Jenny and I have been thinking about you. It's this season that Adam died, and we have found ourselves looking for the wine we had at your memorial dinner for him. We hope you're well and that our paths will cross again before too long.
The essays I wrote for the Chez Panisse 40th Anniversary book weren't published, as the publisher insisted that the text be by Alice (reasonably enough), but I thought you might like to see the last chapter in any case.
Chez Panisse came into being as a place where people could gather, to mark occasions or in search of them, and over the years it has become a place of rituals.
That was perhaps especially true in first decade of the twenty-first century. Despite two stock market crashes, the wrecking-ball recession that began in 2008, and California falling into an ungovernable, deteriorating morass, Chez Panisse was finally on firm financial ground. There were crises over individuals and long-range plans, debates over remaining true to the past and shaping the future, but day to day, night by night, the food coming out of the two kitchens could have the laughter, earnestness, and dash of the first year, the tenth, the twentieth, the thirtieth. And rituals were a great part of why on any given night Chez Panisse could seem completely new.
People build their years around the annual garlic dinners for Bastille Day, the Zinfandel festivals in December, Parsi New Year in the spring, or weeks when asparagus, crab, salmon, morels, and especially tomatoes seem to be on every menu if not part of every dish. There is New Year’s Eve, for years featuring the late Charles Brown, who in the 1940s had reinvented American music with “Drifting Blues” and “Merry Christmas, Baby,” and who appeared at Chez Panisse dressed in cape and fez like a king out of the Arabian Nights. But even more vital than that are the rituals that people have made themselves.
Sometimes it can seem less that people go to Chez Panisse to mark birthdays and anniversaries than that they have birthdays and anniversaries so they can go to Chez Panisse. That’s so often the sense of the celebration, where the welcome, the food, the service, and the ambiance have to rise to the occasion—and then, if the salmon roe surrounding tortellini in a cream sauce breaks against your teeth with a pop you can almost hear as well as feel, or a plate of yellow, red, green, and purple tomatoes in oil and parsley smells so completely of what it is that, for a moment anyway, actually tasting it seems redundant, the occasion rises to the food, the service, the ambiance, the good night.
Engagement parties and wedding dinners, welcoming dinners for people arriving in the Bay Area and farewell dinners for people leaving. Recruiting meals for professors the university is trying to seduce—and yet, of all the rituals one might take part in at Chez Panisse, perhaps the most striking mark deaths. That is because so many people took such pleasure there that they made it known that when they died they wanted their family and friends to sit down in the café or the restaurant and take the same pleasure in memory—or simply because it might seem like the right place to conjure up a person’s spirit.
One gathering in 2008 was deeply commonplace—in other words, the sort of occasion the restaurant had been created to serve. Eleven people had come together in memory of a friend who had died earlier in the year at fifty-six.
He was tall, handsome, an exasperating, heedless man, a guest who was always late if he appeared it all, a person of bottomless enthusiasms and appetites for food, drink, drugs, music, people, movies, politics, books, cigarettes, and talk, talk, talk, talk. “With his death,” his obituary concluded, “the lives of those who knew him will be calmer and quieter but far less interesting.” He’d loved Chez Panisse; the people present that night were there to keep life interesting.
The months and years before had taken him from one hospital or rehab center to another, some bright and hopeful, some dingy and entropic, plainly leading only to a place a little better or a little worse. So when people sat down under the light sconces in the dining room downstairs at Chez Panisse, taking in the Arts & Crafts woodwork and metal work designed and built more than twenty years before by the carpenter Kip Mesirow, it was hard to touch the real spirit of the person we were there to talk about, so people looked at the menus. There was a picture of red and white blossoms on the front, with an Art Nouveau Chez Panisse colophon.
Jean-Pierre Moullé was cooking that night, alternating every six months as the head chef with David Tanis. The first course came out, asparagus salad with almonds, Parmesan, and arugula, as if in lieu of the conversation people weren’t ready to have. There was a Jermann Vintage Tunina and an Old Vines Turley Zinfandel on the table, and toasts over it: “But perhaps not pronounced too loudly,” as one person there said of the one who wasn’t put it, “for fear that he might show up, and tell us how to do it right, how to say it with style.” And then he did show up, and it was, people agreed later, wondering how this sort of alchemy works, because of something in the second course, sautéed scallops with green garlic and chives. So the night took off, with a recreation of the élan we were really there to celebrate. What would be the place where you had to go, the band you had to see, the politician you had to hate, the book you had to love, and how long would you have to wait? The dinner had moved on to rack and loin of lamb with herbs, anchovies, breadcrumbs, potatoes, artichokes, and spring oinions, and then to a lemon meringue tart, there were more bottles brought and taken away, and in the rush of talk there were pauses, too—as each person, in his or her own moment, seemed to consider just how lucky it was that they could be in this place, this night, with the frisson of each new smell or taste or sight from the plates before them. Finally it was almost impossible to leave; what the place had provided was a sense that no one present would ever be so close to their friend, or even each other, again. “His illness,” one of his oldest friends said afterward, speaking for everyone who was there, “had forced us to occupy ugly rooms—hospitals, offices, laundromats, his impossible apartments—but on this night we sat down together in the softness and sparkle of wood and copper, linens and glass.”
Today you can go anywhere—to restaurants or farmers’ markets in Minnesota or Provence, to Troisgros in Roanne to a razor clam shack on the Oregon coast—and find the presence, the influence, inspirations, and aspirations, of Chez Panisse. You can find it in style, in modesty, in the crafting of better and fresher foodstuffs, simpler cooking, in food that has been raised, harvested, marketed, prepared, and presented in a way that allows it to speak for itself. And yet if you return to Chez Panisse, sit down, and, if the moment is right, taste what you ought to taste, smell what you ought to smell, it will explode with a sensual brightness that makes you think, no, there is no place like this, not anywhere.
“That’s because it’s home—but your home can be anywhere,” Alice said one day when the notion came up. “These ideas, these values—the values or gathering over food, of cooking by the seasons, of drawing on what’s around you, are universal. That’s why they can work anywhere”—and if values are universal it is precisely because every place and every time is different. If the impulse is to make your own history, and find a way to let your own small story open up into a greater story, a greater history, then you come to understand that the smallest is also the biggest. “You reach the level of the terroir,” Alice says. “You discover your own place, what it has done, what it can do. You search for the taste of your own place. You reach bedrock—and begin from there. The taste that makes you feel that there is nothing like this place anywhere—it’s because every place is different.”
“It’s the senses,” Sharon Jones says, putting the same ideas into different words. “That’s what Alice has always said, from the start: ‘Smell, sound, light, taste.’ That’s it. Open people’s senses up—and that will change how they see life and the world,” their sense of what it is and what it’s for.