I just got back from a month and a half in Berkeley, California, working at Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s restaurant. I got the connection through my job last year working in a farm in San Diego (Chino farm), they send out boxes of produce every two weeks up to Chez Panisse and have been friends with Alice for long time. Through them I got her contact, and met her in Turin last year during the slow food fair. Alice is the vice president of Slow Food Usa, and she is known to be founder of the Farm to table movement in the states. Also, she started a big project called the Edible Schoolyard project, and is very involved in social and political food issues around the states and internationally.
She opened Chez Panisse when she was 27 years old, after travelling in France and receiving her Montessori teaching certificate. The initial intention was to keep cooking food for friends and family but just for a bigger crowd, and soon the restaurant became famous, today it serves all organic, seasonal, local and very traditional based food. This year, it celebrated its 46th birthday. Alice doesn’t cook in the restaurant anymore, but she is still very present and knows what’s going on and what is being served each week. Whenever she isn’t travelling she comes in and “checks” on things, trying the menu foods, giving advice and critiques.
Alice is a legend and one of those people I “look up” to since I found out about her. I contacted her at the beginning of this year, asking her if I could be of any help to her in any way during my summer break. I didn’t mention anything about working in the kitchen, I was open to do whatever, I even offered to be her personal assistant. I got a reply right away from her and couple hours later also from the head chef. Within two days an internship in the restaurant was organized. It felt so great and the fact I got an answer so quickly gave me such a positive feeling about it! (Last year, I tried getting an internship in a much less known restaurant and it took me two months and a lot of emails..)
Chez Panisse is located on the main street of north Berkeley, which is a 30 min subway ride from San Francisco. It is considered the most liberal-minded town in America (more than San Francisco), home to the counterculture hippie movement of the sixties. Still today, Berkeley is full of students going to Cal, and alternative minded people.
Downstairs is the restaurant, which serves about 90 people a night divided into 2 seatings and has always been on a fixed menu (customers have to reserve at least 2 or 3 weeks in advance). While upstairs is the cafe, which is open for both lunch and dinner, there is an open menu, it’s more casual and serves more tables.
I interned the whole time in the downstairs part. The downstairs team is small and composed of only 4 chefs plus the head chef (and the interns, usually 1 or 2). It was an amazing experience and I learned so much.
The menu is written the week before by the head chefs, based on the seasonal produce and possibility of products. It is sent to Alice for approval and published on the website the sunday before. The appetizer and first are usually fish and salads, while the main is always some kind of meat, prepared in the fire pit which is one of the symbols of the restaurant.
A big part of the restaurant is to have customers walk through the kitchen and have them see where their food is coming from, from a REAL kitchen and a beautiful one. This is why clients need to walk inside and pass by the chefs and the pastry station in order to get to the toilet. Many customers come in and look around on their own for curiosity, but you could tell some felt a bit “out-of-place” while walking through the busy kitchen. Though, most of them, are mesmerized by the action and take lots of pictures and give compliments to the workers.
This was my Schedule on a regular day:
1:15 Arrive at restaurant, get my apron on, fold towels and look on the menu of the day for possible items to pick / clean while we have our meeting.
1:30 – 2:00 Meeting with downstairs chefs and head chef. We talk about the menu of the day (written by the head chef the week before) and assign one chef for each course: appetizer, first, main, and vegetables. The head chef talks about how they want to create that dish, what herbs and seasonings and just have an open conversation with everyone accepting advises from all. In fact, once the chef is assigned with its course, they are pretty much free to do it as they wish, of course following the initial guidelines. During the meeting, we shell beans, shuck corn, take stems off tomatoes…anything that takes time to do, but doesn’t require too much attention to it!
2:00 – 5.00 Prep time: everyone works on their courses and preps everything. the interns (me) are given tasks from anyone who needs the most help and just assists them in any way.
5:00 Clean up time: everyone stops what they are doing, clears off the kitchen tables, take the rubber carpets out, swipe the floors and clean the counters. Customers need to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom so it needs to look at it’s best. After clean up, the chefs put on their part of the counters everything they need for service time, which by this time should be all done.
