My good friend and fellow culinary traveller, Kevin, has been doing an internship at the one and only Chez Panisse for the last couple of weeks. Today, I was lucky enough to get a tour of the kitchen. Unfortunately, my camera battery died early in the tour (amateur!), so I'll have to try to express how impressive it was with mere words.
First off I have to admit that I've never eaten at Chez Panisse. This is slightly embarrassing, given its well deserved reputation and the role it plays as an incubator for so many talented chefs. Many of my favorite restaurants and other food businesses boast Chez Panisse alums as Chefs and owners. If I needed a reminder of the importance of Chez Panisse and what it represents, I got it while waiting outside for Kevin. Two different groups of people came and posed for pictures on the front stairs. When such a low key building can create such a starstruck reaction, you know there is something going on there.
A lot of things stuck out for me on the tour, but none more so than the smell behind the restaurant. The smell I generally associate with being behind a restaurant on a hot day is not pleasant. But at Chez Panisse it smelled like fresh herbs. I was literally standing next to the garbage can thinking how good it smelled.
The kitchen itself is beautiful. It opens to the dining room so diners can get a good look at whats going on, but it is set back enough so the hustle and bustle doesn't screw with the mood. (Those of you who have been there already know this, but like I said, it was my first time!) It is a nice open kitchen with natural light and despite being full of people is surprisingly spacious. I was really impressed with how they used out door storage (screened in to protect from bugs of course) to store ingredients, such as avocados, that don't like the chilly confines of a cooler.
I had a chance to talk to one of the Sous Chefs about the butchering they do, and the relative merits of Chicken, Quail and Squab while he was preparing some beautiful looking Soul Food Farm chickens for their evening presentation. Chez Panise buys whole lamb, goat, pork and poultry and butchers it in house, which is no surprise given the guiding philosophy behind the restaurant.
Lamb quarters hanging in the coolerChez Panisse is an inspiring place. I will definitely come back to eat, and hopefully to learn as well.