Robyn's Reviews > Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution

Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee
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's review
Jun 10, 2012

bookshelves: biography-or-memoir, culinary, library, nonfiction, did-not-finish

I'm giving this one up as a bad job. Chez Panisse is a legend around here, and when I was going to Cal even more so. When I asked my absolutely-uninterested-in-chefs-or-gourmet-food-or-expensive-restaurants mother if she knew who Alice Waters was, she immediately said "Yeah, I mean, essentially. I couldn't tell you anything about her, but I know she's from that restaurant in Berkeley that helped kick off the local food movement in the 70s." So, yeah, being a Bay Area girl born and raised and a Berkeley girl at heart, this should have been a book for me.

But instead ohmigod so dull! I don't know if McNamee thought people wouldn't trust that he did due diligence since Waters approved his project, but he just kept cramming in "so-and-so told me..." or "in the words of so-and-so..." absolutely everything he wrote had to be backed up by quotes from multiple sources. That made really slow going and most of the time events just did not move forward because it took so long to get everybody's opinions on the page. (I also could have done with fewer menus and more events)

Plus, what is the story here? Alice Waters has built her life on being irresponsible and falling in love with anyone who gets near her with a little flash in their personality. Everybody who comes into contact with her enables her to continue being irresponsible, saving the restaurant, bailing her out financially, allowing her to go without paying them or being straight with them, etc. I was really disgusted at the part where they talked about how this restaurant that was "one big family" "such a family" "always making room for anyone" "allowing anyone to take any time they needed" etc., would fire people and the fired person would know it was Alice's decision, but Alice would never be the one to do the firing, would never speak a word of negativity to the person. Yeah, that's a family. Do a bad job, Alice doesn't like it, she won't give you feedback, she'll just have someone else fire you so she can keep her hands clean and stay above the fray.

I am beyond grateful for what Chez Panisse brought to food. I wouldn't have the opportunity (or knowledge or even awareness) to cook a quarter of the dishes I enjoy making if they hadn't blazed the trail they did. But I am never someone who thinks the end justifies the means, and I simply hate when people get rewarded for bad behavior. So instead of forcing myself to finish a boring-as-hell novel about someone who rapidly loses my respect with every page, I'll let this one go and preserve the last of my appreciation for Waters and what she did.

One unrelated note: Waters was at UCSB as a freshman the same year a relative of mine was, and left the same time that relative did, for the same reason. Was pretty funny to think they may have stumbled across each other at the time.
First thoughts before reading:
When you flip through an authorized biography and see that the author has included a 3 page list of the dates he had recorded interviews with various involved people, as well as a 4.5 page bibliography of books he read to prepare to write the book, and an 11 page index with entries such as "Chez Panisse, moral conflict inherent in" and "Waters Alice Louise, shifting moods of", you can pretty well expect a biography that covers it all. Now to discover whether the book is actually any good, or just has great depth and breadth.

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Reading Progress

06/11/2012 "Haven't actually started reading this yet. I'll have to remember to update the "date started" when I do."
06/22/2012 "Such a struggle to read. Started reading it yesterday and just not getting anywhere because it's all just a pattern of an irresponsible person and her enablers doing the same things over and over again."
01/09/2014 marked as: did-not-finish

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