GC Goes Inside Alice Water’s Chez Panisse
Two years ago, I spent the summer as an intern at the Edible Schoolyard Project, a nonprofit dedicated to making resources for edible education available worldwide. The internship wasn’t paid, but it did offer free lunch every day and one very unusual opportunity: the chance to spend a day working in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, the Michelin-rated restaurant of celebrity chef and farm-to-table pioneer Alice Waters.
At the time, I was halfway through college and my culinary repertoire was limited, to say the least. Without a kitchen, my prepared meals consisted mostly of pairing hummus with crackers and pouring milk over cereal. The many episodes of Top Chef I had marathoned had tragically never awoken in me the kitchen prodigy that I hoped was only dormant. Cooking is something I enjoy, but by this point in my life I had come to accept that I would never be the next Julia Child.
Yet when my supervisor first mentioned interning in the Chez Panisse kitchen for a day, I was intrigued. On the one hand, it was an incredible opportunity (and one that came with great potential bragging rights). On the other, it seemed like a terrible idea. I still struggled to dice an onion; how would I help prepare a meal to be served in a Michelin-rated restaurant? I could imagine Alice Waters frowning at me and announcing with disappointment, “Please pack your knives and go.”
Fear of regret eventually triumphed and I picked out a date during the last week of my internship. I reasoned that, in the event I colossally failed, I could flee back to college on the East coast and live in distant and anonymous shame.
When the morning in question arrived, I arrived early to the kitchen. Chez Panisse is split between two floors: the restaurant is at street level and the café is upstairs. The kitchen itself is additionally divided between sweet and savory, with sweet tucked back on the far end and savory nearer to the open dining room. Though I had initially hoped to be assigned to sweet, after watching three chefs on the sweet side hover over a pie crust with a ruler, I was grateful for having been assigned to work on savory dinner prep for the café.
The chefs had gathered around a table at the front of the restaurant. Long windows looked out onto the quiet of the early morning street, punctuated at that hour only by trucks periodically arriving to drop off crates of freshly-picked nectarines or freshly-caught whole salmon. The head chef distributed the menu for the day and began to explain each item. Someone had handed me a pencil before the meeting and I dutifully underlined what words seemed important and nodded along as the chef spoke (as if I was qualified to weigh in on the appropriateness of salad dressing ingredients).
The meeting was over quickly and we were dismissed back to the kitchen. I was handed a knife, a cutting board, and a basin of cherry tomatoes. The day had begun–there was no time to be nervous. I passed the hours (which in the afternoon surely became the longest I have ever experienced) talking with the other chefs (each of whom was on their own unusual culinary journey) and moving from task to task. Besides a few butchered chanterelle mushrooms, I acquitted myself well.
Being allowed to work in a world-class restaurant when you have no qualifications is a highly unusual experience. Yet it does not feel out of place in the ethos of Chez Panisse and the Edible Schoolyard Project. My knife skills–or lack thereof–were not a disadvantage to me or the kitchen prep as a whole, because ultimately Chez Panisse focuses on their ingredients, where they come from, and how they go together rather (as opposed to nitpicking as to whether something is cut in a perfectly-executed batonnet). There is an authenticity to the food–it is wholesome because it is imperfect and satisfying because each part is meaningful, and it keeps people coming back because it is, of course, absolutely delicious.
At the end of my day, when service had begun, the prep chefs gathered on a tiny landing outside, just off the second floor. It’s not quite a porch; there is barely room to stand and a bookshelf filled with one of each of the dishes being served that evening takes up most of the space. Forks are handed out and everyone has a taste of what we have prepared as the frenzy of service carries on inside.
Shaded from the summer sun and completely exhausted, I realized that being a chef was not, is not, and will never be my dream–for me, the heat in the Top Chef kitchen is best when felt from the comfort of my couch. But working in the Chez Panisse kitchen, if only for a day, taught me that cooking doesn’t always have to be about perfect or elaborate food. It’s about enjoying yourself, doing what matters, and making sure it tastes good. And as anyone who has ever eaten at Chez Panisse can attest: it always tastes good.