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California Cuisine in the Louvre?

June 17, 1998|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES RESTAURANT CRITIC

Is Alice Waters heading to Paris to open a restaurant? On Thursday, the founder of Berkeley's Chez Panisse flew to Los Angeles for a meeting that would bring her closer to an answer to that question.

Over lunch at the Bel-Air Hotel, Waters and Helene David-Weill, director of Paris' Museum of Decorative Arts, discussed the possibility of Waters' opening a restaurant in the museum when it moves to new quarters in a wing of the Louvre in 2000.

Preliminary negotiations on the restaurant project have been going on for six months. But Waters had not even met David-Weill until Thursday and always talked about the project in tentative terms when asked about its progress. Waters' biggest fear before the meeting: that the museum wanted only a Chez Panisse concession.

"I started thinking that this should really be a part of the museum," she said two weeks ago. "You could have the customer interact with the people who were cooking and give them a sense of how [the food] was prepared and where it came from."

Thursday night, after the meeting, Waters sounded relieved: "I think [David-Weill and I] understood each other instantly. She's a very lovely, warm and sophisticated person, really an extraordinary woman. She spoke at length about her plans for the museum. And I realized that she thinks about the museum's collections in the same way I think about food. She wants people to be engaged in the exhibits in a way that really changes their lives. I was very pleased that she seemed to be interested in making the restaurant part of the museum."

The project, however, is by no means a fait accompli. Though Waters says she and David-Weill have agreed to put together a plan for the restaurant, it remains to be financed.

"I'm going to need to go to Paris and really look at the space [which is currently under construction] again. I'm working by the memory of walking quickly through the rooms, but I couldn't tell you how many people it could seat for example."

Waters first took a peek at the Louvre construction site in December, when she was in Paris with her daughter Fanny. "It's three little salons, very divine, with floor to ceiling windows," Waters said. "That's on [one] floor. And then there's the main floor that looks as if it could go endlessly out into the Tuileries. A below-ground floor is where the kitchen would be."

She's been both intrigued and overwhelmed by the idea of a restaurant there ever since.

"I'm just thinking about how I'm going to have to rearrange my life to do this," she said. "It's much bigger than what I could manage myself."

Of course, Chez Panisse has always been a group effort. Over the years, Waters inspired farmers--sometimes even backyard gardeners--to grow heirloom vegetables for the restaurant and helped jump-start the farmers' market movement in Northern California. She has been a longtime advocate of organic and sustainable farming. And Chez Panisse has been the catalyst behind a new generation of food artisans: cheese makers, fishmongers, wild mushroom hunters, bakers and charcuteries all over Northern California.

And so, in typical fashion, Waters has called on her network of friends from all over the world to help envision what could be done at the Louvre. Among the first was Eiko Ishioka, the Japanese artist and designer who won an Oscar for the costumes she designed for Francis Ford Coppola's "Dracula." Would Ishioka be interested in designing the restaurant? Waters persuaded the artist to look over the Louvre space. "Alice," she reported back, "I think this is a very good place for us."

Waters also asked New York restaurateur Keith McNally, who recreated the look of a Paris brasserie for his Soho restaurant, Balthazar, to take a look. He ended up proposing that the two of them open a little place in New York instead, said Waters, laughing.

Among Waters' other friends who have offered advice and help are London chef and restaurateur Sally Clarke; famed Bordeaux cheese purveyor Jean d'Alos; Lulu Peyraud, owner of Domaine Tempier in Bandol; cookbook author Richard Olney; Aubert de Villaine, director of the fabled Burgundy estate Romanee-Conti; Nancy Silverton, co-owner of Los Angeles' La Brea Bakery and Campanile; and various members of the de' Medici family at the Chianti wine estate Badia a Coltibuono.

"I have yet to talk to Pat Wells [the International Herald Tribune restaurant critic who lives in Paris]," Waters said. "I want very much to have her be part of it. And Lionel Poila^ne [the Parisian boulanger]. And all the different suppliers in France who are serious about these things need to be involved."

It's a very tall order, she knows. But, Waters says, "it would be a chance for me to give something back to France. And I just decided that if the door opens, I have to walk through."

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