Yes, it is almost embarrassing that we had such a gastronomic experience while in Napa and Sonoma. Not only did we have an incredible dinner at French Laundry, but also a night starting with a beautiful glass of Carneros Chardonnay from Mi Sueno on the patio at Farm at The Carneros Inn followed by Italian night with dinner at Michael Chiarello’s Bottega, and ended with a lunch at the home of the eat-local food movement, Chez Panisse.
A little background. 40 years ago this month the amazing Alice Waters opened a little bistro to resemble the way she cooked for friends in her home, in the heart of Berkeley, California with the idea of really letting natural flavors in food sing, using local produce grown around you, and eating with true seasonality, Chez Panisse. Asparagus is best in the spring, we shouldn’t eat grapes in the winter time, and cauliflower and celery are really the best in the fall and winter time. There is an overwhelming belief that food should be grown naturally, organically, with attention given as much to the earth as the actual produce. And the produce has always been the main driver, with the menu changing daily based on what is fresh and available.
Attention is given to every detail, hoping guests feel at home inside the cozy walls of Chez Pannise whether they are dining for dinner in the wood-walled dining room downstairs looking into the fast moving kitchen, or upstairs in the Cafe lined with menus from the years of daily service this quaint, and yet legendary restaurant has created. Though there is an obvious dedication to local, the real key behind the whole idea is that it tastes good. Like the flavor of home-grown tomatoes, just picked so they are still warm from the sunlight and served with a dash of sea salt. Or fresh lettuce picked and herbs, picked straight from the garden and served with just a bit of good olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. You taste the real flavors of food when they aren’t overly processed, sauced or fried.
I read an excerpt from one of Alice Water’s cookbooks, The Art of Simple Cooking, at the start of our Dallas Uncorked harvest dinner event every year. Though it is hard to follow her practices completely there are basic principles that are easy to follow, like waiting until fruits and vegetables are in season to eat them. One, they will taste better and two, you have the excitement and anticipation of tasting fresh beans or spring peas or ripe cantaloupe. You get a level of satisfaction from food that will turn any “food is fuel” person into a true foodie.
Chef Waters has also started a major food movement in 1996 with the 25 anniversary of the restaurant focused on our schools, The Chez Panisse Foundation, supporting an educational program that uses food to nurture, educate and empower youth. The Chez Panisse Foundation envisions a school curriculum and school lunch program where growing, cooking, and sharing food at the table gives students the knowledge and values to build a humane and sustainable future. The foundation is becoming the Edible Schoolyard this fall to take their initiatives to another level with teaching gardens, improved lunch programs and education to get a hold on the obesity epidemic plaguing America’s youth today. The programs teach kids how to grow their own food, prepare healthy meals and, a big key, that food that is good (not just for you, but also really tastes good) should be something to celebrate and appreciate, removing the notion that food is fast, cheap and easy.
With that, we were thrilled to obtain a lunch reservation the day Gary had to head back to Dallas, while I stayed on to participate in the workshop. We were upstairs in the Cafe, instead of in the main dining room, as they only have lunch upstairs. But we were also able to order ala carte, instead of following the chef’s nightly fixed menu. Though the atmosphere was bustling, as the lunch crowd moved in and out, gathering over lunch meetings or simply an afternoon out with friends, the mood was still very comfortable, casual and inviting. Over a glass of Rully Chardonnay we admired the room and perused the menu. California classic is the best way to describe it, or perhaps, Chez Panisse classic.
Lots of salads, proteins from farms or ranches within the area, local fish and seasonal produce, like a Pizza with Wild Nettles and Pecorino, or wood-oven roasted Monterey Bey sardines with pimento peppers. We settled on baked Andante Dairy goat cheese with garden lettuces to share to start. A dish probably made most popular in the mid-1980’s in California, with lightly battered and baked creamy goat cheese, paired simply with big pieces of just picked lettuce is still a star.
Gary enjoyed a luscious plate of hand-cut pasta next with baby tomatoes and a fresh basil pesto, while I savored an artistic plate of roasted red and golden beets with avocado in a citrus vinaigrette. Though well structured, these are simple dishes highlighting ingredients instead of product placement, which you of course have to be a master to pull off successfully. Though no tweezers are used in plating of a Chez Panisse dish, the thought and execution is dedicated and delicious.
If you want to get involved with the Edible Schoolyard throw a dinner party this weekend in honor of the 40th Anniversary of Chez Panisse. Find a local school who is creating a garden to teach with in their school and volunteer, or donate to the national program. Not only will you help provide a useable skill to kids across the country that they can take well beyond the classroom, but you will also help give kids an understanding about how special our local farmers are and how delicious freshly grown, local food can be.