The Lessons of Chez Panisse

A Minnesota cook remembers her apprenticeship at one of America’s finest restaurants.

It was a single marinated artichoke that made me want to cook professionally. It was my first artichoke, and my first trip to Paris. I was 20 years old. My father, who had just moved to France from the Twin Cities, took me to Au Gourmet de L’Ile on the Ile St. Louis in the center of Paris. I fell in love with the artichoke, and with the idea of creating dishes that would linger in patrons’ minds forever.

I have no recollection of anything else I ate that night. I remember the disorienting jet lag, the long walk from the Metro station to the restaurant, the spiral–staircase descent to the subterranean dining room, and, though nearly every table was occupied, the deep quiet of the place. I remember some trepidation at the thought of the 16th–century building’s “Turkish toilets,” and I was grateful that my dad ordered for me, as I didn’t speak any French.

We often recall our favorite meals in fragments, as we do our lives—the experience broken down into its simplest components. A vintage Bordeaux. A flavor combination. A texture. A conversation. An artichoke. When I consider my former life as a cook, it too is broken down into its smallest pieces. Shucking four crates of oysters in a catering kitchen in New Jersey (my first assignment as a cook). Rolling pasta for turnip ravioli at the first La Belle Vie in Stillwater. Prepping artichokes for hours on end at Chez Panisse.

I was fresh out of culinary school when I flew to California to work at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s pioneering restaurant in Berkeley. After being shown the location of the first–aid kit—I was later told that many cooks injure themselves during their first few nervous days there—I was given a map someone had drawn on the back of the previous day’s menu. The map showed the way to a residential area six blocks from the restaurant. I was to walk there and pick a cup of fennel seeds from the plants in front of the blue house on the odd side of the street. “Just the seeds that are ready for harvest,” said one of the two head chefs at the downstairs restaurant. “Just the dried ones,” he added, in response to my stare. “Leave the rest.” I removed the hat and apron I had just donned, grabbed a small Lexan bucket, and followed the map to the fennel.

No job felt thankless at Chez Panisse; no task was menial. All who worked in the kitchen understood that each element contributed to the experience of the meal. The restaurant itself, founded in 1971, is rooted in the philosophy that this daily ritual is “a center of the human experience.” Simply stated, within each artichoke heart lie the sources of life and of living.

What is true for the patron is also true for the cook. Many kitchens prefer cooks who function as assembly–line workers; in these kitchens, little attention is paid to each ingredient. Success is measured by output alone. I found such work to be dulling to the senses. There was no reward for the automatic–pilot approach at Chez Panisse. Once, while making mayonnaise, I cut into a lemon that was slightly past its prime—not rotten, but less juicy, less bright than the ideal lemon. When head chef Gilbert Pilgram saw me with this lemon in my hand—I suppose I decided that I only needed a few drops of juice—he didn’t scold me. He simply touched my wrist and said, “Perhaps there is a better lemon for the job.”

As an intern, I arrived an hour or two before the others to begin the simple but essential daily chores, such as peeling 20 or more pounds of onions. Not fond of mornings, I welcomed this time to acclimate my brain and senses to the day’s work. At 9 o’clock, we gathered in the dining room to discuss the new day’s menu, which was always based on regional ingredients that were in season. Duties were assigned according to the strengths and interests of each cook. It was cooking utopia.

As a recent arrival to the San Francisco Bay Area, I was often encouraged to work with ingredients that were new to me. I found this both dizzying and inspiring. What would the texture of goat be like? How does one cook wild nettles? How and where do cardoons grow? Surprisingly, many of my daily tasks involved basic recognition challenges. One day I had to ask the sous–chef, Jenn Johnson, if “green garlic” looked like regular garlic, except green. This would have been an opportunity for endless mockery and ridicule in most kitchens, but Jenn set her knife down without hesitation or annoyance. She happily led me to the slender shoots that looked more like green onions than garlic and took the time to explain that green garlic was young garlic before it had begun to form cloves. At Chez Panisse, each member of the team, from sous–chef to headwaiter, was glad to fill in the gaps in a coworker’s knowledge. Consequently, no one was ever afraid to ask for help. Yes, this is one of the best restaurants in the country. Now check your ego at the door, please.

The kitchen at Chez Panisse is extremely small, making efficient teamwork indispensable. We worked at the same modest butcher block, roughly the size of a large dining–room table. We shared 12 burners and a candy stove. Pots and pans had to be nestled like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, and they were constantly being moved in and out. Sharing such a small space, we performed what can only be described as a dance. As each dish neared completion, the cook responsible for it would bring enough utensils for everyone to have a taste, from the newest intern to the head chef. Each cook’s voice was crucial to the perfection of the finished dish.

The restaurant is internationally famous for its devotion to the community and to its sources. “Respecting sources” implies using ingredients that are in season and wasting as little as possible. But “community,” in this case, doesn’t simply mean the city or region where the customers live. To Alice Waters, a commitment to community demands that cooks work well together. Once, Alice came down the stairs to find cooks taking their lunchtime breaks at separate tables. “This is not very civilized,” she said.

It was very civilized to be a cook at Chez Panisse. On the evening shift, we took our meal together, eating outside if the weather permitted. We sat at one big table just off a pantry where the house-made charcuterie was hung to cure. Though this area was not accessible to the public, details were not overlooked. For example, the heavy copper Mission Revival light fixture that hung over our table was crafted to match the fixtures in the restaurant. After all, this was where we had our own experience of the meal.

Even in the best kitchens, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes you wish you had more time. In a small kitchen, if even one cook is out of sync, an avalanche of chaos begins. At Chez Panisse, when we fell out of our dance, wasteful spills occurred and messes began to pile up. Predictably, this was most likely to happen just before service. Once, a harried cook left a rack of oysters near the sink, and a zealous new dishwasher thought this meant they were to go through the machine. The result: the heartbreaking deposit of inedible oysters into the trash.

When the atmosphere did get rambunctious and disharmonious, when conversation became boisterous and rapid–fire, Gilbert would deftly wield his influence. “Everyone,” he would say quietly, bringing the kitchen to a halt. “Please take a deep breath. Pay attention to your immediate vicinity, and take a moment to bring back the order. We cannot cook well without doing it intentionally.” Soon, as we each renewed our focus on the ingredients for which we were responsible, we would recover our dance together.

From my first night at Chez Panisse, I felt as if I were a conduit between earth and table. I was no longer in touch with the vanity that had driven me to become a chef. On that very first night, I recall being shown how to rub aged smen butter on my palms before taking a handful of couscous and gently separating each individual bead. It was a task done in service to my fellow cooks, the diners, and the couscous. In that fragment of memory, I am able to savor all of the reasons I love food and cooking, and why I treasure the bounty of this big, beautiful planet.

Julie Opperman (formerly Julie DuRose) is a Minneapolis–based freelance writer.