Note: I wrote this last spring, and explored finding a non-Cod home for it. What with the new Waters jawn dropping, I thought I would share my thoughts on the last Panisse communique.
Thomas McNamee, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (New York: Penguin, 2007), 380 pp.
One of the challenges in reviewing a biography is to review the book, rather than its subject. As often as not, reviews of biographies become mini-bios of the subject, rather than critiques of a particular biography. When the subject is Alice Waters, the temptation to take this approach is strong, especially as musing on the Organic Revolution seems to be an irresistible topic these days. However, if you are reading this review, you probably know the Alice Waters story, at least in its broad strokes: Young woman founds small restaurant in Berkeley in the early 1970s, starts culinary revolution.
It might be easier to review Waters herself than this biography. Waters's impact on eating in America has been significant and positive. As a biography, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is much less successful than its subject. Indeed, the relation between the book and its subject may tell us more about Waters than McNamee's text itself.
Readers who come to this book hoping for Bourdainian grit, or an organic and sustainable West Coast iteration of Just Desserts, the dishy Martha Stewart bio, will be disappointed. McNamee makes no bones about his friendly approach:
"Cristina Salas-Porras, at the time Alice Waters's assistant, first approached me about writing this book, presumably on her boss's authority, and in that sense, it is "authorized," but I have had complete freedom throughout. Alice herself has been extremely generous with her time and resources. I have had unimpeded access to the Chez Panisse archives at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley, and to archives stored at the restaurant. Alice has granted me many hours of interviews…." (xv)
Waters, indeed, is and remains an influential figure in the history of eating in America over the last thirty-plus years. As an interesting and complicated woman living through several interesting and complicated decades, one imagines a biographer might find more to do than buff her halo. Unfortunately, McNamee rarely reaches past this level. It would be hard to think of another contemporary biography that is as complicit in the mythology it seeks to describe.
Even by the standards of the restaurant business, the history of Panisse is unusually convoluted, but McNamee toes the party line with a consistency one might find in Brezhnev-era columnist for Pravda. One of the most significant and controversial figures in the evolution of Chez Panisse is Jeremiah Tower. By all accounts, he played a critical role in the evolution of the restaurant. After a personal and professional falling-out with Waters, he left at the end of 1976. In 1984, he started his own restaurant, Stars:
"On the wall he hung a framed letter from Alice, written in happier times, praising him profusely. Displaying that letter, he told the Chronicle, was 'a little bit of malicious vengeance. People can see in her own handwriting just who is whose disciple.' He seems not to have known how self-degrading a gesture hanging that letter on the wall at stars was."
McNamee goes on to quote from a 1984 Times article by Marian Burros, pointing to what he calls "a vividly contrasting character," and characterizing her "gracious tone as that of a smiling winner." (206)
Moments like these are perhaps open to interpretation, but there are also holes in the narrative that will confound a reader who has been paying attention to the food world over the last several years. After an opening vignette describing the opening night in 1971, we learn
"Thirty-five years later, Alice Waters is arguably the most famous restaurateur in the United States, Chez Panisse the best-known restaurant. In 2001, Gourmet magazine deemed it the best restaurant in the nation; in the magazine's next assessment, in its October, 2006 issue, Chez Panisse fell to number two (behind a Chicago newcomer called Alinea).
Now, I would be inclined to disagree with the first assertion, especially, but they are qualified with an "arguably." However, if I can remember back that far, the big Panisse news of the fall of 2006 was not winning the silver from Gourmet, but finishing in the one-star peloton in the Michelin ratings, cheek by jowl with 22 other Bay Area spots, and behind four two-star spots and one three-star spot. When this news does appear, it is as a footnote. Towards the end of the book between a sustainable meal for Yale students, and an epic slow food feast in Italy, Waters is quoted as saying (the quote appears just after another mention of the 2001 Gourmet honor) "…all I ever wanted was to be like a little Michelin one-star restaurant."(p. 308) There is a footnote, and on p. 357 is a note that "in October, 2006, in its "red guide" for the San Francisco Bay Area, Michelin awarded Chez Panisse just that—one star. Based on my meal there in the spring of 06, the one star was generous.
If you are writing a story of a restaurant that has an arc from 1971 through the fall of 2006, you would think that the one-starring from Bib would warrant more than a footnote – at the time, this rating was a surprise, and described as a rebuke in many quarters.
Utilmately, this book reads like an entry in the "as told to" genre of biographies, but its subtitle "The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution suggests that it purports to be more. However, MacNamee writes as if he enjoys being part of the Panisse in-crowd, and does not want to do anything to change that. To these sins of near-omission, he adds sins of commission, perpetrating what reads like an In Style magazine feature on Waters's home:
"A big oval table topped with marble sits at the sunny end of the kitchen, surrounded by mismatched wooden chairs. A corner cabinet houses thick pottery plates, also of differing but harmonious styles. A bay window looks out into the garden through a tangle of vines. On the shelf below the window is a clutter of antique cookbooks, art books, baskets, bottles." (312-313)
And so forth.
There are bigger flaws than the fawning tone. In particular, readers of this book might get the impression that she is the revolution, rather than a revolutionary. My academic training makes me deeply skeptical of the kind of post hoc, ergo propter hoc logic that permeates this biography. McNamee gives the impression that here in 2007 anything you put in your mouth that does not come out of a can is thanks to Alice Waters. As recent books like the United States of Arugula, Organic, Inc, and the Omnivore's Dilemma indicate, the reality is far more complicated.
Until the office was abolished by Pope John Paul II in 1983, the process of promoting a candidate to sainthood involved an officer of the church who was charged with making any possible case against canonization. This office is the origin of the term "devil's advocate." McNamee has not produced a hagiography, quite, but thoughtful readers of Alice Waters & Chez Panisse will find themselves yearning for the perspective of a devil's advocate.
Ultimately, the fawning approach of this book does its subject a disservice. It would be hard to name a single restaurant more significant to the history of 20th century American dining, and Water's endurance through a variety of roles and contexts is remarkable. By giving us the icon, rather than an individual, MacNamee relegates Waters's very real achievements to the realm of mythology.