Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday Eats

photo Kim Severson/NY Times (click for high def)

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse - New American Cuisine

The best meals I've ever were in Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Not even in the famous downstairs restaurant where reservations seemed always reserved far in advance and meals prix fixe past what I could afford in the 80s. I ate upstairs in the Café.

Oh my Gods the flavors, the tastes, the smells and how the food just looked.

The Grand Canyon down deep inside the canyon by the river a whole mile straight up to above the rim. Ice cold water in your mouth from snow melt high in the Tetons cresting a ridge, and Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows in the spring as the sun rises through the mist over the still snow-bogged meadow. Thelma Houston live. Taking a bicycle at forty tearing down a hill with your children racing behind. The Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate National Recreation Area especially the Marin Headlands where I so often go to just be. Libraries, books, writing, and movies. The look on her face, coming again unexpectedly. And Chez Panisse.

Alice Waters gave us what is now called New American Cuisine. High-quality products in season, prepared simply to exacting standards (with enormous discipline) so the natural flavors of the foods and seasonings come through, displayed beautifully, from local markets, bountiful, abundant, overflowing with goodness. Food prepared by Alice Waters and her successors at Chez Panisse brings joy to all who partake, as if the divine reaches directly from the kitchens of heaven to the tables of earth.

Last week Alice Waters took the food reporter for The New York Times shopping at a farmer's market, showing a video camera precisely how she shops for food. The video is only available at The Times article, and you'll likely want to go watch. The rest of The Times article is also terrific.

NY Times

WHEN Alice Waters is coming over to cook lunch, the first thing you do is look around your house and think, I live in a dump.

Then you take an inventory of the pantry. The bottles of Greek and Portuguese olive oil, once a point of pride, suddenly seem inadequate. And should you hide the box of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran and jettison those two cans of Diet Pepsi?

At the end of the afternoon, when the last peach was peeled and my kitchen was stacked with dirty pots, it didn’t really matter. Ms. Waters was either too polite or too distracted to mention what was in my cupboard. It turns out she travels with her own olive oil, anyway. And homemade vinegar. And salt-packed capers.

Ms. Waters had agreed to spend a hot September day shopping with me at the Union Square Greenmarket and schlepping back to my first-floor apartment in brownstone Brooklyn to make lunch.

The menu was dictated by two things: the market’s offerings and the recipes in her forthcoming book, “The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes From a Delicious Revolution” (Clarkson Potter, October).

The book is more to Ms. Waters than an instructional guide. It is her attempt, through recipes, to save the American food supply. She wrote it because she still believes a plate of delicious food can change everything.

“We’re trying to educate young people and show them how to use that lens of ingredients as a way to change their lives,” she said. “Otherwise, it would be just another cookbook.”

The book is Ms. Waters’s ninth since she started Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., 36 years ago. Unlike the others, the new book does not use the name of the restaurant. It reads more like an organic “Joy of Cooking,” designed to instruct novices on how to make a perfect vinaigrette but also intended to be as essential to experienced cooks as the final Harry Potter installment was to 12-year-olds.

“Food can be very transformational and it can be more than just about a dish,” she said. “That’s what happened to me when I first went to France. I fell in love. And if you fall in love, well, then everything is easy.”

(Currently, Ms. Waters is not in love, though she longs for “a good pal to be in the world with.”)

By all measures, Ms. Waters should be relaxing at this point in her life. She is 63. She has held court with princes and presidents. A year ago, with some prodding from her partners at the restaurant, she pulled back from the daily work at Chez Panisse. Now she is trying to become better at leveraging her role as the high priestess of the local, sustainable food revolution.

Although she is enthusiastically mocked in some circles for the impossible goals she articulates in a wispy cadence, chefs who once sniffed that her methods were more about shopping than cooking now agree that the heart of great food is selecting the best ingredients.

So why does Ms. Waters still seem so restless, so unsatisfied, so unrelentingly demanding that she can’t show up at someone’s house and trust that they might have the right olive oil?

Because true, radical change — a country full of people who eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it and good for the earth — is simply not coming fast enough.

She is dismayed by the presidential candidates and said she has vowed not to vote for anyone who does not talk about the awful state of the food system.

Although many school districts are trying to improve the food they offer, the results have been unsatisfying, she said. It’s useless to coat frozen chicken nuggets with whole-wheat bread crumbs and fill vending machines with diet soda. Only a complete and radical reform will do, and it must be led by the president of the United States.

“These are little Band-Aids,” she said. “The whole body is bleeding and we must stop it. We simply must.”

