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Review: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse

September 2nd, 2007 · No Comments · General, local food

There’s no question that Alice Waters has been hugely influential in food in America, and her efforts are recounted in Thomas McNamee‘s recent history, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, impractical, often eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution.

Alice Waters and Chez PanisseI read the book with interest but can’t say that I’m as enthusiastic about it as many reviewers. It’s a story with too many characters, perhaps an inevitable result of trying to detail the workings of a restaurant across 30 years.

Chefs come and go. Managers come and go. Assistants come and go. Waters’ love interests come and go. Waters herself comes and goes, although her influence is always there. It gets a little tedious.

Even menus and cooking styles come and go—until at last Chez Panisse finds its way as the developer of California cuisine, making the most of fresh, local ingredients rather than merely interpreting or imitating the French food that originally inspired Waters.

McNamee leaves questions open, such as how Chez Panisse financed itself during all the no-profit years, and fails to deliver a sense of who Waters is as a person. We can see she is a visionary, a committed, demanding perfectionist who doesn’t mind taking credit even when it probably should be shared. She sounds like a major pain in the neck, but we don’t get much of a sense of how she got that way. McNamee says on more than one occasion that Waters doesn’t let people into her head (but I can’t put my finger on a quote), and the book certainly doesn’t go there.

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse does a fine job of showing the evolution of the restaurant and Waters’ interest in expanding her food ethic beyond Chez Panisse, but if you want to know Waters, you’ll be disappointed.


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