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Alice Goes to Hollywood and Falls for a Radish

August 22, 1996|LAURIE OCHOA

It was a scene from "The Player" in there, up at Nancy and Sid Ganis' ultra-luxe hillside retreat, a hundred bold-faced movie guys sipping Chardonnay on the terrace, schmoozing, contemplating goat cheese, asking each other questions about the latest fashions in cigars.

Sydney Pollack gazed out toward the half-built Getty as darkness settled over the canyon below; "Thelma and Louise" screenwriter Callie Khouri chatted up Jeff Berg, chairman of ICM. Director Wayne Wang, a red bandanna around his head, looking like a refugee from an Aerosmith video, talked to Roddy McDowall. Sculptor Robert Graham helped himself to a slice of pizza.

"Those aren't pizzas," Campanile chef Mark Peel insisted to a CAA agent as he brought out another platter of thin-crusted pies. "They're galettes."

And there in the rustic kitchen, a room you might call cozy if it weren't as vast as a standard two-bedroom apartment, the night's guest of honor, restaurateur Alice Waters, perched in a corner, engaged in an intimate te^te a te^te . . . with a radish.

"Did you taste these?" she asked a man who gazed deeply into his glass of Cabernet. She looked down at the candy-pink vegetables cupped in her soft hands as if they were baby kittens. The man, slightly unnerved by the encounter, shook his head no, but Peel, overhearing, shouted that the radishes were purchased at a farmers market. This pleased Waters.

"They're perfect!" she purred.

Although she's never starred in a major motion picture and a mega-deal for her tends to involve a great new source for peaches, Waters is a celebrity whose popularity reaches beyond home cooks and fellow chefs to Hollywood power brokers.

Yes, she is sometimes called the earth mother of California cuisine, but Waters didn't suddenly go Hollywood with the success of her restaurant. There's always been a film and food connection at Chez Panisse.

As most fans of the place know, the restaurant's name comes from Panisse, the fatherly sailmaker who marries Fanny in the trilogy "Marius," "Fanny" and "Cesar" by French director Marcel Pagnol.

"Oh, I still can't get through them without crying," Waters says with a sigh.

And from the first days of the restaurant's existence, filmmakers were part of the regular clientele.

Producer Tom Luddy, a former lover of Waters' who remains a close friend, was always bringing filmmakers into the restaurant--especially when it needed customers.

"Tom brought every film person who came through town to speak at the Film Archive in Berkeley to Chez Panisse, whether it was Shirley MacLaine or Akira Kurosawa," Waters says. "Tom told them this was the greatest restaurant in town and that they'd better like it. So they did. And they came back."

The most infamous Luddy-hosted dinner was when director Werner Herzog ate his shoe. (He bet filmmaker Errol Morris that Morris would never finish the film "Gates of Heaven." Herzog lost.)

"I cooked the shoe in duck fat and added a lot of garlic so it might taste good," Waters told the editors of San Francisco Focus. Filmmaker Les Blank, who made the film "Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers" to honor Waters and her garlic cooking, filmed the occasion.

It was not the finest moment in American cuisine, but it was a classic movie moment.

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