Monday, March 19, 2007

The question of Chez Panisse

When I meet new people, I'm often reminded that my job can sound pretty living-the-dream-ish.

"You get paid to write about food?" they ask. "How do I get that job?"

What they're thinking is that I spend my evenings eating free meals in restaurants, then roll in to work at noon to dash off a few hundred sparkling words. In reality, I never dash off sparkling words and I rarely eat free meals. I have a long commute and spend most of my time at a desk trying to edit other people's words to preserve their style while also fitting the story to the magazine. It's a balancing act. There's a lot of typing and filing and detail managing and scheduling. When I'm not doing that, I'm in the test kitchen trying to get my recipes to work. That can be really, really fun. But it can also be frustrating. Why did the pork shoulder take 8 hours to cook today? It only took 5 hours yesterday. We can't give a "5 to 8 hour" time range. So we do it again the next day, all day. And again. Some recipes just take a while to get the kinks out. Sometimes I tear my hair out.

Oh, poor me. No, this is not to complain. I like my job very much. What I mean to say is that, at the end of the day, you know, work is work. You have to perform. And there isn't any job out there (is there?) that takes you to some perfect, unearthly non-job realm. Once you accept that, you can make the most of what you have. That's why I feel compelled to explain all this to strangers, if they're interested. Most aren't. They're probably perfectly happy with their jobs and just making conversation. But sometimes I need to remind myself.

And there is plenty to be grateful for. Case in point, a recent night that lived up to all my food writer fantasies. It was a dinner at Chez Panisse, hosted by Chronicle Books to celebrate the release of A Pig in Provence by Georgeanne Brennan.

Events like these can really blow my brain. I don't go to many of them, mostly for a lack of invitations. Also, Bay Area foodie types have to wrestle with all kinds of "dime a dozen" anxieties. I know I do. So there's the attempt to out-groovy each other at gatherings. One look at the crowd brought out my most prim and disapproving inner New Englander. Oh you all think you're so special with your embroidered tops and your berets, going on about the extra daylight and how Sonoma is just like Provence. I'll show you by wearing this cheap and unremarkable sweater. And furthermore, I vacation in Maine, where you can't swim in the ocean cause it's THAT COLD. And we eat food from cans and casseroles made with French Onion dip.

Actually, that last part isn't true. Maine is beautiful, but I'm a Cape Cod person. But the point is...what was it? Oh, that you have to find your way.

Of course, once I started talking to the nattily attired folks at this party, they were lovely. And really interesting! The food world attracts true humanists in the best sense. Liberal Arts types who were never able to pick a proper major and so chose a field that lets them dabble in history, science, and the arts. Food people usually have good stories to tell, and they can be warm and wonderfully carpe diem about life.

So it was a swell evening, once I got over myself.

But I am left with one question: How does Chez Panisse get away with doing just one menu every night? You show up, they hand you a short and beautifully illustrated list of four or five courses, and that's what you eat. No choices. Just one menu.

Now, I do understand that the restaurant is ground zero for the California Cuisine movement. I appreciate that they did it first and that we have them to thank for supporting the early goat cheese makers and baby lettuce growers who went on to become Laura Chenel and Chino Farm. What would we be without them? I am on my knees and bowing at the altar, believe me.

But this is a restaurant that attracts some of the most talented young chefs in the country. Their alumni go on to do great things. So couldn't they, I dunno, juggle a coupla different dishes? Is it just a charming conceit?

I question whether it's so charming anymore. It's one thing when Chez Panisse was just a little cafe with a former Montessori school teacher and some friends banging out dinner every night. But how long does one rest on one's laurels when other players have taken the ball and run? I know, I know, the café has a regular menu, but the main restaurant is the marquee player.

Ah, I don't know. Fact is, the meal was wonderful. It is always wonderful. The service is perfect. And when I think of the ten most memorable meals that I've had since moving here, two of them happened there. I may try to resist the Chez Panisse mystique, but I have to admit that there is a sort of alchemy that happens in that dining room. People become their most charming, contented, big-hearted selves. Maybe that happens best when we're not choosing and debating and I'll-split-this-with-you-if-you-get-the-ravioli bargaining.

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