Chronicling the life of Chez Panisse Restaurant, one menu at a time

Thursday, October 27, 2011 at 2:11 PM

Recently, Google had the pleasure of hosting Patricia Curtan to chat about her new book, Menus for Chez Panisse, as part of the Authors@Google speaker series. Patricia is an artist, designer and printmaker with a long association with Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley, California. She has designed and printed letterpress and linoleum block special-occasion menus for the restaurant for several decades. Her gorgeous new book gathers these menus in one place and provides an intimate look into the history and life of this important establishment. Chez Panisse and its founder, Alice Waters, have been credited as key influencers in the organic food movement, famous for its emphasis on sustainable, organic, locally grown and seasonal ingredients.

Patricia's talk was fascinating. She explained her process of carving linoleum tiles that the US Army once used for submarine flooring to make the blocks she needs for her prints. She also talked about her ties to Chez Panisse. She worked as an apprentice in a printing office owned by a friend of Alice Waters. When the kitchen was understaffed one night, she was asked to fill in at the restaurant. She fell in love and never left. Throughout her time at Chez Panisse, Patricia continued to draw and print as a hobby. Years later, she left the kitchen to focus on printmaking, hand-making special-occasion menus for the restaurant's daily evolving meals amongst other artistic endeavors.

Linoleum block prints carved by Patricia

Patricia working at her press

Patricia brought some of her menus for us to examine after her talk. There is something visceral and tactile about holding a piece of her work. I thought about how hand made objects elicited within me the natural desire to create in the same way that Chez Panisse may bring patrons closer to the desire to cook and grow their own food.

At lunch after the talk, Patricia discussed the importance of making things with our own hands and growing our own food. She told us, "When we grow food with our own hands, whether it's the basil plant on your windowsill, or the small garden on the rooftop, we build a connection with that food. We are more eager to gather, taste and prepare. In the same way, when we hold a handmade menu, we understand the time, love and care that went into its making. It's a very important part of the magic that is Chez Panisse."

Patricia at lunch in one of the Google cafés

Inspired by the talk, I visited the restaurant last week. Patricia’s insider tip to me was to always order the salad, and I am glad I did. The magic of Chez Panisse lies in its ingredients. The signature of Californian cuisine is local, seasonal ingredients, cooked to highlight the freshness of the ingredients.

Patricia's illustrated menus adorn the walls in the upstairs café

Menus for Chez Panisse is a collection of Patricia's work, providing unique snapshots into the life of the restaurant. What Julia Childs, James Beard, Hillary Rodham Clinton ate there can all be found within the book's pages. Other menus show how much a meal cost when the restaurant first opened its doors in 1971... $1.75! How some things have changed!

For other works by Alice Waters and Patricia Curtan, check out:

Patricia Curtan @ Google speaking about Menus for Chez Panisse