Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution
by Thomas McNamee
Penguin, 400 pp., $27.95
If you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette, you can imagine what the path to a revolution is littered with. In his biography of the "mother of American cooking," author Thomas McNamee tells the circuitous tale of Alice Waters and the mindful food-and-farm cause she has championed. As anyone who has ever had the experience can tell you, it is simultaneously maddening and inspiring to work with a maverick. McNamee's book is filled with characters and colleagues who were inspired by Waters and those who were overwhelmed by this diminutive dynamo.
As a child of the Sixties whose spiritual home is Berkeley, Calif., Waters was unlikely to create an empire of multiple restaurants on various coasts and in Las Vegas, signature cooking supplies, and celebrity appearances. Where Waters' pursuit of perfection led her was to the source: the very farms where the food originated. On the way, she became obsessed with the industrial nature of American farming: the soil-depleting and pesticide-ridden crops that were grown on megafarms. Likewise, the sodium- and corn-syrup-filled processed foods of the typical grocery store horrified her. Partnerships with area farmers were created, providing Chez Panisse with uncompromised quality products. The Edible Schoolyard gave students hands-on experience with growing their own and the benefits thereof.
At the root, Waters is an unabashed Francophile, and while the current menu (each day offers just one multicourse option) reflects the evolution of Waters' sensibilities, early offerings were fussier. One could find sweetbreads in a brioche pastry with Champagne sauce or the outlandish timbale épicurienne, a one-dish meal of lobster with veal essence and brandy, shrimp with red wine, shallots, beef marrow, oysters poached in white wine, cream, and shrimp butter and truffles.
Her personal life is equally complicated and interesting. Lovers come and go, oceans of Champagne are quaffed, drugs are imbibed. Jeremiah Tower, one of first great chefs of Chez Panisse declares, "It was cocaine that became the fuel for the energy that changed the way America dines." Good to know!