BERKELEY — Posing for a photograph in front of the refurbished front porch of her Chez Panisse restaurant, chef Alice Waters smiles as a passer-by calls out, “Looking good!”
It’s true. They do look good — both the chef with the sparkling blue eyes who helped ignite America’s interest in fresh, local food and the restaurant, all spruced up after damage from a fire this March.
This was the second fire to hit Chez Panisse in its 42-year history, coming almost exactly 31 years after a serious fire in 1982. Luckily, the toll this time was much less severe with sprinklers keeping the flames from spreading and damage mainly confined to the two-story front porch seating areas.
And if you’re looking for self-pity over this latest setback, you won’t find it at Alice’s restaurant.
“Whenever there is fire, new things happen. New things sprout up like in the forest. It’s just a moment to really reflect on what to do,” says Waters. “Everything seems to happen for a reason, it just sort of woke us all up.”
That was true literally as well as figuratively. Waters got a call in the predawn hours of March 8 to tell her that her business was on fire, and not in the good way. At the time she hoped to reopen within weeks since the damage was limited.
Instead, the job turned out to take a little longer. A new, gabled, porch was built, interiors were cleaned and repainted and wiring and plumbing was replaced. The process gave the mostly young staff a chance to really get to know the restaurant from the inside out, Waters says. “When you’re working to rebuild it you learn a lot. It’s kind of helping people take ownership.”
The first event at the restaurant was a private dinner Friday night to raise funds for the Edible Schoolyard Project, a kitchen and garden program integrated into the academic curriculum of an urban middle school.
Opening night for the public was to be Monday with mostly long-time customers expected, according to restaurant general manager Jennifer Sherman. The menu was to be the usual offering of local, seasonal food, though Sherman notes it’s a bonus that the reopening comes at “probably the most glorious food moment of the year.”
At 69, though she doesn’t look it, you might wonder if Waters is ready to slow down. She says she will if she ever loses interest in the restaurant. But after nearly 42 years of countless meals and unforgettable guests such as Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama as well as a coterie of neighborhood faithful, that hasn’t happened yet.
“It’s always been a challenge and always been a pleasure for me,” she says. “I’ve never felt like it was work. I mean “work” work. I’ve tried to make it feel creative for everybody who works here.”