The fact, and the history of the fact, have been disclosed publicly for many years, most clearly I think in the book Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee, who became a personal friend during the interviews he conducted in the course of writing the book.
So much for dispelling any thoughts of bias through personal involvement.
Let me add quickly that my principal association with the restaurant, over nearly thirty years from its opening, in 1971, was the fact of my companion's role on its staff as pastry chef. My own involvement has been less hands-on; I am by no means a culinary professional. (Though like most middle-class and lower-middle-class Americans my employment history has included a number of eateries.)
Chez Panisse is justly considered an epochal restaurant, and our fascination with the institution has gone beyond the pleasures of the table throughout its long history. The kitchen, sure; beyond that, the business, as an exception to for-profit motivation;, as a family of staff, associates, and diners; as a moment (and a movement) in cultural history. I know: all this can sound quite pretentious. Believe me: none of it was every really intended. It's all been lucky accident, born of the intersection of time (the 1960s), place (Berkeley, California), the pursuit of pleasure, and an intense commitment to ethics. Occasionally, in the course of history, idealism pays off.
Okay: Friday night we dined downstairs at Chez Panisse, as we did again last night, on a bittersweet occasion: these were the final two dinners under the supervision of chef Jérôme Waag. I set his name with diacriticals because Jérôme is French, one of a number of influences on his gifts as a chef. Among others: He's an artist, long involved with sculpture and performance art; he's intelligent; he's open-minded yet focussed and methodical; he's been in the Chez Panisse kitchen for much of his adult life. He has worked with virtually every chef in the Chez Panisse history: among them Jean-Pierre Moullé, Paul Bertolli, Catherine Brandel, David Tanis…
For two years he's alternated downstairs with Cal Peternell — downstairs chefs have been co-chefs for many years now. And now he's leaving, for the most honorable of reasons, to develop his own restaurant. Unfortunately for some of us, it will be in Japan.
His place will be taken seamlessly; the restaurant is very long on its own persona. Over the years there's no doubt most chefs have influenced one or another strand of the complex character of the cuisine, but the core, for decades, has developed a lasting strength of its own — largely no doubt because of the steady guiding hand and critical eye and palate of Alice Waters, who is of course the chef.
FRIDAY NIGHT'S MENU, though, seemed to me distinctly Jérôme, for all that each course was in fact executed, as always, by a different cook on his team. And here is what it was:
|chicories, beets, roe|
|striped bass, fennel purée|
|squab, parsnip purée|
Yes, beets again. Sliced thin, though, and cooked so crisp that they'd lost all that aluminum-foil flavor and granular-mushy texture they all too often have. The chicories — we used to call this Belgian endive, no? — were tender and full of flavor, and the creme fraiche and roe made a marvelous play on the more usual vinaigrette. What a salad!
The wine was soft but substantial, with the flavor and aroma of a Chablis but not the flinty edge: a fine complement to the salad.
To me distinctly a Japanese-influenced dish: lots of umami. The firm fish, soft purée, and supple olive oil contrasted wonderfully with one another, and somehow the flavor of the purée, though quite delicate, easily held its own with the sweet, fresh bass. I think the coriander, chopped and sprinkled on top of the fish, may have facilitated the combination of tastes.
The wine was interesting: a varietal new to me, fermented and aged with a sherry-like overtone of flor, that fine yeast you sometimes see layered on the surface of wine still in the barrel. I suspect this wine is left on the lees, not fined or filtered before it is bottled.
The Gigondas — a very fine wine, carefully made, mostly Grenache (80%) but with Syrah, Cinsault, and Clairette as well — a careful blend making the most of its ingredients, and ending with the integrity and balance you expect from a Bordeaux, even.
Tarte Tatin used to be such a simple matter: the right apple, cut into chunks the right size, set in butter and suger in the pan, then baked under its pastry. It's a country dessert, and as if in mistrust it has grown, over the years, to be treated with disrespect, robbed of its bittersweet caramel, garnished with strawberries or citrus, smothered under cream or, worse, aerosol whipped cream. Not here: the fruit combined completely with the caramel, and the ice cream with its silky texture remained a thing apart, a companion, not a modifier.
The Jurançon clearly thinks of Sauternes without regret. I like it; I would need to get to know it better to take it on its own terms.
THEN LAST NIGHT, Saturday, we returned for Jérôme's final evening. That dinner, though, will have to wait for my next post…
• Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; 510.548.5525
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