Before leaving the West Coast, we made our first stop on our restaurant tour at Chez Panisse. Sorry we’re a bit out of chronological order.
Julian: Chez Panisse was where the whole California Cuisine movement began, back in the early 70’s. Alice Waters’ philosophy of serving simply prepared, super fresh, and seasonal ingredients influenced countless restaurants and chefs throughout America. Nowadays, though, the term California Cuisine is pretty fuzzy. Everything grows here, so anything goes for chefs in the kitchen. I think the movement has lost some of the focus that it had in decades past. Our restaurant philosophy is based in large part on the Chez Panisse ideal, only we will focus specifically on ingredients special to the Santa Barbara area. Sort of a modern micro-regional offshoot of Chez Panisse. Visiting Chez Panisse was a homage for us, and a great way to begin this trip.
Jesse: The kitchen operated smoothly and never seemed rushed or stressed. I got to sit facing it and see all the action. With a set 5 course menu, and one cook handling each dish, their execution was perfect for a menu that changes everyday. The food was absolutely in line with Alice Waters’ philosophy: the freshness of ingredients was central in every dish, not masked by any particularly intense flavors or overpowering sauces. Being part of food culture obsessed with intense flavors and innovative techniques, it was refreshing to experience a restaurant that is over 30 years old, still sticking to it’s founding principles, and doing just as well as ever.
Julian: Seeing as the restaurant has been so influential, I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that nothing totally blew us away. So many other places have followed in Chez Panisse’s footsteps that, for us, this level of freshness and purity of flavor is nothing new. But I can imagine that 30 years ago people would have left the place in awe. But what really did impress us was the service.
Jesse: Our waitress was a master of eye contact and keeping us engaged. She was professional, not pretentious, and able to seem to laugh genuinely at my mediocre jokes. She didn’t go as in-depth on explaining our dishes as we would later experience at McCrady’s (of course, I didn’t notice this at the time, and I guess we like to hear more of the specific details in how a dish is created than the average customer). The icing on the cake was their GM (or maitre d’…we weren’t quite sure which he was), Mark. It just so happened to be his first day back at Chez Panisse after 17 years, and he had picked up on our interest in restaurants – most likely because of a good tip-off from our waitress, and the fact that I was scribbling notes throughout the dinner.
Julian: Yeah, Mark made sure we got a tour of the kitchen, complete with a look into their walk-in fridges and their dish pit. One thing that I appreciated was the fact that the kitchen staff wasn’t working while we took the tour (at about 8pm)–they were off in another room eating dinner themselves! Eating a full dinner at a reasonable hour is something very few cooks get to do–pretty unheard of if you work in the industry. They definitely treat their people well.
Jesse: The history, the philosophy, the location, and the service all added up to restaurant experience that can only be had at such a pioneering (for its time) place as Chez Panisse. If you’re searching for amazingly delicious food, just for the sake of the food, this might not be a place for you. But if you’re a foodie that appreciates what Alice Waters has done for the way we think about food, this is a must experience. Check out the menu we had below!