Friday, July 06, 2007

Alice Waters & Chez Panisse

For summer reading, I've had the pleasure of spending a several hours with Thomas MacNamee's book
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Utterly Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution. This is a suprisingly candid, arguably unsparing, portrait of Alice Waters and the legendary restaurant Chez Panisse.

MacNamee chronicles Waters' growing fascination and delight in all things French. He covers the early years in Berkeley when Chez Panisse operated like a dining club for Water's friends. Growing pains, profit pains, a parade of chefs and stories of key staff are currents that wind and flow through the book. MacNamee brings the Water's activities up to date, including her sustainable, organic farming and Edible Schoolyard projects.

I found two key themes recurring throughout the book. First, Alice Waters has powerful vision. In spite of a variety of challenges--personal, financial, political--Waters has stayed true to this vision and willed things to be so; it has worked to an astounding degree. Secondly, the right people seem to show up at the exact moment they're needed, serendipitously, in the life of Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. Whether is was chefs, staff, funding, or inspiration, the right people walk through Water's door. This is somehow, I'm sure, a byproduct of her rock-solid vision and commitment but it is still uncanny.

MacNamee is balanced in his profile and his assessments of Waters and her circle; strengths and shortcomings, moments of triumph and failure appear in equal measure. This book is a great window to food history, life in Berkeley from the 60s on, and a terrific profile of both the lady and the food legend she has created.

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