I fell in love with food in France, and when I came back home, I wanted to eat the same way. I went over to my little local bookstore/cookware shop, and I was lucky to find a book by Elizabeth David. I just started cooking out of that book, from beginning to end. It was Summer Cooking, her Provençal cookbook. And then one thing led to another. I just started cooking for a lot of friends, who egged me on, and who really encouraged me and loved it. It’s really important when you’re cooking to have somebody who really wants to eat.
At the the very beginning I felt insecure about cooking for a lot of people, even at home, because I just didn’t think I knew enough. When I wrote Thirty Recipes Suitable for Framing and I was doing this little weekly column for the Express Times, I wanted to use recipes from friends of mine. I was afraid to put my own recipes down. In a way it encouraged me to read more about food. I bought Larousse Gastronomique, and everything I didn’t know, I looked up in that wonderful encyclopedia of food. I was such a Francophile at the time that I thought it was something pretty prestigious to be a cook, to be a chef. I never called myself that. I still don’t call myself a chef. I think that comes from coming through the amateur door.
Women in the Kitchen
I certainly used my femininity in the early days. I wanted to get the best cut of meat from the butcher, and sometimes it took trying to charm him. I do remember that distinctly. I don’t think of it as a sexual seduction, not at all. I was really just thinking how I could get him to give me what I wanted. “Couldn’t I just go into the back room and look at all of the sweetbreads? Couldn’t I please just see?”
I think it was certainly a shock back then for them to see someone small, young, and female wanting to go into the walk-in and take a look at the sweetbreads and carcasses. They were sort of taken aback by the fact that I was a woman, and they just gave me what I wanted.
I know that I am supposed to be an advocate for women in the kitchen, but I don’t think of myself that way. I think it’s terribly important to have both male and female points of view in the kitchen. And I’ve always tried to find that balance of women and men, because we really are different. I think that women, because they have children and are hardwired to be nurturing, think of food as sustenance. And I think that the male point of view is in the more professional place of thinking of the job as being a creative endeavor. But I think it needs both. Ideally men and women can have both of those views as part of their thinking about food and feeding. That is the balance I am trying to strike at Chez Panisse.
Chez Panisse Today
I am in constant collaboration with the chefs. I’m reading their menus and feeding back my critique, and they’re coming back and having a conversation with me. It’s the same thing when I come and eat in the restaurant. I’m really happy that they—or at least I think that they—look forward to my opinion, because it really is valuable. I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve been on both sides. I’ve been in the dining room and I’ve cooked in the kitchen. I’ve been a customer and I sit at the tables. I know what the whole experience is about. I know what can work and what really doesn’t work so well. And I’m always trying to fine tune. I don’t think we’ve ever come to the place where it can’t get any better. I feel like it’s really good, but it’s always a work in progress.
From the beginning, I figured that if we managed to get through the first five years, we’d be here forever. But it wasn’t until the twentieth year that I thought about the longevity of the restaurant. I’ve always said that if it wasn’t alive in the way that it should be, if it was taking itself for granted, then I would close it. Every year at the birthday of the restaurant, I ask myself whether we should close. It is a difficult question for me personally. There are 121 people employed by the restaurant, so the answer is of course no. But I hope that because of the way we have organized it and the way that we constantly renew it, that it will stay relevant and vital. I am not interested in running an institution, something on automatic. No way.
Having a Family
I only had one child. If I had another child, I wouldn’t be able to be at the restaurant. Fanny took all my heart and half my mind. When she was born, I didn’t think I could run the kitchen anymore, because you really have to be there from noon to ten. That’s the very minimum. I just didn’t want to have to choose. I was really scared to leave, so I enlisted my friends to help take care of Fanny, plus her father had very flexible hours. He could bring Fanny to the restaurant and they could have dinner. I know people think it’s a made-up story, but when she was very little and I needed to cook, we would put her in the biggest salad bowl, which was like two feet across. We just put a pillow of towels in the bottom, and she would lie in that and sit on the pastry counter and we’d twirl it around from time to time. She was mesmerized by the lights and the noise and all that was going on in the kitchen. I think we made up a story for Fanny at Chez Panisse about how she spent lots of time in the stockpot. But actually, now that I think of it, I might have put her in there once as a playpen.
We try to switch cooks from working day shifts to night shifts when they have kids, or just give them whatever kind of flexibility that they need. We try to allow them to pick vacations first. It’s difficult to have children and to work full-time, but it is especially hard in restaurants. I think that men and women need to share responsibility for taking care of children.
“The Jaded Palate”
When I was younger, I wanted to open a restaurant for us tired cooks called The Jaded Palate. It was going to have a neon sign that read “for restaurateurs and connoisseurs.” When you walked into the restaurant, you would have every ingredient that you could imagine and a chef standing behind them. You could say, “I just want this with that,” and he would make it. You’d walk into the dining room and there would be lots of wine buckets with cold wine, and there would be both a quiet room and a loud room with live music. And it’d only be open from ten o’clock at night until three in the morning, and all day Sunday and Monday. A cooks’ paradise.
That was the plan I had because I always wanted to go out to dinner. But we had to go to San Francisco to eat late at night. There was only one restaurant on Broadway that was open after midnight. Most restaurants closed down at around ten or ten-thirty, and so you were very limited unless you wanted to go home and cook for yourself, and you most likely didn’t. I wanted to have a life out of the kitchen.
But instead of opening The Jaded Palate, I focused on creating a little more work/life balance for myself and the staff.
