Berkeley restaurant known for its seasonal and organic ingredients and role in the modern farm-to-table movement, celebrated its 50th anniversary.

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Alice Waters, owner and founder of Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, first fell in love with French cuisine while skipping classes at the Sorbonne in Paris.

“At the time, I was very uneducated about food and it was a revelation to me in every way,” Waters said. “I just fell in love with the beauty in Paris, and it was an awakening of all of my senses.”

Years later, Waters celebrates the 50th anniversary of Chez Panisse, one of the pioneers of the modern farm-to-table movement, according to an SF Gate article.

The cuisine at Chez Panisse is defined by a dedication to using seasonal and organic ingredients, according to Waters. She noted that she values the restaurant’s emphasis on creating changing, fixed-price menus using seasonal harvest, another influence of her time in Paris.

“It’s the inspiration to only have one ingredient, a delicious one, for a short period of time,” Waters said. “You want to do it every way you can imagine; that’s the delight of it all.”

A proponent of regenerative agriculture, Waters added that she supports taking care of farmworkers. Through her work, she has established direct relationships with local farmers, priding herself on cutting out the “middleman.”

Since its founding in 1971 by Waters and Paul Aratow, Chez Panisse has been a common stop for filmmakers including Roberto Rossellini and Akira Kurosawa, according to Waters. Waters said this was largely due to the influence of Tom Luddy, Waters’ friend and “love” in the early days of Chez Panisse and a film producer himself. 

“Tom was forever bringing filmmakers to Chez Panisse, and that again was part of the opening of our mind and our senses,” Waters said. “We had that sort of pleasure and intimidation of serving them.”

Waters attended UC Berkeley in 1964 during the height of Mario Savio’s Free Speech Movement, which she cited as having greatly changed her life. She added that the university system was one of the forerunners of “school-supported agriculture.”

The Edible Schoolyard Project, founded by Waters in 1995 with help from former Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School principal Neil Smith, allowed her to help reform public education, according to Waters.

“We were lucky to have the most extraordinary teacher, Esther Cook, who established the values that I respect,” Waters said. “Those values have been scaled from (Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School) to over 6000 schools.”

In the 50 years since its opening, Chez Panisse has added the Chez Panisse Café and the Chez Panisse Foundation to its esteemed repertoire, according to the Chez Panisse website.

Waters also works with a group of artists and cooks at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles and is designing an institute of edible education at UC Davis, Waters added.

“I’m convinced that anybody who wants to live in a beautiful world can do so affordably,” Waters said. “It’s just a story of belief.”

Contact Kavya Gupta at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.