By now, everyone in the country who can tell the difference between an eclair and an entrecote (and quite a few who cannot) knows who Alice Waters is.
She is, of course, the founder of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, one of the fountainheads of California cuisines, which some demanding judges consider the best restaurant in the United States. It is indisputably the most influential one. Before Chez Panisse, even the grandest American restaurants relied on imported, often canned or frozen products; today, the Waters credo — fresh, local, seasonal, and where possible organic ingredients — is followed by hundreds of farmers’ markets, thousands of restaurants, and millions of home cooks.”
— R.W. Apple, Jr, Foreword to the book Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The romantic, impractical, often eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution.
It’s not that Alice Waters set out to start a revolution. Rather, as a young woman, Waters set about to recreate the market-to-table meals that she had experienced on a year long stay in France in the ’60s. Although lacking any formal culinary training, she searched for the freshest ingredients and experimented with methods to best celebrate the ingredients — the result is an approach that has undeniably changed the way that future American generations have approached the season’s first asparagus bunch or a perfectly ripened peach.
Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971 in a refurbished apartment building-turned-restaurant on Shattuck Avenue in the hippie college town of Berkeley. Over the years Chez Panisse has expanded to include a cafe on the upper level, in addition to the dinner-only restaurant located on the first floor. But despite any changes to appearances or menu, Chez Panisse has always stayed true to its values of celebrating local and sustainable ingredients.
A recent visit to Berkeley rewarded us with not only a fabulous three-course dinner but also an interview with Chez Panisse Pastry Co-Chef, Stacie Pierce, a Minnesota native who shared her background and insights into being part of the culinary team behind this legendary restaurant.
From Minnesota to Berkeley, by way of Norway
I grew up in Plymouth and went to high school in Osseo. Until I graduated from Hamline University, I lived in Minneapolis — in that area.
I had a very basic, Midwestern suburban upbringing — nothing that exciting about it at all. We do have a family farm in South Dakota and we would go there in the summertime and help milk cows and gather eggs. I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn or anything, but I did have an appreciation for it. Even though I liked living in the city, I really liked eating there. It was more interesting than just going to the grocery store and having a casserole.
After college I moved to Norway for six years and went to grad school, studying Nordic archaeology. To pay for housing and my life there, I got a job in a kitchen. I cooked at a small bistro for the duration.
I moved back to the States in 2000 and moved here [Berkeley]. I was planning to stay for 6 months and then return to Norway, but I just really liked living here.
Publishing to Pastry Co-Chef at Chez Panisse
I never even heard of Chez Panisse when I left Minnesota and went to Norway. When I moved to Berkeley, that is when I first heard about Chez Panisse. When I moved here I was in publishing and not cooking. All the time I was there in publishing, I took authors to dinners; I was working as an editor. I’d look in the kitchens and think ‘I wish I was in there.’ I quit publishing after three years and went into the kitchen.
I have no idea how I got a job, but I did at this really great restaurant in the city called Foreign Cinema. I worked there for three years as a line cook. I worked primarily savory up until that point, until I worked here [Chez Panisse]. This is my first pastry job.
In 2003, I interned at Oliveto in Oakland, and that’s how I got here. Paul Canales (Executive Chef there) is married to the then-pastry chef here [Chez Panisse], who now owns Ici here [Berkeley], an organic ice cream shop (I highly recommend it — it’s very good). I interned there just because I wanted to do a little bit of pastry just to learn, and he said if you want to do pastry, my wife is hiring. I asked where and he said Chez Panisse. (Pierce laughs.)
I had eaten at Chez Panisse but having never been a pastry chef, I was like, there is no way in the world they would ever hire me. I was like, “Sure, I’ll come try out.” I wasn’t nervous at all, because there was no way they would ever hire me. I just had a really fun day in the kitchen and then they called me back, which is crazy, and they hired me. That was 2004 and I’ve been in pastry ever since.
(Pierce was promoted to Pastry Co-Chef in 2007).
Have you always been focused on local, sustainable, and organic?
No, it was never a focus. In Norway, there wasn’t such a strong “thing” about organic. It wasn’t such a difference either. If you got something that was really fresh, most likely it was grown in a sustainable way — not necessarily certified organic, but at least in a way that cared for the land. During the summer what they do is to stop all imports of tomatoes, or anything that grows within the country, so they sort of regulate it so that everything you eat is local. They also don’t have preservatives or dyes in the food. They carefully monitor that. It wasn’t really a thing there, it was just the way it was. It wasn’t really a focus.
Here, we’re trying to get to that point, I think. Living in the Bay Area, it’s such a bubble that it’s very easy to do and it’s cheap. I remember being in college and I was part of The Wedge Co-op. It was so freaking expensive to do organic. You did it anyway but there were some times when you were just standing there in front of a choice — and you’re like, okay, I could go to the show tonight or I can buy this pint of strawberries, or whatever. And you just sort of made those decisions.
I think that it would be really good — the thing that I would like to see, and something we’re striving for, is to make it really accessible. Not just that everyone should eat local and sustainable but that it should be fair — fair to the farmer but also fair to anyone who is on a fixed income or budget or who doesn’t have the means to always eat fresh foods. That’s something that Alice is a huge proponent of with her Edible Schoolyard work. It just makes sense but somehow we’re just not there yet.
What do local and fresh ingredients mean to the work you do at Chez Panisse in pastry?
The majority of our desserts are fruit based. Usually we have one chocolate thing per the day or something with chocolate, because people kind of riot if they don’t have a little bit of chocolate.
