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Alice Waters brings Chez Panisse experience to Beijing

The Berkeley restaurateur takes on the challenge of staying true to her philosophy of eating local and buying organic in cooking for 250 people as part of a U.S.-China forum.

November 22, 2011|By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times
  • Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters and her team brought the Chez Panisse experience to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing as part of a four-day forum on arts and culture.
Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters and her team brought the Chez Panisse… (Linda Cotton )

Reporting from Beijing — Here is a nightmare assignment for a restaurateur:

Cook for 250 people using all-organic ingredients procured locally in a country infamous for its tainted food supply. Create a romantic setting in a latter-day fortress, the fluorescent-lighted U.S. Embassy.

Alice Waters' celebrated Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, was transported to Beijing last week as part of a four-day U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture. Berkeley and Beijing don't have much in common except as food writer Michael Pollan, another delegate, sarcastically put it, "both are socialist paradises."

But to replicate the Berkeley experience in Beijing? It wasn't just a matter of flying the ingredients from California. Waters' philosophy centers on eating local and buying directly from the farm.

"Knowing the person who grows the food is the best way to find food you know isn't contaminated," said Waters, sinking into a chestnut-colored leather sofa in her hotel near Tiananmen Square.

If Waters was turned off by China's wave of stomach-churning food scandals — the cooking oil recycled from sewers or the steroid-laced meat — she was too diplomatic to say. She responded to questions on the subject with a tight-lipped "Mona Lisa" smile.

She did acknowledge that Beijing's northern climate was a challenge to her exacting standards for local ingredients, so she had to widen her range — to southern China's Guizhou province for the organic oranges in the dessert, apple and candied orange galette with honey ice cream.

Given there are only a smattering of organic farms in China, procuring her ingredients would require some serious "foraging" — the term Waters prefers for what the rest of us call "shopping."

The original menu called for the entree to be duck. Notwithstanding the ubiquity of Peking duck, Waters' team couldn't find organic duck in sufficient quantity. They found instead two organic farmers who were each able to deliver a 440-pound pig to the embassy kitchens.

"We knew pork is the meat that Chinese usually eat, but it meant I had to cook it better than they do," Waters said. She braised it with red wine sauce and served it with a puree of turnips and a garden salad.

Samantha Greenwood, Waters' special-events chef, said some of the organizers were critical of the use of simple ingredients for a VIP dinner, which was hosted by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke and attended by many of the ambassadors in Beijing, as well as cultural luminaries such as cellist Yo-Yo Ma, writer Amy Tan and filmmaker Joel Coen.

"They thought we should be using luxury ingredients: steak, lobster, foie gras. They didn't understand that is the reverse of the approach we take," Greenwood said.

Banquets in China are served on large round tables with Lazy Susans in the middle. Waters insisted on long, narrow tables to facilitate conversation. Instead of the copious toasts of bai jiu, a strong clear liquor, they served only wine, donated from California vineyards. The blanc de blancs sparkling wine from Calistoga-based Schramsberg vineyards happened to be the same wine Henry Kissinger brought in 1972 for a toast by President Nixon and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

Aside from the wine, the only imported ingredients were the olive oil — also from California farms — and vinegar. Waters and her staff also brought their own tablecloths, menus and napkins that were recycled from a party held this year marking the 40th anniversary of the founding of Chez Panisse.

As a rule, Chez Panisse does not cater. In fact, the staff rather sniffs at the idea, but the restaurant has done several events outside its California comfort zone: in Berlin and Austria, a private party in the Caribbean (the restaurant will not disclose the client) and a luncheon for First Lady Michelle Obama at a Chicago hotel.

The skill level of Chinese sous chefs hired to help out in Beijing made things easier here. The second course of the dinner was consomme with butternut squash tortellini, which is technically very difficult.

"But we figured if there's anywhere it can be done it's here because they all have dumpling-making skills," Greenwood said. "We put them on it, and they just got it immediately. We fell in love with the cooks."

The U.S. Embassy had never done a large dinner before and Waters had never cooked in an embassy before, so there was some stumbling on both sides to make it work.

"They were open and welcoming, but it was like you can do anything you want if you give us three months' notice," Greenwood said. "If you wanted to unscrew a light bulb, it took 20 emails."

In the end, though, they were able to remove the fluorescent lights. Improbably enough, Waters received permission to burn small bundles of rosemary in the courtyard to warm the atmosphere.

And one aspect of U.S. Embassy security was definitely appreciated: Visitors had to surrender all their electronic devices at the front gate. At Chez Panisse, Waters said, "we can only ask politely that you don't use your cellphone."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

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