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Last week, Joe and I enjoyed one of the rarest dining opportunities available in the Bay Area: we ate a meal while seated in the kitchen at Berkeley’s world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant. This is a highly sought-after perch, and only a handful of people per year get to experience it.
How did we get access to the inner sanctum? Through a personal connection, and a donation to one of our favorite organizations, Shotgun Players. At the time, Chez Panisse was closed due to a fire. They rebuilt and reopened in late June, but we decided to wait and schedule our visit to coincide with our general birthday/anniversary period.
I didn’t want to spend the entire meal distracted by my camera phone, so I only took photos in a couple of quick bursts. That means I don’t have pictures of all of our food, but there are still quite a few pix here for you to enjoy. (Yes, I asked for permission first, which was kindly granted.)
We were seated at a table squeezed in between the areas where the desserts and the first courses were being prepared. On one side of us, a pastry chef was cutting huge sheets of almond cake, using a ruler and a sharp knife to make sure they were perfectly rectangular in shape. (Odd pieces were put aside for the staff to eat later.) On the other side, a chef was delicately slicing pieces of yellowtail from a large filet, along with a colorful variety of carrots (including purple ones!), radishes, endive and shallots. The raw fish was served with an accompanying salad made up of the vegetables, dressed with very fresh and fruity green olive oil. The bottle of oil had 2013 printed on the label–it was the Capezzana brand. Apparently, there is a “nuovo” olive oil release in late fall similar to the Beaujolais Nouveau wine release. As someone who has purchased nothing other than Trader Joe’s extra virgin olive oil for the past decade or so, it made me think about how even changing one basic ingredient can enhance the quality of a dish.
The second course was a Meyer lemon risotto with fried sage, winter squash and cipollini onions agrodolce. Risotto is one of my go-to dishes. I think I’m pretty good at making it. Of course, the chefs at Chez Panisse do a much better job. I toss in a cup of frozen peas, for instance, rather than roasted and diced winter squash and cooking onions. Joe asked the chef who made the risotto how she did it–this was in the lull between the first and second seatings, so everybody in the restaurant had already enjoyed the dish–and it involved a fancy stock, pureed squash and, of course, lots of butter. Chez Panisse keeps a lot of huge slabs of butter around the kitchen. (Another CP secret: they use McClelland’s Dairy Artistan Organic Butter, and it’s available at Berkeley Bowl.)
The main course was Becker Lane pork loin with mustard sauce, braised greens and chicories, and fried potatoes. Becker Lane is a producer of organic pork and their pigs “have access to the outside world and be able to engage in their instinctive behaviors such as rooting, wallowing, foraging, and nesting,” according to their web site. Despite the humanely raised aspect, I haven’t consumed pork in over 20 years so I didn’t want to break that streak. I had informed them in advance of my dietary preferences, and I got a delicious substitution involving chanterelle mushrooms and fresh ricotta; the mustard sauce, greens, and the amazing fried potatoes that accompanied the pork also came with my dish. Joe, of course, had the pork, and said that it was excellent.
Because we’d been sitting so close to the counter where the dessert was being assembled, it was exciting to finally get to taste it: huckleberry ice cream with almond torte and quince. We also received a small plate of dates and persimmons. I tend to be a little disdainful of winter fruit, since I so cherish summer berries and cherries, but this was a very nice way to feature some seasonal offerings.
The pastry chef, Mary Jo Thoresen, was very friendly and generous with her time, answering all of Joe’s questions about how the dessert menu is devised and how she was assembling the torte. She took the slices the other chef had cut with geometric precision, then “painted” them with glaze using a pastry brush that was exactly the same width as the cake pieces (a happy coincidence). Then she placed the toasted almonds by hand on each piece before it was plated with the sauces and ice cream. In fact, one of the things I noticed was how much the chefs use their hands in the food preparation. The guy making the first course mixed up the vegetable salad using his fingers–no spoons or tongs. I suspect this is a fairly common occurrence in kitchens and if more people witnessed it, they would be rather upset about the fact that most restaurant workers receive no paid sick leave. Chez Panisse adds an 18% service charge to its bills in lieu of the usual tipping policy, and it pays its staff a living wage, complete with health care, vacations and sick days. One result is that a lot of people stay there for a long time: Thoresen has worked as Panisse’s pastry chef on and off since the 1980s.
Joe, the nondrinker, had a citrus spritzer, while I had wine pairings with the courses. Usually I never order wine pairings because it turns out to be way too much wine, but these pours were absolutely perfect–it probably added up to a couple glasses total, which was fine over the course of two hours. Everything was really well paced. When we left, I didn’t have that bloated feeling I often get after dining out. The dishes were rather rich, but the time between courses and the size of the portions had been expertly devised. (The downstairs restaurant, as opposed to the upstairs cafe, offers two seatings every night: the first is from 5:30-6:30, the second around 9:15. We had been told to arrive between 6 and 6:30, probably so the most hectic part of dinner prep would be over. By 7:45, much of the kitchen staff was able to break for its own meal. Those people eat really well.)
Dining at Chez Panisse is much more inspiring for the home cook than eating at a place like, say, Coi, where some of the dishes are literally assembled with tweezers. Sure, I’ll probably never make risotto exactly like they do it there, but next time I might be inspired to put in some lemon zest and cubes of roasted squash. And I’d probably be more inclined to pick up purple carrots or splurge on some young olive oil. I probably won’t have another chance to eat in the Chez Panisse kitchen, but perhaps I’ll try to bring some of the chefs’ enthusiasm and inventiveness into my own home kitchen.