When I first started cooking, it was before I had a child and a family, so I was completely willing to have those long hours. But I saw after a while that it was unsustainable. I just couldn’t work six or seven days a week from noon to midnight. I was exhausted by it, so I tried to think of a way to make it civilized. We thought of dividing the job of the chef downstairs in two, so that I could work six months and then Jeremiah [Tower] could work six months, and we could come back refreshed and full of ideas. It worked for me, but it was also my way of keeping people from leaving the restaurant. We then decided we would divide the Café chef role in two as well; that way they could each work three days but be paid for five. It allowed them time to either be with their family or to go and eat in other restaurants, read books, go to the farmers’ market or the farms themselves. It has been enormously successful and inspiring. Instead of just having one idea about the food, you have two. It creates a rich working environment for the chefs.
It’s a matter of being willing to spend the money to really make that happen. You are sort of gambling: paying a chef for a year and having him or her only work six months in the kitchen, and expecting that somehow that will provide a kind of cooking that will keep people coming to the restaurant. I think as restaurants mature, they can get very tired. They can get to a place of just going through the routine. I was trying to think of a way that Chez Panisse could re-inspire itself all the time and that wasn’t always dependent on me.
I bristled when people called what we were doing “California cuisine,” because for me, cuisine implies the test of time. I think of Chinese cuisine; I think of Japanese cuisine; I think of French cuisine. They have had the test of time, and to talk about something so new in that way didn’t feel right; it still doesn’t. We’re working toward that. But people mistake what it is to be cooking in California for ideas of seasonality, locality, of organic, of buying from farmers’ markets. None of that is specific to California. It’s nothing that we have invented in California. Maybe because it seemed original, unique, and radical in comparison to the fast food of the country, it felt like a cuisine.
Elitism and Education
I do understand why I was labeled an elitist at a certain point, but as people’s views around food have changed I don’t hear it very often anymore. I have always felt that I am the total opposite of an elitist, so that criticism enrages me. A couple of years ago I went to a conference in DC around “the future of food,” organized by a major publication. They arranged a panel with me and basically representatives of the big food producers and their lobbyists. Predictably, they tried to box me in as an out-of-touch chef from Berkeley, California. What annoyed me most was that they were pretending that they were somehow on the side of people, looking out for their health, the environment, democracy. They are not—they are on the side of profit, and I said as much. Truly the real elitism is a food system controlled by a handful of corporations. We need to call that out.
I have to say, celebrity chefs have been incredibly important in this country, because we weren’t paying attention to food at all before. Then these charismatic people—whether it was with the right food or not—caught people’s attention. All of a sudden you’d see their faces on the cover of a magazine, and they would have a following. Right now there are a lot of cooks and chefs that I know, who are really coming forth and talking about where our food comes from, supporting the people who are taking care of the land. It’s a great thing because, very sadly, the politicians aren’t talking about it.
Fast-food culture has indoctrinated people. There is a message coming from that industry that there is something elitist about being educated. I see it in a lot of areas in the country, but especially when it comes to food. It’s the idea that “you don’t need to know about this or worry about that, just come buy the food from over here, from us.” We are really imprisoned and we have to get out. And the way out is through education.
Real food should be a right and not a privilege. I think the way we are going to change is by feeding every child a nutritious, delicious lunch for free in school. It is about democracy. An edible education for everybody on the planet that teaches children at an early age about the care of the land and about how to feed themselves and how to communicate at the table—that is going to lead to peace on this planet and a sustainable future.
On Morality and Eating With Intention
To feed children food that isn’t good for them is immoral. Not feeding children for free at school is immoral. We have an obligation to do that. I also think that we have a responsibility to eat with moral intention. What I mean by that is that when we buy our food, we should know who’s producing it, where it comes from, that it’s being produced by people who take care of the land for the future of this planet.
I can’t not make a judgment about people who know that it’s wrong to eat food that is produced in ways that damage the environment and the health of this country, but continue to do so. We’re all paying for it. But I don’t like to point out wrongdoing. I am not just saying, “You’re eating improperly.” I am always ready to help, to engage people, to try and show them things—whether it’s how to garden, how to eat affordably, or how to bring a little pleasure from food. It’s something that gives me so much pleasure that I want to share it with somebody else, and that’s the long and short of it.
I’d like to have a billion dollars so I could give it all away. I get huge pleasure from giving money away to projects, to people. I think about it all the time. I really don’t need a whole lot of money. I don’t need a bigger house; I actually want a smaller house. I feel lucky to have what I have. Maybe it stems from the values of the sixties and the shock of what those corporations were doing back then. Certainly I continue to be shocked by what’s going on right now, and I don’t want to participate in it. I don’t want to take money from it. I don’t want to be used by it. And so I try to be extremely careful about taking money.
I do think of myself as an activist now. Public speaking or going on TV or radio has always been difficult for me, but I know that I have to do it. David Brower, one of the great environmentalists of our times, told me that if I have strong opinions, I need to speak out. He was eighty-five, and said, “I just can’t do this myself, I need help from all of you.” And I heard him.
I feel so hopeful about the generation that is growing up right now in this country, because they’re communicating with people around the world, they know what’s happening to the environment, they’re sensitive. I think they’re similar to my generation that came of age in the sixties—both very idealistic and passionate, and willing to stand behind our beliefs. But they have something else that is really, really important: a willingness to live with a lot less. Not drop out and go live on a commune like we were willing to do, but to be an activist on the land and to find the culture of that place. They have an awareness of what’s going to happen to this planet if we don’t change our ways.
As told to David Prior.