Scouting Sunday: Chez Panisse


This is a crazy time of the year for me. Work gets busier, the kids are on the brink of going back to school, which means I’m trying to squeeze every ounce of quality time in with them plus preparing for the school year.  We were traveling and it was amazing in so many ways.  I’ll share more later, but for this Sunday I wanted to share our experience at Chez Panisse.

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For those not familiar with it, Chez Panisse is a restaurant in Berkeley, California founded by Alice Waters 43 years ago. It was the start of the “farm to table” movement as well as her charity and a movement in itself “The Edible School Yard”.  You can read more about it here and here. For me, as a mother who daily cooks from scratch,  the restaurant and Alice Waters are my gurus. Not only do I make meals as simple and clean as possible but I also involve the kids in the process. I to, believe through cooking you can teach a great deal to children that goes beyond preparing food.

The meal was amazing, although as far as unique flavors or presentation goes, not too out of the ordinary.  In fact, my girls felt my pesto was better.  I doubt it. They’re just more use to my flavors but it was flattering to hear. However,  simplicity is part of the charm and tradition of Chez Panisse.  The experience is spectacular due to a combination of things: delicious food, stellar service, beautiful architecture and a sweet ambiance and soul that stems from the garden and kitchen.  Every single person in that dinning room was beaming!  Everyone was thrilled to be there and everyone inhaled the beauty in all of its forms.

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I find the experience pertinent to write about here because of it’s architecture. The restaurant is in a restored Craftsman Bungalow.  As I mentioned it’s been open for 43 years. I’ve worked in a restaurant and I’ve been to many restaurants. After a year they all begin to smell of old grease. Chez Panisse smelled good. It smelled of musky, deep wood and sweet oils. It smelled clean.   I didn’t realize until later that they had sustained a fire almost two years ago.  I’m not sure what changed if anything as they raised from the embers but I loved what I saw.  We were lucky to get a reservation the day before and my choices were limited. So I took the first lunch opening at 11:30am. We were one of the first to arrive. There was a crowd of people waiting to get in. The only restaurant for blocks with eager fans.  Let me reiterate….they opened 43 years ago!  Who has this kind of following for so long?

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We were taken upstairs and seated in a corner table in the center of the dining room which was perfect for juggling two kids. I was grateful they didn’t tuck us in some hidden remote space where we didn’t get to experience the action of the place. The girls loved watching everything happening around them. However, it wasn’t until we left that I realized they have two kitchens;  one upstairs and one downstairs. I don’t know how they divie up the food prep but what was obvious in both kitchens was that this was not an ordinary restaurant kitchen!  When I say the “sweet ambiance and soul stemmed from the kitchen and garden” I mean it’s something you can visually see. The love felt in the food is created in the kitchen the same way a mother cooks for her children. There aren’t a bunch of people crammed into a hot, sweaty space rushing to get tickets down. Every cook is preparing food in an open, well-ventilated kitchen that resembles a home kitchen. There are baskets of fresh vegetables throughout the counter tops. People are cooking mindfully with care.  Everyone moves at a normal pace. Theres no screaming. There’s….silence.  That kind of love for the craft of cooking is infused in the food. You can taste it! The vegetables are so beautifully displayed throughout the kitchen that it’s obvious the same pride comes from the farmers and those selecting the ingredients. I don’t know….I just saw a kitchen that had 10 of me in there doing what I do at a bigger volume!

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The staff was attentive to every detail.  My girls were the only children in the restaurant but they were treated with respect and care. Every server was unphased by their presence. I’ve gradually been teaching the girls table manners including where to put utensils while they are eating vs when they are finished with their meal. This is the place where servers know the etiquette and can identify when one is finished. We were thrilled to see the theory in action.

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The attention to detail was everywhere. Just look at the simplicity and elegance:

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There’s always a “hold your breath” moment when the bill comes at fine dining establishments. However, in this case I felt it was worth every penny. I feel immensely blessed to be able to expose my girls to an experience that stimulates all the senses.  Chez Panisse was definitely a legendary experience and I know it hit home when P saw the poster for the Edible School Yard and realized it’s not just me who feels learning to cook is an immensely important skill for many, many reasons.

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