Chez Chaos


The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric,

Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution

By Thomas McNamee

The Penguin Press -- $27.95

Before Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, Americans of a certain age could be forgiven for thinking that mesclun was a hallucinogenic. But Waters soon taught a generation raised on iceberg lettuce drenched in orange "French" dressing that mesclun is actually a sprightly mix of tender salad greens.

In Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, Thomas McNamee tells how this flower child with an iron will spearheaded a movement that changed the way Americans think about, shop for, and prepare food. McNamee, a journalist, screenwriter, and poet, has created a "restaurography"—part biography, part history—of Waters' iconic Berkeley eating establishment and unlikely entrepreneurial success. He shows how the zeitgeist of the mid-1960s inspired Waters to create not just "California cuisine" but a holistic philosophy of sustainability. Says Waters: "If you decide you're going to eat in a very specific way, it changes your life and it changes the world around you."

The revolution started in 1965, when the New Jersey-born Waters spent a semester in France, where a simple bowl of vegetable soup prompted her to change how she thought about food and culture. She tells McNamee: "It felt like I had never eaten before. And everything that went with it...was a sensibility that was not part of my life." In 1971, four years after graduating from the University of California, and with Montessori training credentials, waitressing, and trekking through Europe under her belt, Waters opened a restaurant named after Panisse, a character in a series of Marcel Pagnol films. Some of her more practical friends helped her collect startup capital from other friends, family, and some local dope dealers. Says Waters: "We couldn't get it from a bank, God knows."


Although she only occasionally cooked, Waters dominated the restaurant through the strength of her personality, vision, and pitch-perfect palate. In 1973, she and some close friends and investors created a corporation named Pagnol et Compagnie, with the senior shareholders as directors. This core group has remained through the decades, despairing at times over its inability to rein in Waters' profligacy. She poured free champagne every night, spent as much as she liked on food and decor, and donated to pet causes. Scattered through McNamee's account are details that evoke disbelief: Chez Panisse, with $7 million in sales last year and 119 employees, lacked even a cogent filing system for its first three decades, went 13 years without making money, and moved substantially into the black only in 2000. In its first few years, some $30,000 worth of wine was unaccounted for, and staff memos repeatedly warned waiters and cooks about being drunk on the job. Bills went unpaid for years, with no apparent penalty, and the occasional disgruntled investor was bought out with a low-interest, long-term note. Waters' loyal investors continued to ante up and managed to hold the operation together. Says Greil Marcus, a music critic and original partner: "Alice is the person who says, 'Of course it is possible,' when everybody else is saying it is impossible."

Despite the low-level chaos, by the end of its first decade the restaurant's transition from French to California cuisine was in full swing, and it became a destination for celebrities and politicians. In the early 1980s, Waters had a daughter and grew more convinced that she and others in the food industry "are in a position to cause people to make important connections between what they are eating and a host of crucial environmental, social, and health issues." Waters became the standard bearer in a nascent campaign against what the author calls "the juggernaut of industrial agriculture." She delegated running the restaurant to others while she made speeches, traveled, and formed international alliances with like-minded people. She helped establish the "slow food" movement, an anti-agribusiness effort that began in Italy, in the U.S.

McNamee's tone, which is frequently adoring, can grate. And this book is in no way a guide to starting and running a business. But for celebrants of great American restaurants, and business owners inspired by other entrepreneurs' single-minded passions, Waters' long, strange trip is a fascinating journey.

By Marilyn Harris

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.