By Thomas McNamee
Penguin Press, $28
Chez Panisse opened in 1971 in Berkeley, California. The brainchild of Alice Waters, then 27 years old, the restaurant became famous for its great food, offbeat charm, and devotion to using homegrown, high-quality ingredients. For his book, author Thomas McNamee received untrammeled access to Waters and to her family, friends, business partners, and employees to produce a chatty, authorized tome. It is a biography of Waters and her restaurant, but it is also a primer on how to make a restaurant successful despite seemingly overwhelming odds. For foodies, not incidentally, the book also contains recipes scattered throughout, often placed next to a text reference to a specific dish.
Waters grew up in New Jersey, in a financially comfortable family. Her father's insurance job moved the family to California, where Waters attended high school and then stayed for college. Intelligent, popular, petite, and attractive, she breezed through life. Food did not figure prominently in that life, however, until 1965, when the undergraduate Waters traveled to France for education and enjoyment. With a friend from college, she learned the French language, enjoyed the culture, and fell in love with the restaurant food. Returning to Berkeley, a University of California campus in political turmoil, Waters found peace and enjoyment by cooking French meals. Her reputation as a talented amateur chef grew. She had a satisfying career teaching at the Berkeley Montessori School, but she knew she wanted to cook professionally, so she began figuring out how that might happen, plotting what kind of restaurant she wanted to open. As the 1970s began, Waters located just enough financing and just the right existing building to follow her dream.
McNamee organizes the book chronologically. Readers who care little about the business of running a restaurant might find portions of the book boring, because the month-by-month detail is, well, detailed. But anybody who enjoys eating superb food in a restaurant setting is quite likely to consume every word. The tension within the book is minimal. Feuds with chefs and co-owners arise, certainly, and a fire closes the kitchen for a few weeks, yet readers know the restaurant will survive into 2007. Because the dramatic arc is weak, the book is best read slowly, savored a chapter a day, in much the way a Chez Panisse meal is eaten, course by course. - Steve Weinberg