You can't tell the story of Chez Panisse, Berkeley's famed restaurant, without relating that of its diminutive founder, proprietor, and sometime chef, Alice Waters. This is what Thomas McNamee does most handily in his Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
, a chronicle that begins with the seat-of-the-pants opening night of the "counterculture" venture in 1971, and ends 35 years later with Waters's restaurant an American institution--one credited with birthing California Cuisine, a style devoted to simplicity, freshness and seasonality. The book also limns, with tasty gossip, the ever-evolving Chez Panisse family, including the cook-artisans uniquely responsible for dish creation; follows the attempts, mostly failed, to put the restaurant on sound financial footing; shows how dishes and menus get made; and of course pursues Waters as she broadens her commitment to "virtuous agriculture" by establishing ventures like The Edible Schoolyard and The Yale Sustainable Food Project.
The success of Chez Panisse--Gourmet magazine named it the best American restaurant in 2002--has everything to do with Waters, yet she remains an elusive protagonist. Sophisticated yet naive, professional and amateur, hard-driving but emotionally blurry, she invites reader interest but doesn't always satisfy it, as least as presented here. If McNamee cannot quite bring her to life, and if his tale lacks an insider's full conversance with his subject, he still engages readers in the considerable drama of people finding their way--blunderingly, with talented intent--to something new. With menus, narrated recipes, and photographs throughout, the book is vital reading for anyone interested in food, period. --Arthur Boehm
From Publishers Weekly
Talk about dish: McNamee's book is a gossipy history of the famed restaurant and a biography of the individual behind its three-decade rise from humble beginnings to international renown. Alice Waters was a young, single American woman with strong, confident sense and vision but little experience in the restaurant business when she moved to Berkeley in the 1960s. She loved food and cooking, and dreamed of opening a restaurant; her passion and enthusiasm eventually produced a location, a crew and a clientele. The book chronicles the following decades with extensive detail from a behind-the-scenes viewpoint, going from stovetop to bedroom, from opening night right up through the restaurant's recent 35th anniversary. Larger-than-life personalities abound, but the primary focus is Waters, whose success occasionally comes across as attributable to accidents and other people as often as design. The author researched restaurant archives and interviewed dozens of willing subjects with Waters's approval, and the result is a mélange of reverential biography with restaurant and food history. Sidebars scattered throughout the text provide additional anecdotes and insight into Waters's favorite dishes. Serious foodies will devour this memoir. B&w photos. (Mar.)
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