by Sybil PrattSeptember, 1999
How many American chefs could say that they're being courted to open a restaurant at the Louvre in Paris ? Alice Waters, chef/owner of Chez Panisse, the celebrated Berkeley restaurant with a halo of celestial chic, may be the only one. With her insistence on fresh, pure ingredients, Waters has altered the way many home cooks approach recipes and menu making, and her six supremely successful cookbooks have made her culinary philosophy widely available. As the title indicates, Chez Panisse Cafe Cooking, the latest addition to the Waters wellspring, leaves the soigne, more formal cuisine served in her elegant downstairs dining room, for the more casual bistro fare served upstairs in the Cafe. The Cafe menus change and evolve, so the over 200 recipes (arranged by ingredients rather than course) include current versions of old favorites as well as new delights created by Ms. Waters and her staff. Baked Goat Cheese with Garden Lettuces, easy to prepare and great served either as a first course or after the meal, has been on every Cafe menu since opening day. Grilled Chicken Breasts au Poivre, a new Cafe offering based on a longtime bistro favorite, is an innovative way to prepare low-fat poultry parts. These are among the many truly simple dishes, but others are far more complex; homemade pork and lamb sausages, Duck Confit, and Lamb Couscous with Turnips, Carrots and Harissa, take time and some effort, but are well worth it. And, although there's a fine array of sweets, from Meyer Lemon Eclairs to Peach Leaf Creme Brulee, Ms. Waters considers a simple plate of seasonal fruit to be the most satisfying end to a memorable meal.
Part of the fun of perusing and using a cookbook written by a chef/restaurateur is learning to think about and do things with food the way the pros do. Ms. Waters is generous with this kind of inside info and explicit in her directions. She's especially explicit about the importance of purveyors, describing her network of farmers, foragers, and artisans who practice and support the sustainable, ecologically sound harvest of nature's bounty; and urging us, who cook for family and friends, to find and form our own network of similar sources. With farm stands and urban green markets at their end-of-summer peak, this should be an ideal time to follow the Chez Panisse path.