Monday, December 1, 2014

Chez Panisse, food, business, and values

Eastside Road, December 1, 2014—
AFTER MORE YEARS than I like to think about, I'm considering closing the door on this blog. It began as an outgrowth of e-mails I sent to a number of friends reporting on our travels, and quickly evolved to be simply an online journal. I liked to think it would have value for a number of usefulnesses: drawing attention to businesses we find agreeable, occasionally providing a recipe, most of all speculating on the value and surprise and reward of indulging that most basic of human needs: hunger.

(I write about other matters than food, though not as regularly. You'll find those discussions on another blog, The Eastside View.)

Two or three mottos seem to attend nearly everything I do. The unexamined life is not worth living. (Socrates, not my favorite guy.) The study of the meaning and the value of art works. (Joseph Kerman, defining criticism.) Cherish. Consider. Conserve. Create. (The composer Lou Harrison.) Off-hand as most of the posts on this blog have been, these mottos have always been behind them.

As I head toward my eightieth birthday I'm thinking of drawing up a new agenda, reflecting revised sets of priorities, and I'm not sure this blog will have a place on that agenda. And I won't pretend that my uncertainty on the matter isn't enhanced, as you might say, by a recent comment, following the discussion the other day of a recent dinner at Chez Panisse:
I guess one other possibility is that Chez Panisse has always invested in the "purity" of its ingredients, rather than their "richness."

But purity and freshness and imaginative energy don't come cheap, except very rarely. It would be hard to think of a restaurant that has a shifting, creative menu, with decent wines, that could market its fare for less the $40-50 per person per meal.

But Chez Panisse asks $65-90 per meal, which puts it in an entirely different echelon. And it sports a big service compris as well.

To be taken seriously as a gourmet blogger, I would think you'd be obliged to compare Chez Pa [sic] with other restaurants at the same level of aspiration. Otherwise, it's likely to be seen as promotion.
My response to this has grown too long for the "comments" page, so I set it here:

I’M NOT SURE what you mean by “purity” and “richness”.

I think the days of fifty-dollar restaurant meals of any quality are long gone, and I’ve come to think of this general trend as not a matter of rising prices but one of declining value of the dollar.

Your comment suggests categorization of restaurants by their prices. That’s a reasonable approach on first sight, but we must still look behind the menu price to determine value. And what, by the way, do we mean by the “value” of a restaurant and its meal?

I value the quality of the meal, including its material, its preparation, its appearance, its service, its finish — an analytical approach you can bring to any exercise of critical appreciation.

The value of a restaurant comprises the quality of its meals, of course: but it goes further. It comprises also its contribution to its communities. Its social community: the people who come through its doors, whether to work or to dine. Its civic community: how it fits into the network of laws, architecture, transportation, and local economy. And the community of its “industry,” both vertical and horizontal: by which I mean heritage — what it learns from and contributes to the history of the institution of restaurants — and collaboration — its position within the community of other restaurants in its neighborhood.

All this is somewhere at the back of my mind, far from conscious thought, when I sit down at a restaurant table, virtually any restaurant table. The meal and its qualities; the restaurant and its.

Of course there’s a wide range of restaurants, and while it’s true I’m something of a “gourmet” as you put it, I try not to be a snob. Recently here I’ve eaten at a bowling alley, a fast-food hamburger joint, and Chez Panisse. About the only restaurants I rule out are those offering Chinese cuisine; I won’t go into my reasons for that here.

All this to approach the matter of your last paragraph: “To be taken seriously as a gourmet blogger, I would think you'd be obliged to compare Chez Panisse with other restaurants at the same level of aspiration. Otherwise, it's likely to be seen as promotion. “

I won’t pretend I don’t like being taken seriously. I don’t like to think of myself as a “gourmet blogger,” though. I think I see what you mean; I’m certainly a blogger, and uncomfortable as I am with the description I suppose I’m a gourmet. What I resist, of course, is the notion of obligation. I blog what I damn well please. No one pays me to write; hardly anyone even reads what I write. And one of the things keeping me from considering “other restaurants at the same level of aspiration” as Chez Panisse is: that I can’t really know what their aspirations are. (I can’t think of any other, by the way, that is committed to a changing table d'hôte dinner — not a “tasting menu” — every day.)

