Chez Panisse and the Best Day Ever

Written by Katie Parla on August 26, 2010

Nectarine tart with rose ice cream.

Earlier this month I traveled to the Bay Area for my friend Erin’s wedding. Her husband Chris is a cook at Chez Panisse and he set me up with a stage in the kitchen, one of the most incredible places on the planet. There is a mixture of permanent staff and interns and there is a huge emphasis on learning. Throughout the day, chefs Beth and Jeremy took time out to teach a trick or shortcut, or to instructively correct a mistake.

I got in at 8:45 and the prep kitchen was already buzzing. At 9 Chef Beth held a meeting to go over the lunch and dinner menus, shelling beans as she delegated to the crowd. Next, we took out positions in the kitchen, mine at a large wooden butcher’s block facing the pastry department. It was a beautiful view; staff picking summer berries, baking ossi dei morti and langues de chat, toasting almonds, and preparing chocolate Pavé and apple tarts from scratch.

I spent the day shelling beans, dicing beefsteak tomatoes, running sauce through a sieve, slicing heirloom tomatoes, snapping green beans, and picking herbs, occasionally running items upstairs to the Café where lunch is served during the day. Chez Panisse has two dining rooms and, while the upstairs Café is open for lunch and dinner, the downstaris Restaurant is only open for dinner.

At 5pm, after the prep kitchen winds down and the dinner staff comes in, there is a magically delicious moment known as “tasters”. All of the dishes on the Café menu are prepared by the upstairs kitchen (more like an open line in the middle of the dining room) for the staff and servers to try. Highlights included Rabbit terrine with escarole, marinated beets, and mustard, Braised Becker Lane Farm pork shoulder with shell beans, greens, and salsa verde, Hand-cut noodles with heirloom tomatoes, basil, and ricotta, Grilled California sea bass with little eggplants, purslane, cherry tomatoes, and spicy yogurt, Wolfe Ranch quail with cornbread stuffing, green beans, Pizza with wild nettles and Parmesan.

After tasters, I made a quick stop at The Cheesboard Collective across the street for a few slices of their pizza of the day—goat cheese, mozzarella, mushroom and shallots–and had a rest before heading back to Chez for dinner. Having attended tasters, I knew just what to order: the pasta and the sea bass. Chris sent over the rabbit terrine starter, as well. The meal ended with an off-the-menu dessert,
Fantasia nectarine tart with rose ice cream. This was the best meal of the trip and a fitting conclusion to the best day ever.

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