A revolution in how we eat means respecting food and the people who produce it, she said. In her world, every aspect of this revolution, be it related to agricultural policy, the environment or obesity, must begin with a plate of lovely, locally produced food and work backward from there.

The book is deceptively simple. As she writes, “Good cooking is no mystery.” Most recipes seem to be built on salt, black pepper, olive oil, fresh herbs and garlic. But they have to be specific kinds, like chunky gray sea salt for boiling water. “If you are not buying the right ingredients, this is going to taste like any other food,” she said.

The attention to detail is maddening and enlightening. She offers lovely notes on cooking eggs, and her passage on serving fruit for dessert is so thoughtful and useful it reads like gospel. She devotes a page and a half to making bread crumbs properly.

But in parts of the book she veers past purity to madness. Halfway into a recipe for gazpacho, while soaking ancho chili, grating tomatoes and mashing it all in a mortar and pestle, you start to look at the blender with longing.

Ms. Waters doesn’t like machines much, although she is partial to the toaster oven. She doesn’t use a computer and has only cursory knowledge of her cellphone. She wrote the book largely by dictating her notes to Fritz Streiff, her longtime co-writer, and collaborated with Kelsie Kerr, who has cooked at Chez Panisse, and Patricia Curtan, who also illustrated the book.

But she knows almost all the recipes by heart, which made it easy to figure out lunch.

Walking through the Greenmarket with her is an exercise in excess. She has never met a fresh herb she didn’t like, and I still have plenty of hyssop in my refrigerator to prove it.

Her good friend Doug Hamilton, a film director and producer, came along to help carry our reusable cloth shopping bags. He was a godsend. When you visit farmers with Alice Waters, you come home with a lot of stuff.

Farmers kept trying to give her baskets of food, but she insisted on paying because she believes contributing money to family farmers is a moral obligation. (In this case, The New York Times paid for everything.)

People literally started shaking when they realized they were shopping next to Alice Waters. When she offered to visit the Queen’s Hideaway, a homestyle restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the owner, Liza Queen, waved her off, already nervous at the thought of it.

“Please don’t,” Ms. Queen said. “If you come in, we’d probably lose it.”
What a lovely article. I have the book on order. It's the word, by Alice. (I tend to fall in love with musicians, artists, cooks, writers, geeks, scientists, doctors, athletes, actresses, even bloggers and politicians and soldiers... the people who are attempting to make our world better. None of you have probably noticed this.)

You'll get to San Francisco sometime. It calls you, that famous place with the Golden Gate.

Make the pilgrimage across the bay to Berkeley, home of the University of California at Berkeley (all three of my daughters were born in Berkeley), right next to Oakland.

Find your way to Chez Panisse, the restaurant which changed American food. You'll need a reservation, although perhaps not at lunch or for the Café, but either way, plan your trip to make it possible. Write me a letter afterwards and tell me how it went. I genuinely want to know.
The Observer

Famously the downstairs restaurant once served for pudding a single peach on a plate. Not peeled. Not cut up. Just a peach. Chez Panisse was saying: this peach is so good nothing we could do would improve upon it.

I wonder whether some diners might not find the whole experience too doctrinaire, a lecture on a plate? 'I don't think they feel that way,' she says. 'Though there are some who say "I could cook this at home."' What does she say to that? 'I say "Great. Go and cook it at home." That's why we put all the names of the suppliers on the menu. I want people to be excited about where food comes from. There's nothing intimidating about Chez Panisse.'

The night I ate at Chez Panisse, the four-course menu was much like many others that I had read online. On a wooden plate in the middle of the cosy, wood-lined dining room was a dish of the most fabulously bulbous spring onions, huge things the size of a baby's fist. These turned up in a salad with artichokes and morels. After that came a tranche of wild king salmon in fish broth with lemongrass and a dollop of herb butter. At this point I was, frankly, disappointed. The ingredients may have been perfect, but neither dish sang out. The dressing on the salad was understated, the seasoning in the butter low-key.