It doesn’t have to be certified organic here, we just need to know that it’s been grown in a sustainable way. It’s not enough to be organic — it’s not a golden ticket. The butter we use is from a farm in Marin. Our flour is from a San Francisco company.
It’s really fun for me on a daily basis to receive calls from farmers who are really excited to tell me what they have. They’re like, the cherries are in blossom and they’ll be here in two weeks! I’ve been to a lot of their farms and I go to the markets. For work I go once per week, every Sunday, and on my own I go on Thursday and Saturdays as well. It’s become sort of a way of life; it’s so normal that it’s not a special trip. When I go home, my mom likes to go to the farmers market but she doesn’t have one in the suburbs and it’s a big deal to truck yourself all the way to St. Paul, so it’s a special outing.
How do you decide what desserts to put on the menu?
We know what’s around and what’s in season (our farmers will tell us), and if we get something particularly amazing, our menu will change that morning. We always have a tart and in the summertime we can change that out with a cobbler. That’s so versatile that whatever we have we can just put that on the tart. Sometimes I don’t make that decision until I get here and taste everything.
Do you get much guidance on the menus?
Alice really loves to have the tart — that’s her favorite thing — so we always have that. Her thing is to focus is on what’s the best right now, in the moment, and if we have rhubarb tart every single day, then that’s fine. Because if that’s what’s really good this week, then that’s what we’ll do and that’s okay. When I first started I was really worried about making sure I have variety through the week. You know, if something’s really good, then it doesn’t matter if you eat it twice in a week.
Any customer favorites? Your favorites to make?
I think tarts are definitely our thing but in the fall we do a persimmon pudding, which is a very popular thing and it’s fun to make too. My favorite thing to make is ice cream and custards, but I do like making dough as well. It’s a really basic component, but there is something about being able to feel the quality of it. You don’t even have to bake it, but you just know it’ll be this way or that way when you roll it out.
Are Chez Panisse generally diners open to trying new things?
It depends on the day and time of year. Right now, we’re getting more into the tourist season — the summertime. People are a little bit less willing — they’ve read about us in a magazine or seen us on TV and they’re not really very familiar with the restaurant. It’s really cool that they’re here because they are, to a point, willing to try lots of things. For me, this seems like a normal way to eat, but for a lot of people it’s not.
The thing that I hear the most [from people who dine at Chez Panisse] is that everything tasted really amazing but that it was really simple — a lot simpler than they imagined it would be. I think they expect that because it’s French that it should be super fancy and fussy. If they actually knew what went into making all this stuff — it’s pretty fancy.
In the winter we have more regulars and a lot less fruit to deal with. We do make jams but we don’t preserve whole fruits or anything like that. Part of it is that we just like the wait in anticipation for that first peach. It seems a little weird to me to eat a peach in January now. I wonder if I would change my mind if I went back to the Midwest, because it’s totally different. My mother was making some raspberry dessert in January and she wanted the recipe, and I was like, “What? What are you doing with raspberries?” and she said, “They had some at the store.” [Pierce laughs.] I thought, “Oh no! I don’t even want to tell you [the recipe]!”
How do you keep educated about the local food?
Going to the farmers markets. The farmers will tell you how the seasons are going or what’s good this year: “This isn’t going to be a good year for that,” or “This will be an amazing year for this.” The thing that I find really helpful is that the farmers are really honest. They’re not just trying to sell you their crops but they are proud of what they do, so they don’t want to have you use anything that’s not high enough quality.
What’s on the dessert menu for tonight?
Tonight is a version of tiramisu but with strawberries. I haven’t decided if the cakes will be soaked in rum or Kirsch — the chef and I are going to try both and see what tastes better. The plan is for it to be three layers of lady fingers soaked in either Kirsch or rum (syrup) and we made mascarpone over the weekend, so we’ll do mascarpone cream and strawberry layers. We’ll also probably do some fruit. There are some really amazing tangerines right now and dates. It’s late in the season, but they are still really delicious.
Any favorites restaurants back in the Twin Cities?
I’ve eaten at a number of places — Heartland, I love. There’s a little Vietnamese place, Ngon, that one blew my mind, it was so good. Then I ate at Meritage in St. Paul and I had the best matzo ball soup — I almost died, it was so good. I’ve also eaten at 112 [Eatery] a couple times, and that was pretty good — I could totally see if I moved there that that would be a place I’d go.
What is your greatest take away from working at Chez Panisse?
I think it’s just an appreciation for food in a way that’s beyond just “I’m a foodie and I like good food.” It’s appreciation for the time and every tiny aspect that goes in to making a plate of food. There are so many layers — there’s the guy who picks the food, the guy who loads it on the truck, the guy who sells it at the market. Then here, whether it’s our intern or me or our cook, who hand picks everything and goes through each piece of food, and all the guys prepping for tonight. All the hands that it goes through and all the care that goes into making it — it’s not one person, it’s probably dozens of people. Just knowing that — that’s the biggest thing I’ve learned here. Just really thinking about it. It just never really occurred to me to be so conscious of it.
And [it’s] more than just learning how to make a tart or dough — that’s pretty secondary to the vision or message of this place. This place, kind of, goes beyond the food a little bit. Which is, I don’t know, it’s such a funny place because I was just talking to an intern this morning and she was like, “Yeah, it’s interesting having worked here now. You hear about it out there in the world and you imagine what it’s going to be like and then you get here and it’s just a bunch of really cool people doing what they love.”
And it’s not that intimidating. I mean, it is, if you really think about it — these people really are good at what they do — but it’s fun to come to work. There’s no yelling. It’s not like those shows on TV, not like that at all. People just do their best to honor the food that comes in — that’s pretty much it.