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Chez Panisse's "40 Weeks, 40 Inspirations" Birthday To-Do

Chez Panisse Café.
Chez Panisse Café.
Photo: Flickr/Meg Zimbeck

As Alice Waters rides out a natural high from joining the Twitterverse in the name of her Edible Schoolyard program, she's having a little fun with the staff at Chez Panisse's Café upstairs. For the 40 weeks leading up to the restaurant's 40th birthday on August 28th, each week the Café menu will nod to a different chef or cookbook author that's inspired them over the years. March saw Julia Child, Elizabeth David, the Troisgros brothers and Niloufer Ichaporia King for the Persian New Year. Dishes aren't taken ingredient-for-ingredient from the visionary of the week, but given the "Alice spin" as her publicist David Prior puts it. "Chez Panisse always uses a lot of vegetables," he says. "So the dishes often have more produce in them than they would in their original forms."

He goes on to explain how many things have stayed the same through the decades, like host Steve Crumley, who's still there after 38 and a half years. Yet Chez keeps evolving. A tweeting Alice proves this. "40 years, 40 inspirations came up organically out of conversations; that's always how it works here," says Prior.

Tomorrow, the ebullient Steve will greet diners as per usual, but so will some unusually pungent Persian smells a la this week's inspiration, Claudia Roden. A full menu of her Iran- and North Africa-inflected items will be in rotation for a one-day-only celebration of the Café's 31st birthday. As far as the other weeks go, Chefs Cal Peternell and Beth Wells come up with the newly inspired menu items in conversation with Alice. Here, we sit down with chef Peternell to chat about how it's gone so far and what's in store leading up to the grand finale.

What was your favorite tribute dinner to date?

Madhur Jaffrey was really fun, we did local squid roasted in the oven with channa dhal and chutney, a winter vegetable vindaloo, mugla stew with yogurt and spices, rockfish and clam curry with basmati rice and spinach and a few others. One week we did Larousse Gastronomique which was really kind of a hoot because it’s very much of a certain period and the somewhat elaborate presentations were fun to recreate. Waverley Root was really great too.

Sounds delightful. Why did guys decide to do this to begin with?

The primary reason we’re doing this is for in-house staff edification. To teach some people new things. To reacquaint ourselves with our inspiration as we lead up to the 40th anniversary of Chez Panisse. We’re remembering some great dishes we’ve forgotten about. Hopefully, by the time this is over in August, we’ll have generated a new group of dishes to add to our regular repertoire.

Do just add one tribute menu item? Or is it the whole menu?

It varies, sometimes there are several dishes, sometimes just a couple. The norm has been two apps, a soup and two or three entrees inspired by the person of the week. The chefs we're riffing on are mostly people who've written about Mediterranean cooking.

Do you notify the chef or author that you’re honoring them?

We’ve been trying. Quite a lot aren’t around anymore, but when we can, we do. Scott Peacock, Lindsey [Shere], Cecilia [Chiang] were all here on their respective weeks. Hopefully others will come too. Niloufer, I’d love to get Colman Andrews to come out.

Any other ways they’re commemorated on the menu or in the restaurant?

We educate staff, post a bio behind the scenes so staff can answer questions, that's about it.

What’s the response been like so far?

It's been really positive from what I hear from the waiters. A few patrons have been a little surprised. We do tend to use more vegetables than most cooks do. We’ve continued to do this. We’ve adapted recipes to that style so it’s not too weird and jarring.

Any tribute weeks that people really loved?

Madhur Jaffrey and Cecilia Chiang made an impact because as soon as you walk in the door, you smell something different, like black beans, cilantro, curry; so those have been exciting. It was great to have Cecilia Chiang come in, both scary and exciting. She sat down with some champagne and sipped our version of her hot and sour soup. One week we were inspired by Lindsey Shere, our first pastry chef and co-founder.

So how did that translate into the menu?

Obviously we had her desserts, but we did ask what her favorite savory dishes have been over the years. She and I actually have a lot of the same favorites. Anything with salt cod, pasta Bolognese, boudin blanc. I do this gnocchi alla romana made with semolina. I spread it out like polenta and bake it.

Anything special you’re doing to wrap it all up?

No not yet, the list of inspirations is still evolving. We’ve been discussing if we should save certain people for the last week right before the birthday. That will be the big honor. We’ll have some kind of big birthday party. Maybe we’ll honor Lulu Peyraud.

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Chez Panisse Café

1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA