The children of Chez Panisse
Chefs who labored in the famed Shattuck Avenue restaurant keep opening hot spots of their own
Last November, chef Daniel Patterson wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine questioning whether Alice Waters and her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, have had too much influence on the food community. He suggested that Waters’s theory of simple, seasonal, local, organic cooking threatened to stifle chefly creativity. The food world went into a flutter.
It’s true that over the last three and a half decades, Chez Panisse has influenced the way American chefs think about food and its origins. And nowhere is that impact more direct than here in Northern California.
To which we say, what’s not to like?
We not only embrace the essential vitality of the cuisine at Chez Panisse as our own, we delight in the many restaurants opened by chefs trained there.
Chefs who have cooked at Chez Panisse emerge from its kitchens as from an artists’ commune—if not a seminary. They come out energized to practice and propagate the Gospel According to Alice, and we say, amen, hallelujah, and let’s check out Eccolo or Quince or Pizzaiolo or …
Chez Panisse has made an indelible mark on its progeny, and, as a result, enhanced the Bay Area’s restaurant landscape. So you don’t always have to return to the mother: You can dine at the restaurants of the children of Chez Panisse.
Mary Jo Thoresen
It was early in her 12-year stay at Chez Panisse that Mary Jo Thoresen, now pastry chef and co-owner of Jojo on Oakland’s Piedmont Avenue, learned that success sometimes comes from not struggling with the insurmountable. “We had this dessert on the menu at Chez Panisse—these caramelized clementines,” recalls Thoresen. “They were really labor intensive. You would peel the clementine, but you couldn’t pierce the membrane. If you did, the segment would get wet and the caramel wouldn’t stick. The pastry chef at the time, Lindsey Shere, came in and did one. It looked lovely. Fine. But doing 105 of them for dinner service downstairs at the restaurant? As soon as she left [that day], we realized we couldn’t do that dessert. Instead, we decided to make a clementine crème anglaise served with oeufs à la neige and a pistachio and caramel sauce. I was stunned that we were going to change the menu, but Lindsey was fine with it the next day. All of a sudden, it all broke away: I realized that if something’s not working, it’s just not going to work.”
Jojo, which Thoresen runs with her partner, Curt Clingman, is a tiny sliver of a restaurant that serves knock-out food, from escarole salads to seafood stews to desserts that would make Shere proud, such as a perfect rendition of her almond tart.
Thoresen says her training at Chez Panisse still proves valuable today. “Jojo will be celebrating its seven-year anniversary in December, but I still draw on my experience at Chez Panisse daily,” says Thoresen. “My time there was such a great influence on the things that I do.
It really stays with you.”
Jojo, 3859 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 985-3003, www.jojorestaurant.com
Charlie Hallowell is the chef-owner behind Pizzaiolo, the instantaneously popular Neapolitan pizza restaurant that opened in Summer 2005 in Oakland’s Temescal district. Hallowell began cooking at Chez Panisse when he was 21, and, unlike most cooks, he knew nothing about the restaurant’s cult status.
“My only cooking job had been in this shitty restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf,” says Hallowell. “I stumbled into the job at Chez Panisse. I had no idea who Alice Waters was. I didn’t even know that people really went to cooking school. I thought organic food was brown rice and seitan [chewy wheat gluten].
”After a few weeks ordering pantry items and taking inventory at the restaurant, Hallowell realized how different the life of a cook was at Chez Panisse. “I never thought that my job and my ideas about the world would line up,” he says. “But it started to dawn on me right away that there was more integrity at Chez Panisse—by leaps and bounds—than at any other place I had worked. Everybody was good at what they did. Everybody worked as a team. They took pride in what they did and were committed to being cooks.”
Hallowell was so impressed that he stayed for eight years. He worked his way through the four positions on the café kitchen line, including the wood-fired oven station that would be the impetus for the pizzas and wood oven–cooked dishes at Pizzaiolo, where the menu also offers seasonal appetizers and salads, two pastas that change daily, and a daily special such as braised short ribs.
“At Chez Panisse, there was this awesome mentor-student relationship,” Hallowell explains. “When it’s applied properly from both sides, it can be a profound relationship. You learn how to do these beautiful things and how to really think about food.”
Pizzaiolo, 5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-4888, www.pizzaiolo.us
Ask people who really know exquisite food what their favorite San Francisco restaurant is, and many will say Quince. Although influenced by the cuisines of Italy, France, and Spain, the food prepared by chef and co-owner Michael Tusk feels very Bay Area. As an example, simple yet brilliant pasta dishes rely solely on seasonal produce and silky, house-made noodles.
Before opening Quince, Tusk worked at Chez Panisse for four years, from 1990 to 1994. “The quality of the produce and the relationship with the farmers are both so impressive,” says Tusk of his experience there. “If you’re like me, coming from New Jersey in your twenties, back then you weren’t exactly familiar with Meyer lemons and green garlic. I remember checking in the pristine products, like those in the boxes from Chino Ranch, every Wednesday. Carrots of all different colors, peppers—it’s mind-blowing for a cook.”
That eye-opening experience continues to affect the way Tusk runs Quince, which, along with Chez Panisse, was one of a handful of Bay Area restaurants to earn a star from the recently published Michelin Guide. “As a chef, it’ll always be there with you: to have that drive to find and build up relationships with the farmers and inspire your own crew to do the same,” says Tusk. “I’m still going to four farmers markets a week. My cooks will go with me on pickups. They know the farms. They know when tomatoes are at their peak and why I’m buying a lot of dry-farmed tomatoes from Joe Schirmer at Dirty Girl Farms.”