Then came the 'Sonoma County Liberty' duck breast, grilled over open coals in the red brick-lined kitchen, which looks more like the kind of thing you would find in a farmhouse than a top restaurant. It was spectacular, the duckiest piece of duck I have ever tasted. Likewise the Lucero strawberries with the pudding were some of the most delicious it has ever been my pleasure to eat. Cooking like this - doing as little as possible to the ingredients - is not easy. 'New guys always want to do more,' says Jean-Pierre Moullé, one of the two head chefs in the restaurant, who has been here for 30 years. 'When I was first here I wanted to show off, too. But to cook simply takes discipline.' I ask him if Chez Panisse could now run without Alice. 'Technically, yes. But she is an important person. She's always keeping track.' And then, 'She's the conscience of Chez Panisse.'
Recipes from Alice's forthcoming book, used during her lunch with the NY Times.
NY Times

Recipe: Raspberry Syrup

2 cups raspberries or other berries

1 1/2 cups sugar, plus 2 tablespoons

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice.

1. Combine berries, 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 cup water in a medium saucepan with a heavy bottom. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until berries begin to break down and release their juices, about 4 minutes.

2. Add 1 1/2 cups cold water and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then immediately turn down to a simmer and skim off any foam that bubbles to top. Cook for 15 minutes.

3. Strain into bowl through cheesecloth-lined strainer, pressing on fruit to squeeze out juices. Return the liquid to the pan and add 1 1/2 cups sugar. Stir until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil and cook for 2 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool. Store in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.

Yield: About 2 1/2 cups.
More recipes from lunch:
Vitally important to Alice Waters' work bringing healthy food to American schools and children, and to our plates, is the American farmer.

Here is part of an interview called Nurturing Connections With Farmers which I cherry-picked (heh); the rest after the jump.
Seasonal Chef

SEASONAL CHEF: A lot of organic farmers are trying to teach consumers that cosmetic appeal is meaningless, that an occasional bug comes with the territory. And yet in your books, you stress the importance of aesthetic perfection in food. Would you serve flea beetle-bitten arugula in your restaurant?

WATERS: Yes, but I would think about how to use it. I probably wouldn’t make an arugula salad out of it. But I would throw it into the pasta. If it was an apple with little spots all over it, I wouldn’t put it on a fruit plate but I would make a tart out of it. I would choose something else that looks real good for the fruit plate.

SEASONAL CHEF: Why do you prefer organic produce?

WATERS: Taste, for sure. And I’m interested in it because I know I need to support the people who are taking care of the land and thinking of the future, people who are thinking about how communities come together. It’s my feeling that that can happen when the person growing the food is connected with the person who is eating it. A result of those connections is a sense of caring about somebody else’s welfare. That’s how you build up those bonds which ultimately leads you to a sense of a group made up of people who care about one another. I’m interested in organic food for all those reasons. But of course also because organic produce is pure and wholesome and delicious and alive when I get it. And nine times out of 10, it’s picked very ripe.

SEASONAL CHEF: Given that consumers seem to have an insatiable demand for convenience, can farmers markets compete with supermarkets?

WATERS: I think they can. When you come in contact with the people in the farmers market, and the food, and you taste it, you can never go back. There’s no comparison.

Yes, it takes a little longer to shop at the farmers market, but what you get, in my mind, is an experience that enriches one’s life. It’s an experience of connecting with people. It smells good. It tastes good. It has a good feeling about it. There’s no way that that kind of experience can’t seduce people and make the supermarket experience in comparison pretty depressing.

Also we have to begin to understand that a little bit of time shopping in farmers markets will save time in the cooking. If you buy ripe tomatoes, all you have to do is slice them. You don’t have to add salt and sugar, all that stuff that you do to doctor things up that don’t taste very good in the first place.

Also I think the message about the hidden costs of supermarket produce for your health and for the health of the community must be understood. I’ve always said give your money directly to the people who are growing it. They need it. And we don’t need a middleman.

SEASONAL CHEF: Do you think organic produce can gain acceptance in supermarkets?

WATERS: I love that supermarkets are getting organic produce. It brings a certain kind of consciousness to the general public. But organic produce in supermarkets is so overpriced and usually it is not very good looking and, in fact, sometimes rotten because it doesn’t have a long shelf life. People may buy something like that, spend a lot of money on it and feel like they got something that represents organic produce. So I can’t really decide whether it’s doing a disfavor or a service to the organic movement. In general I think it’s probably not a good idea to have it in a supermarket. But sometimes you’re dependent on supermarkets. And I would rather buy slightly second-rate organic produce than conventionally grown produce. Then I will make something of it.

I’ve thought there should be somebody in the supermarket who could hawk organic produce a little bit. But supermarkets don’t seem to be able to afford someone like that. There are millions of checkers and helpers all around the store, but supermarkets just don’t seem to understand the need to have someone like that in a produce section.
Food matters. Healthy food and fresh water nurture the heart of life.

Enjoy your Sunday. Eat something fresh and tasty.