This weekend marked the fortieth anniversary of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I was swept into the adventure of the restaurant almost at its inception; though I had no restaurant experience, I was recruited to fill in for someone who didn’t show up for work. Alice is a dedicated Francophile, and early on she wrote out each nightly menu, in French, in her elegant calligraphy. Eventually, her devotion to France was replaced with the appreciation of California’s food and culture, and the names of growers, producers, and ingredients took prominence on the menus. Over the years, many Bay Area designers, poets, writers, calligraphers, and printers have placed their stamp on the Chez Panisse menus. I’m lucky to have been one of them.
The Grand Aïoli has become a tradition at Chez Panisse. It is a Provençal free-for-all feast of bowls of garlic mayonnaise with platters of summer vegetables, grilled bread, fish, and shellfish, and plenty of chilled rosé.
I wanted this menu to look like a decorative plate. Ingredients of the spicy shrimp soup form the elements of the image.
I planned this menu with an image of a prickly pear cactus for Diana Kennedy, an authority on the regional cooking of Mexico, but Diana never made it to the dinner. About an hour before service, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, and part of the Bay Bridge collapsed, making travel impossible from San Francisco, where she was staying.
My longtime colleague Fritz Streiff, a host in the café for many years, and his partner Jeff were married in California two days before the 2008 election that made same-sex marriage illegal in the state. It was fall, and the persimmons were turning colors on the branches. On my morning walk I was seeing lots of red wing blackbirds. Only the males have the intense red patch and yellow stripe on their wings, so I put a pair of males on a persimmon branch.
Patricia Curtan is an artist, designer, and printmaker. Her book, Menus for Chez Panisse, collects four decades of menus printed for the restaurant.