It seems only fitting that one of my first restaurant reviews be Chez Panisse. Its founder is Alice Waters and she is widely considered one of the pioneers of the local and organic food movement as far back as 1971. So when my wife and I traveled to the Bay Area for my brother’s wedding in May, we made it a point to dine at her restaurant in Berkeley, CA.
Every night is a completely different prix fixe menu of 4 courses (including dessert) inspired by seasonal and local ingredients. The week’s menu is posted at the beginning of each week on their website. There are early sittings and late sittings, and so there is a continuous flow of people moving in and out getting served the same four courses throughout the night. It’s like clockwork. The only variance would be something like what kind of wine you want with your dinner.
I had mixed feelings about this culinary machine. On one hand, I felt the joy of food and the passion for local and fresh ingredients was missing. The restaurant has become a factory lacking in charm and focused more on quantity of meals served and on the size of the final bill. Indeed, I felt like a cog. On the other hand, I can only imagine the security a prix fixe menu combined with a set number of reservations can provide to a restaurant working with premium ingredients of a finite supply. Since they are sourcing their food from smaller, local farmers that are at the mercy of good weather creating good crops, they have wisely put controls into place. Their current system allows for flexibility to adjust meals according to what’s fresh and available, while not being tied to one particular dish whose ingredients could be scarce or of poor quality given the crop and climate that year. Plus, the regimented menu also means less waste. If they have an exact number of reservations each night, they can more accurately order the quantity they need, thus reducing spoilage or waste. It’s quite the brilliant business plan!
I can also appreciate the creativity of the chefs to come up with 7 unique meals, or really 28 different courses in one week, or roughly 1400 in one year. That’s impressive! So odds are that not all 1400 courses will be outstanding. That’s the gamble with Chez Panisse. I wanted to be wowed and inspired by Alice Waters, her vision, and her food. I left with a void I can’t quite explain. There is a soulfulness missing in the machinery that may have been there in the past, but is now lost. What’s left is a sound business with a great formula.