My wife and I have been involved with Chez Panisse since the beginning, in 1971, she on the kitchen side, myself as diner and in some measure in management. This has given us an inside view of the restaurant and a fairly personal view of the staff — less so since her retirement, in 1996, and our subsequent move away from Berkeley; but I continue to serve on the board of directors and am thereby privy to a certain amount of management and business decision.

One of the differences between Chez Panisse and other restaurants in its price category is our policy of providing all staff with vacation, sick pay, and medical benefits, and offering 401(k) plans to longtime employees. We’ve done this for many years now, and we pay for this by putting a 17% supplemental charge on the menu prices: “service compris.” It’s interesting to see that now, in a national climate finally addressing problems of economic disparity and minimum wages below poverty thresholds, other restaurants in our extended community — the San Francisco Bay Area — are trying to devise similar strategies. I myself feel it’s time to get rid of all the supplementary apparatus, simply to pay well and charge enough to support the costs of business. I believe the curve is in that direction, but much of the public resists it, content with a tipping system which I believe is basically feudal, a remnant of the class system.

I have no direct evidence, but i believe that most restaurants in the Chez Panisse category, whatever that is, are profit motivated. Not exclusively: I’m sure they’re concerned with quality, with all the values I started out by discussing here. But they began with capital, and are obliged to make returns to investors.

This has never been a major, not even a substantial, part of the motivation at Chez Panisse. Apart from such categories as utilities, taxes, and insurance, virtually every dollar that comes into the restaurant goes to an employee, a farmer, a fish market, a mushroom forager, occasionally to a merchant of dry goods: salt, spices, flour and the like; a wine importer; a cheesemonger.

In short, in my opinion, and in my experience, what brings me back so frequently to Chez Panisse is ethics and artistry. I think I could make comparisons between Chez Panisse and other restaurants in terms of artistry, though it would be appropriate for anyone to question my motivation in doing so. I don’t know how I could possibly compare them in terms of the ethics of their pursuit of the other values I hold important.

I will be eighty years old in a few months; I now have three great-grandchildren; I know something about the process of the generations and the return on investments of not money but instruction, example, and guidance. One of the great achievements of Chez Panisse has been the number of restaurants (and other food-related businesses) that have been created by staffers who have “trained” there, in the kitchen, in the office, and on the dining floor. We have created a lot of jobs! And many, probably most, of these businesses, are quite as committed to the values I’ve mentioned. This gives me great hope for the future, at least in our area, in spite of the disastrous influence in our country of ignorance, cynicism, greed, compromise, and opportunism.

All this, all these things, are at the back of my mind as I admire the food on my table — at Chez Panisse; at a bowling alley; at home. If I could distill all this into a mission statement I’d gladly set it at the head of each blog post. Alas I haven’t come up with the shorthand. So, yes, I’ll continue to promote — not Chez Panisse, I hope, but the values behind it. They mean everything to me.


Michael Shae said...

543Would miss reading your posts but I realize these things can come to a more or less natural end. Just went back and reread your Venice entries in preparation for our own first trip to Venice. Thanks for carrying on and I'll hope you still find a bit of time for this—

Charles Shere said...

Thanks. We'll see how it works out — no final decision yet…

Joan said...

It's exactly this type of post that I would/will analysis to accompany the sometimes blurry photos :)

I hold close (almost said treasure) and re-read your old Rome and Venice stories for planning and/or reminiscing. My thoughts turn towards a retirement on the road and I hope to do it with your ease...grace.

At the Tadich Grill, of all places, when I said "I'll have a martini, up, with a twist" and the bartender...younger than me smiled..."with vodka, or gin?" I thought wow...Charles Shere should hear this...

Thank you also for The Eastside View. I'm a science type gal with scant knowledge of classical music, literature and the arts, but I enjoy bending my mind in that learn.

Please accept Thanks...Good Wishes...Hope for Rich Travels and Fun!

Giovanna said...

And I hope you always will write what you please--here, on your other blog, or wherever.

I wouldn't consider your posts to be restaurant reviews, and it's never seemed to me that you suggest that.

Perhaps the difference is cloudy these days, when real restaurant reviews (with multiple visits to the restaurant) are few and far between. Maybe the fact that you write critically about your meals makes people thing it's a review?

To me, your blog is much more useful. Because while I enjoy meals out, I enjoy most of all meals in, with friends and family--something I'm sure Chez Panisse and you and Mom taught me. And I'm thankful for it every day.

This is a little clunky, adding a link to something of mine, but here's a piece I wrote about your blog some years back--a reminder of all it does for some of us!