At Chez Panisse, the iconic Berkeley restaurant helmed by Chef Alice Waters, family meal is more than just a quick bite before service. It’s a way for the staff — including around 30 cooks, office employees, and Edible Schoolyard foundation team members — to sit down, share a meal, and show appreciation for one another. This time has become fundamental to the culture of the restaurant.
“It’s really important for us to take a moment and sit and eat together,” says Chez Panisse Cafe Chef Beth Wells. “It’s a way of showing appreciation and taking care of the staff.”
We asked Beth and Pastry Chef Mary Jo Thoresen for an insider’s look into family meal at Chez Panisse. Here’s what we learned.
At Chez Panisse, the staff shares three meals throughout the day, at 11 a.m., 4 p.m., and at the end of the night’s service. Meals are usually odds and ends left over from the previous service, made from vegetables or dishes they don’t have enough of to serve to guests. The cooks meet with the person in charge of the meal to go over what is available to use and throw out ideas.
Weather permitting, the team sits outside at picnic tables in the back of the restaurant for the first meal. For the other two, they sit in the dining room, setting up tables and taking time to talk, have fun, and relax.
“Alice is really adamant that people sit down and enjoy it — it reflects a respect for everybody,” says Mary Jo. “It’s an important moment in the day.”
Make It Nice
Early in the day, the team covers the picnic tables outside with a Mexican oil cloth. They bring out nice plates and platters (their signature Heath Ceramics pieces) and serve dishes family style. And there’s always dessert, such as leftover ice cream or cake.
“We slice that up and powder it and make it look nice,” says Mary Jo.
One of the day’s meals is prepared by a junior member of the staff, which gives them an opportunity to hone their skills. “It’s a good way to learn,” says Beth. “We can teach them tricks and they can practice cooking chicken breasts or dressing a salad.”
Mary Jo adds, “They really try to put their best foot forward to make something nice and express themselves.”
The cooks bring out the food for staff meal, but everyone pitches in. Dishwashers grab plates and silverware for the table, and people are quick to help each other clear plates at the end of the meal — carefully, respecting the dishwashing area and keeping it organized.
There’s only one consistent feature of every staff meal: a garden lettuce salad. Aside from that, the menu changes constantly, according to whatever is in season and is left over. One day they will have a slab of polenta, the next they might use extra pizza dough to bake a big sheet of focaccia. Sauteed greens, roasted vegetables, pots of beans, and bits of leftover meat — duck breast, pork loin, or chicken — come together to make a full meal.
Even after family meal, bits of leftovers are placed in to-go bags for cooks to take home. They also donate some food to a cook who provides meals for women’s shelters. “Nothing goes to waste,” says Mary Jo. “And even the little bit that isn’t able to be eaten goes into compost for the garden.”
Photo Credit: Amanda Marsalis