Interview just about any young, aspiring American chef, and she or he will cite Alice Waters and her restaurant, Chez Panisse, as models to emulate. Of course, the places they eventually open are often quite different from the model. We spent a Friday dinner shift at Chez Panisse a few weeks ago and found a kitchen unlike any other in the country.
2 p.m.: Meeting of the Cooks
"So we're back in France tonight," says Waters to the cooks and staff forager gathered at a dining room table near the open kitchen of Chez Panisse. It's time to settle the night's menu, a daily ritual that at times resembles a story meeting for an episode of "ER."
"I picture our first course as a custardy tart, the French way," Waters says. A big bunch of fresh rosemary and savory holds her place in a worn hardcover copy of Richard Olney's "Simple French Food," the jacket long gone, the white cloth cover spotted with various food stains. Waters hugs the book, which contains the recipe for tonight's tart, close to her chest, as if for inspiration as she talks.
"Make the tarts as charming and irregular as you can," she says. "Though I guess we have to put them in form pans. Have we used Bob's sorrel before?"
"Not yet," says forager Alan Tangren.
Chez Panisse famously serves a single fixed-price menu, one that changes every day. If you want steak when they're serving squab, you're out of luck (though substitutions are made for diners with special diets and the less expensive upstairs cafe has a full menu). As far as anyone can remember, no menu has been repeated in the 25-year history of the restaurant.
Each Thursday, the next week's menus are turned in, but they aren't finalized until the chef's meeting to allow the cooks to respond to the seasonal nature of the products they cook with or simply to change their minds.
"OK. For the salmon," Waters says, "I haven't tried this but I can taste it in my mind: Blanch a piece of bacon, wrap the salmon and bake it on a little juicy mirepoix, a little tiny dice of carrot and fennel and onion, with rosemary and savory in it.
"What's your experience?" she asks the chefs. "Will it work? I'm traumatized because I have to cook dinner for the president on Tuesday."
"Is the baking getting the bacon brown?" asks Christopher Lee. "People don't like raw bacon."
"You could put the bacon in the mirepoix," suggests Jerome Waag.
"But then it doesn't flavor the salmon," Waters says.
"And the salmon's been kind of lean lately," Tangren adds.
"What if you grilled it?" proposes Seen Lippert.
"That would be cool," Lee says.
Waters agrees. Cool. On to the squab.
"I was thinking of putting some lime on the birds. I like Sauternes-roasted garlic for the sauce. Do we have good garlic?"
"Let's get some more from that guy at the farmers market," Waters says. "And what about squab liver? Or do they not like that?"
"They like that!" Lee says.
"We just don't tell them what's making it taste so good," Waag says.
"Now with the squab, I was thinking of little roasted potatoes," Waters announces.
"We can rub them with salt," Waag suggests.
"Salt?" she asks.
"It takes the water out," Waagsays. "They do taste a little different. It's good. They get really nutty like chestnuts. It's a little time-consuming, but it's easy."
"Let's do it," Waters says. "Does anyone want to try the fish?"
Lee takes the salmon. Lippert agrees to the squab. John Luther is the designated sorrel tart man.
"I'll do the salt-rubbed spuds," Waag concludes.
"All right, Waters says, "andiamo."
2:30 to 4 p.m. Jam Session
As if on cue, the downstairs cooks, prep persons and a few chefs from the upstairs cafe join in the common goal of getting the night's ingredients out of the walk-in coolers and out on the work tables. Huge plastic bins arrive in procession: sorrel, squab, potatoes, salmon.
With everything in place, the core team of cooks for the night discuss the pros and cons of blanching the sorrel and the thickness of the night's potato skins as they go about their tasks.
Lippert, who has a business background in real estate, an artistic background as a painter who spent time in Florence, and a scholarly background in biology and zoology, seasons the Paine Farm squab.
Downstairs sous chef Lee, who normally leads the restaurant's Monday night crew and who has been in charge of the Monday through Thursday dinners the last few weeks since downstairs chef Jean-Pierre Moulle has been on vacation, performs the exacting job of removing tiny bones from the salmon with a pair of tweezers.
Luther, raised in Ohio, spent time in France and took a year away from cooking to work for wine merchant Kermit Lynch, whose wines fill the bins at Chez Panisse. He checks the condition of the sorrel before an intern begins the job of removing the stems from the leaves; he then examines every cherry tomato that will go into the salad garnish for his tart.