Tusk says he considers himself a steward of the Chez Panisse legacy. “If my crew leave Quince and open up their own restaurants, where they buy from the same smaller farmers, they’ll have the ability to make a difference and impart that to the customer. And I’ll have done my job.”
Quince, 1701 Octavia St., San Francisco, (415) 775-8500, www.quincerestaurant.com
Gayle Pirie worked as Alice Waters’s assistant for four years, between 1993 and 1997, but she is also a chef and would cook downstairs at Chez Panisse when they were short a hand. There, she, like Hallowell, was surprised to find a learning environment in the kitchen that was based on collaboration. “I didn’t understand the dynamic at first,” says Pirie, “I thought everything there came from one person. But they really expect you to be a contributor.”
Pirie says she thinks the lessons she learned at Chez Panisse have led to her success at her own restaurant, Foreign Cinema, in San Francisco’s Mission District. She took over the restaurant with her co–executive chef, co-owner, and partner, John Clark, in 2001. Before their arrival, the restaurant was on its way to becoming another casualty of the dot-com bust. Seven years later, Foreign Cinema is very much a part of the local culinary scene, although its atmosphere is more Los Angeles than San Francisco. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the flash and pop of the paparazzi’s cameras at the restaurant, where classic movies like La Dolce Vita are projected on the back wall of the enormous patio and the interior has a stark, industrial design. As slick as it is, Foreign Cinema reveals local values at its core: A fireplace warms the main dining room, and local ingredients, such as Marin “bebe” lettuces and meat from sustainable ranches, such as Meyer Ranch in Montana, make up the menu.
“Chez Panisse solidified for me the fact that all restaurants have to do it all over again every day,” says Pirie. “You have to prove yourself and not rest on your laurels. When we get a good review at Foreign Cinema, it doesn’t mean we get to relax. It has to get better and better.”
Foreign Cinema, 2534 Mission St., San Francisco, (415) 648-7600, www.foreigncinema.com
Thirty-two years ago, Christopher Lee, chef and owner of Eccolo on Fourth Street in Berkeley, ate at Chez Panisse for the first time. He still remembers the entire meal. “The menu was $6.50 per person. We had a beautiful salad of green beans, shell beans, and tomatoes. Now you see it everywhere. Then there was an oyster bisque with fresh oysters floating in it. The main course was lamb from Dal Porto Ranch and a round of potato gratin.”
Then in 1987, Lee cooked a try-out meal when applying for a job at the restaurant, which included a mussel soup called billi bi, grilled squab for the main course, and roasted lady apples with crème anglaise for dessert.
At the end of the meal, Paul Bertolli, another notable Chez Panisse alum who later put Oliveto on the map, gave Lee a tip that he still uses to this day. “Paul said it really helps if you coarsely chop ingredients instead of leaving them whole in soups or risotto—that way the flavor permeates the whole dish.”
After 16 years of cooking at Chez Panisse, Lee opened Eccolo, an Italian-influenced restaurant with a coolly hip atmosphere where you’ll find such soulful food as roasted gypsy peppers stuffed with saffron risotto and wild fennel-rubbed pork loin served with shell beans. “My goal is to keep it simple but have the greatest amount of flavor you can find in a dish,” says Lee. “You keep adjusting until the dish is exactly right.”
Eccolo, 1820 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 644-0444, www.eccolo.com
A few doors down from Pizzaiolo on Telegraph is Bakesale Betty, a shop named for the blue-wigged character Alison Barakat created and personifies. When Barakat began serving her Australian-style baked goods at the Danville farmers market in March of 2002, she quickly developed such a devoted following that opening her own shop was simply the next logical step.
But it was acquiring a job at Chez Panisse three months after she moved from Sydney in 2000 that started her on this path. “I knew about Chez Panisse from the cookbooks,” says Barakat. “My plan was to walk in and ask if they knew of a good restaurant where I could get work. I didn’t have a place to live; I didn’t know anybody. Russell Moore, the chef in the café, said, ‘Would you like to work here for a day?’ So I came in. At the time, I was pretty fearless. I didn’t realize the audacity of it until later on.”
Barakat spent three years at Chez Panisse; her last year she also worked weekends selling her caramel sauce–topped sticky date pudding, chewy oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and Australian housewife-style rolled-in-coconut lamingtons at farmers markets.
She and her husband, Michael Camp, opened Bakesale Betty on Telegraph Avenue in June 2005, and, like Pizzaiolo, it took off like a shot. It began with three employees. Now, there are 30 scrambling to keep up with customer demand at lunch for Barakat’s crisp, juicy fried chicken sandwich topped with freshly made jalapeno-spiked cole slaw and served on French rolls from Acme Bread Co. (itself the business of another child of Chez Panisse, Steve Sullivan).
“I feel a lot of my Chez Panisse training coming out at Bakesale Betty,” says Barakat. “It’s there in the commitment to quality, the thinking about flavors, catering to what people want, and doing it well. Most of all, I think it’s the simplicity that shines through. You have to keep it simple, so it comes out the best way possible.”
Bakesale Betty, 5098 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 985-1213,