It's been three and a half months since the iconic, historic Bay Area restaurant Chez Panisse suffered a major electrical fire that destroyed the front portion of both the upstairs and downstairs dining rooms. At first, the restaurant and café seemed like they'd be closed indefinitely, but a quick rebuilding effort, along with a partial redesign of the front facade and "porch" by original designer Kip Mesirow, has come together and the restaurant is welcoming diners back in for a grand reopening benefit tomorrow night, with the general public filling the seats starting on Monday, June 24. Eater SF spoke with Alice Waters today about how it's all going, and what fans can expect when the doors reopen.
You talked shortly after the fire about how there would be a silver lining in the reconstruction because of some design changes you had long wanted to make in the restaurant. First off, can you tell us what's changed in the dining rooms?
The front of the restaurant really looks fantastic. It's a Japanese pagoda. It's a beautiful facade that's been put together with the most remarkable woodworkers in town. I'm really pleased about that, and about the courtyard out front. I think we've reclaimed some space. The entre place has been scrubbed, everything painted, and my biggest hope was new lighting. Some of it needed to be replaced, but the fire gave us an opportunity to really rethink how we wanted it to be, how light we wanted the rooms to be, and a lot of details that we could have never imagined but were suddenly given the time to figure out. That's been a great, great thing.
Were there a lot of aesthetic decisions along the way, or was everything pretty well decided shortly after the fire?
There are always a lot of little aesthetic decisions. We're always trying to figure out a better way to do it, better than the way we have done it. When the place is cleared of tables and chairs you can really imagine things differently. That's what happened. I'm very excited about putting new wallpaper in the downstairs dining room. It won't be up in time for the opening, but it's going to happen. There are lot of decisions that we made that will probably come about over the next six months. We've resolved certain things. Like, "We will never again put that back on that shelf ? it's too hard to reach." When you're busy all the time, you know... the cooks have their day off on Sunday, and it's not a day that you can really have a retreat and think in a big way about everything you're doing. That's what's happening. We had a lot of time just to rethink everything.
And what can regulars rest assured has not changed?
We didn't put a door on the kitchen. It's still open. We didn't do anything big. We couldn't change the footprint of the restaurant. We had to keep that intact. We in fact went higher in the porch upstairs, in the cafe. It now has a gabled roof which is just lovely.
And are there more sprinklers now?
Good question. I'm just in favor of sprinklers now. After the first fire, I really wanted to follow every fire code that was imposed, and we actually have, we just never anticipated an electrical fire under the house. We were really careful about the fire danger. And now I think we've really redone things so that we won't be putting the restaurant in jeopardy ever again. Barring an earthquake.
Was the damage this time worse than in the previous fires at the restaurant? Have there been a lot of sleepless nights?
There are always a lot of sleepless nights for me. For me, at a certain point, it felt just so completely destroyed, inside and out. I can't tell you. Without any furniture in there and just piles of charred wood and broken glass everywhere it just didn't feel like the restaurant. And I think we all had a hard time coming here because we weren't cooking. We were walking through this space lit by construction lamps, lit by electricity from the next door property. But in the last couple of days, it's really come together. I think we're going to open tomorrow!
People have been working on pieces of it all around Berkeley. Somebeody's been stripping chairs. Somebody's been making benches off site, and they're just now delivering them. Other people have been working to make lights and now they're bringing in their pieces and putting it all in place, and now we can imagine it's all going to work. I think we served lunch for 70 people today. It was just chaos.
Has Kip Mesirow been back for the last stages of the construction?
I wanted him to come back. He said, "Alice, I don't want to come back when you're in that chaotic moment. I want to come back in about a month, and I want to have a dinner with everyone who worked on the building." He said he'd bring his family and he'd come. I couldn't convince him. But that's him, and that's Kip. He knows what he wants to do. You have to have a certain kind of personality that can survive amidst this chaos and that's not him. He works alone. He's been making pieces for us, he's made lamps and carved pieces, that he's sent back to us. But he'd like to come when it's all finished.
You said because of some extra insurance you bought you were able to keep the entire staff on through the closure. What have they all been doing?
Everyone has come to work, probably for 15 or 20 hours a week, to help. All of the managers have been here non-stop. There are other people who just wanted to be here all the time and help do the construction work. It's just so great to be able to employ them when they have all these skills. Like we have a busser and who knew he was a master carpenter? He's just been helping on the team. Others have really enjoyed coming and cooking for everyone.
Have any new menu inspirations come about with the chefs having so much time off?
We're doing a new menu for the café, a new format. We've wanted to do that for a long time. We all have ideas about it, and they may not all happen right as we open. But for instance there will be hors d'oeuvre-sized pasta; warmed desserts that are done in the wood oven; more cheeses, and a cheese board. We're thinking about à la carte sides of vegetables, you know because some of these vegetables are just so divine that you just want to have that. And we're going to have rosé wine on draft. That's coming. We've been doing a lot of experimenting around pasta. I'm very interested in whole-grain pasta. Something that's really subtle, fresh noodles that are made out of farro.
What can people expect at the big benefit dinner tomorrow night?
Well I think the people who are coming are all really enthusiastic about Chez Panisse and its rebirth, but also many of them are really excited about The Edible Schoolyard. I never imagined we'd sell out immediately, but we did. We'll be celebrating the trustees of the Edible Schoolyard, the people who have made a multi-year commitment to the foundation. I hope people don't bring too great an expectation about it all, but I think it will be a good party. I know it will be a good party.
And how will you be spending your summer after all the reopening festivities are over?
I wish I could say I was going to Bolinas, but there's just still a lot still to be done here at the restaurant. And I'm doing a lot around the new cookbook that's coming out in the fall. I'm going to Italy for Slow Food, which is mid-September. So that's why I'm really staying close to home until then.