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My Dinners With Alice and Jerry

August 22, 1996|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 25 years ago, when I was working up north as a rock 'n' roll journalist, San Francisco incurred a small invasion of Harvard Architecture School graduates.

Apparently there'd been a regular cult of food in Cambridge, Mass. These architects and their wives had all been cooking methodically through "Mastering the Art of Fine Cooking" and taking care to buy their meat from the same butcher Julia Child patronized.

In San Francisco, they formed a cooking circle that held ambitious potlucks every two weeks or so. One of the architects was an old high school friend of mine, and they generously invited me to join.

Sure, I was into food--I bought one of the first food processors sold in San Francisco; I collected wine (which was considered a bit suspicious by the rock 'n' rollers)--but these were the first flat-out full-time foodies I'd ever met. Everything, but everything, seemed to revolve around food for them, even their romances. A couple of the unmarried male architects were pursuing the daughter of a Northern California cheese-making family.

Once I dropped in on one of the architects and found her exactingly removing the thin membrane known as the fell from at least half a dozen legs of lamb she was marinating (fortunately, these architects all had large kitchens). When she and her boyfriend got married, one of the group baked her a cake for every year they'd been engaged; eight, as I recall. For the Christmas season one year, my high school friend's wife went to the trouble--a very great deal of trouble, as it turned out--to make the actual pastries known as sugar plums.

It was clear that two of the best cooks in the group were an architect named Jerry and his friend Alice. They were just like the rest of the group--enthusiastic food-lovers, eagerly sharing every great ingredient and fascinating recipe they discovered. Both of them, but particularly Alice, were into the English cookery writer Elizabeth David, whom I'd naively thought of as my own little food discovery.

It was months before I learned that Alice Waters was the proprietor and Jeremiah Tower the chef at a Berkeley restaurant named Chez Panisse.

When I did, it didn't seem so surprising. The Bay Area is a sort of overgrown small town, particularly Berkeley, where I'd gone to school. When I thought back, I remembered that a college friend had once told me of her brief stint as Chez Panisse's chef de cuisine in the early days. And I'd met Lindsey Shere long before she became Alice Waters' pastry chef--she was the sister-in-law of a roommate of mine at Cal.

So in retrospect, I was amazingly blase about the fact that friends of mine owned a restaurant, and I was in no hurry to try Chez Panisse out. Eventually, I did, and it was great, of course; snappy, hearty, rustic Mediterranean food, mostly of a Provencal persuasion.

And then I really kicked myself for not having gone there before. It had all the excitement of those architects' foodie potlucks--only I didn't have to cook anything.

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