Dec 15, 2007

Books: Alice Waters & Chez Panisse

Cover photo: Alice Waters & Chez PanisseFoodsters will probably want to read this book (Alice Waters & Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee; Penguin Press; 2007). While covering the history of the famous restaurant, from its 1971 opening up to 2006, McNamee offers an interesting look at certain aspects of the US culinary scene over the last few decades.

As a one-time Berkeley resident, I've eaten at Chez Panisse many times--mostly in the moderately-priced café--and I enjoyed getting a behind-the-scenes look at the restaurant's history, the chefs that have come and gone (sometimes, as with Jeremiah Tower and Joyce Goldstein, moving on to wide acclaim), setbacks and triumphs along the way, and so on. I also enjoyed learning about the origins of the Slow Food movement.

What I missed, though, was a feeling for who Alice Waters really is. To use that old phrase attributed to Gertrude Stein when talking about Oakland, "there is no there there." I'm sure there's plenty of "there" in the flesh-and-blood Alice Waters. There would
have to be to have started Chez Panisse on a shoestring and a prayer and kept it right at the forefront of American cuisine for nearly four decades. McNamee gives us facts about Waters, but they never seem to amount to a real person. We learn of her delightful ways, but he carefully steps around anything that could be construed as negative. We all possess our little negatives; they're what make us human, after all. By ignoring Alice's, the author keeps her from being fully fleshed out. Thus, the book suffers from McNamee being a bit awed by, and overly-respectful toward, his subject.

Nonetheless: for many of us, this book is worth reading to understand more about the profound culinary changes that have occurred and continue to occur in the US.

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