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August 28, 2011

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Serving fresh food one plate at a time

IF the restaurant world had farm teams, Chez Panisse in California is where the talent scouts would hang out.

The Berkeley restaurant, cofounded by food activist Alice Waters 40 years ago, is famous as a pioneer for serving fresh, local food in season. But in culinary circles it may be just as well known as the training ground for a number of leading lights of the food revolution.

To name just a handful: Jeremiah Tower, founder of the former Stars restaurant in San Francisco and one of the originators of so-called California cuisine; Paul Bertolli, who served as head chef from 1982 to 1992 and went on to become head chef of Oliveto, an Italian restaurant in Oakland, before opening the gourmet salumi company Fra' Mani; and Russell Moore, co-owner of Oakland's Camino restaurant. Add to that Dan Barber of the Blue Hill restaurants in New York, Suzanne Goin of Lucques restaurant in Los Angeles and Steve Sullivan, co-founder of the Acme Bread Company.

What made Chez Panisse such a talent incubator?

"Part of Alice's genius I think is to see a spark of something in people and to figure out if that spark relates to a little fire that she'd like to have going in the restaurant for a while," says Sullivan, who started at Chez Panisse as an 18-year-old busboy and went on to become the restaurant's baker before founding Acme, which still supplies Chez Panisse.

Waters herself thinks it may be due to the restaurant's "philosophy of food," sourcing food at its freshest and teaching cooks to prepare food simply and use the tastiest ingredients.

The culture of Chez Panisse also plays a factor. Chefs are challenged by daily menu changes and must decide what they will serve based on what is in the market and looks good. The restaurant also ignores conventional kitchen hierarchy - chefs do as much grunt work and prep as everyone else in the kitchen.

"It tapped into a kind of creativity," Waters says. "You're never taking anything for granted."

Waters has always served as executive chef, though these days she devotes much of her time to running the Chez Panisse Foundation, a non-profit organization that funds the Edible Schoolyard, a kitchen and garden program integrated into the academic curriculum of an urban middle school.

A number of the festivities for the 40th anniversary - the official birthday is today - center on fundraising activities for the foundation, which is relaunching as The Edible Schoolyard Project.

The program, which began in Berkeley, has a number of affiliates elsewhere and the expanded goal is to build a national curriculum for food education.

The guest list for the anniversary weekend includes such food luminaries as author Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") and Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food. Also attending is musician David Byrne, writer and editor Ruth Reichl, and actor and Edible Schoolyard ambassador Jake Gyllenhaal.

In a world where restaurants open and close in the blink of a season, 40 years is a milestone, one Bertolli credits to "unrelenting commitment to singular purpose - simple, pure food."


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