5:30 – 7:30 First seatings (yes, some people eat early in the states…haha). While each chef works on their course, the interns help out in any way, like additional picking or washing lettuces, or just anything that wasn’t prepared in time for serving. Otherwise, start prepping for the following day’s menu.
7:30 – 8:00 Family meal: the interns set a table outside near the staff area, bring plates, cutlery, napkins, bread, and wine glasses. By this time customers of the first seating are having their desserts or have finished already, so each chef prepares a big platter of their course for our dinner. And the head chef decides on a bottle of wine for us to drink from the wine list. This is one of the things that makes this place so special, we were eating the same food as customers with a bottle of wine, AND sitting down!! Unfortunately, this is a very rare and unusual thing for many restaurants.
8:00 – 10:30 during the second seating, the interns butcher the meats for the following day. Since all the meats come in big pieces, full bodies or carcasses, it takes time to prepare so they are always done they day before. For example, I would saw the pork ribs and take fat off, or prepare the duck breasts and legs, cut the pigeon heads, wings, legs off…all sorts of things. After butchering we clean up, take the trash out, sanitize the meat counters, clean all the knives, check for stocks etc.
I loved working there, so much attention is given to the raw ingredients, where it comes from, how it tastes, how fresh it is. Downstairs they use the best of the best. There’s tons of compost bins around us during prep, all the organic matter (no animal products) gets put in big bins and sent to the local farmer in Sonoma where most of the fresh produce comes from (their driver goes to pick the vegetables there twice a week). I went to visit their main farmer Bob Cannard and loved talking to him. I spent most of my time asking the chefs where everything was coming from, how they source and who is in charge. There’s just a very big sensibility about quality there.
One of the things I was mostly surprised by was the huge amount of animal products used every night. Each course was either fish or meat based (sometimes there was a vegetarian appetizer or first). Of course, since all is organic, local, seasonal and very “slow food-ish” the meats come from good sources, but I still was surprised to see how very traditional based the cuisine is (based on the issues we have today with climate change, feeding the planet etc.). I’ve never touched and looked at raw meat so much before working at Chez Panisse. Being a vegetarian for so long now, I don’t know how to cook meat or fish, let alone how to prep / cut / trim fat off etc. Oddly enough I wasn’t disgusted or scared as many might think. The strangest thing at the beginning for me was to simply touch raw meat and I noticed as time went on, that feeling flew away. Interestingly, I actually liked that part of the day a lot, it felt like I was getting to know and understanding better the animal’s anatomy and why certain parts are used for cooking and others not. I love learning new things and this was for sure an untouched territory for me. I’m so used to not eating meat anymore and my personal ethics/choices are very strong and persistent. So, although, I knew this was “good” meat, coming from well raised animals, I still didn’t feel the urge to try, or even want to.
As time went on, I got to know the chefs and the workers there. It seemed like being in a big family. I was having such a good time, and felt needed so it was a very gratifying experience. While I was there, they surprised me with a short video for my birthday (22 this year!) which made it so special.
I was living in a house two blocks away from the restaurant, at Jane white’s house, an incredible woman, friend of Chez Panisse since the beginning. She has a beautiful house, with 4/5 bedrooms and she takes in travellers from all over. Seems like one third of the Chez Panisse workers have stayed at her house once! It was the restaurant to give me her contact. During my stay, I was living with Mamiko, a Japanese girl (also interning at Chez), Hadrien, a french journalist working in San Francisco for the summer and Nick, who works upstairs in the cafe. I was so happy with my living situation, I couldn’t have been luckier! I miss Jane and all my other house mates already! We promised we will see each other again somewhere in the world.
Once again, I’ve had a great summer, learning new things and adding to my professional resume list. One of the things I love the most of travelling is to discover other people’s perspectives, ideas and thoughts, regarding food in particular. And when it comes to global problems (and let’s face it, food is the most political of all), it is only together as a team that we the people can make a difference.