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Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry,
and Laura Chenel, Whose Name Is Synonymous with Goat Cheese,
 Continue to Impact American Food
By Kathie Smith, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Sep. 25, 2005 - SAN FRANCISCO -- In the last 30 years, this City by the Bay has been an incubator for food trends, many of which have influenced what's eaten here in the Midwest, and around the country.

San Francisco's world of restaurants, high-profile chefs, food companies, and ethnic cuisines helped produce California cuisine. In addition, this city has nurtured the growth of organic foods and sustainable agriculture as well as the art of pairing food with wine. The San Francisco area has a wonderful growing season, excellent natural resources, and the availability of fresh produce.

Even the city's mayor, Gavin Newsom, was in the food business prior to his political career. Mr. Newsom is the founder of the PlumpJack Group with restaurants, a winery, wines, sport stores, and PlumpJack Resorts.

Out of this food-friendly environment, culinary stars have inspired us and changed the way Americans cook.

Among the most prominent are Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, and Laura Chenel, whose name is synonymous with goat cheese. Each continues to impact California cuisine and American food as they bring innovative ideas to the table.

Alice Waters Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse, which serves high-quality, in-season products on a single fixed-price menu, in Berkeley in 1971. Since then, an amazing number of chefs have listed experience (even if for a short time) at Chez Panisse on their resume.

During a presentation at the recent Association for Food Journalists Annual Conference, she said that the restaurant has two chefs for every position and noted the long hours they work in a restaurant kitchen. "There's six months on and six months off, which allows for a civilized life."

Over 30 years, Chez Panisse has developed a network of mostly local farmers and ranchers dedicated to sustainable agriculture. The restaurant, with two seatings for dinner, and less-expensive Chez Panisse Cafe, open for lunch and dinner, serves 300 to 500 meals per day, according to Waters, and supports one farmer and 121 employees. They buy directly from 39 purveyors of specialty products.

Ms. Waters is also committed to bringing healthy food to the classroom and fostering public debate on the subject of food. In 1996, she created the Chez Panisse Foundation, which started the Edible Schoolyard. This involved a garden and kitchen classroom at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

"Kids come into the garden and do math, history, drama, and into the kitchen," she said. "Kids like this. It's their favorite course in school. When engaged in growing (food) and cooking, they eat what they prepare. Making pesto themselves opens a whole new world."

The philosophy is not new. "We got disconnected in the 1950s. There's been globalization since then. We have to bring food back to people's consciousness," she said. "We have to eat in a seasonal way."

To follow the seasons, serve fruit fresh in the summer, saving the syrup or drying fruit for the fall and winter. "We decided (at the restaurant) we would only have salmon when in season and local salmon," she said. "I don't want my palate dulled (by food available year round)."

Ms. Waters would "erase packages with a long list of ingredients from the American diet. Corn tortillas used to have two ingredients. Now they have a number so they can have a shelf life."

Country French Thomas Keller purchased the French Laundry in Yountville in 1994 with the idea of creating a three-star country French restaurant in the heart of Napa Valley. The result was a tasting menu in a small dining room where diners must make reservations at least two to three months in advance.

At the French Laundry, plan on sitting three and a half to four hours with three-bite dishes and the nine-course tasting menu (at about $225 per person, which includes an 18 percent service charge). "If you are in a hurry, you should go somewhere else," Mr. Keller told food editors and writers.

He now has three other restaurants: Per Se in New York, and the casual French bistro Bouchon in New York and Las Vegas.

His restaurants emphasize ambiance and food. People go to his places to learn new taste experiences.

He talks about "palate fatigue."

"With any food we start with the impact of flavor," he said. "The more you have the less you taste. With a small portion, it leaves you wanting to taste more." Hence the small servings.

Even restaurants like this are influenced by fashions in food and are feeling the pressure to come up with something new. "Today's chef is more dynamic, with the ever-changing restaurant scene where guests want to try new things. The chef must adapt, modify, and evolve," he added.

He said that resourcing products is more difficult than it was 25 years ago. "We're trying to create relationships with producers who strive for the same quality." Finding suppliers that recognize your standards is important, he adds.

At Chef Keller's restaurants, "The definition of simple for a chef is different than for everyone else," he said, noting that the roast chicken is brined, then roasted, and then heated in a special oven. "From a production point it's not that simple. We have six or seven or eight people involved in one simple dish." In one dish that involved baking a custard in an egg shell, chefs broke 100 eggs to get 60 perfect shells.

For the last seven years at the French Laundry, a service charge has been automatically added to the bill. The tip/service charge is shared between the cooks and the waiters to spread the gratuity to all the employees. In most restaurants, "A waiter gets several hundred dollars in his pocket every night," said Chef Keller, estimating that the front of the house still makes twice as much as a sous chef.

The service charge is a practice that Chez Panisse has been doing for 18 years. Whether the service charge is a trend incubating for the rest of the country remains to be seen.

Artisan cheeses Laura Chenel, founder and owner of Laura Chenel Chevre in Sonoma County, is a pioneer of farmstead cheeses where the cheese is made on the same farm where the milk is produced.

She is recognized as the originator of American chevre (goat cheese); Her cheese was introduced at Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant in 1979 and quickly became a signature item of the newly emerging California cuisine. This savvy businesswoman started as a goat farmer and now supplies goat cheese to fine restaurants and specialty shops across America.

She grew up in Sebastopol in Sonoma County on a farm where the work ethic was strong. After studying production methods in France, she used cheese-making techniques to develop her own chevre. Today she has a herd of 500 goats. The company makes about 25,000 pounds of goat cheese per week in the summer, and 8,000 pounds in the winter.

There are five to 12 varieties, including Cabecou aged in olive oil and herbs, and a soft, fresh goat cheese called Chabis.

"A goat farm is seven days a week, 24 hours a day," she told food editors and writers.

Ms. Chenel has expanded her business from the development of new cheeses to production and sales, and personally tends to her beloved herd of goats. She has become so successful that she buys goat milk from her neighbors to make the amount of cheese needed. She also breeds goats, which she sells to her neighbors for the goat milk.

Chevre or goat cheese can range in texture from moist and creamy to dry and semi-firm. It comes in a variety of shapes including cylinders, discs, and cones.

Ms. Chenel is a food entrepreneur who focused on producing a consistent high-quality product and then hired qualified staff to oversee daily production. With care, skill, pride in workmanship, and small scale production, she's brought American chevre to the table.


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