Pagnol’s Feast
by Meredith Brody
Sep 01, 2011 | 1690 views | 0 0 comments | 19 19 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alice Waters with Peter Sellars (above) at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival.
Alice Waters with Peter Sellars (above) at the 2010 Telluride Film Festival.
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Alice Waters
Alice Waters
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Scene from Merlusse.
Scene from Merlusse.
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Scene from Harvest.
Scene from Harvest.
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While I’m waiting to meet with Alice Waters and Tom Luddy in an antechamber of her charming suite of offices adjacent to the restaurant, a fortuitous event transpires: the arrival, to much excitement, of the very first copies of 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering, by Alice Waters and Friends, a hefty, handsome tome celebrating the imminent 40th anniversary of the founding of Chez P.

The book is bound in the hot colors of Pagnol’s Provence, I note: a marigold yellow spine embracing deep red boards. I leaf through its oversized pages, admiring what has instantly become for me the book of the year: not a cookbook (no recipes) but a history—gastronomic, cultural, personal, political—beautifully laid out, larded with photographs, posters, ephemera on every page. Within a few pages, I have stumbled across the very reminiscences I’ve come to talk with Alice and Tom about.

Tom remembers the beginnings of their long friendship: “Alice was a Montessori teacher, and after school we would go to the theaters I was running and see movies, and later we would show movies at home on a 16mm projector and Alice would cook … And Alice had a fantasy of opening a restaurant. I encouraged that fantasy, because we didn’t have too many good restaurants to go to at all in those days.”

Alice says, “I loved getting people together around the table and Tom loved getting them together in front of a movie screen. Our life together completely revolved around sharing meals and movies.”

Early in that life together, Tom and Alice drove out across the bay to see a Marcel Pagnol retrospective at Mel Novikoff’s Surf Theater. They saw the famed trilogy of Marius (1931, Pagnol as playwright/screenwriter), Fanny (1932, as playwright/screenwriter) and Cesar (1936, as screenwriter/director), along with The Baker’s Wife (1938, as director) and Harvest (1939, as director/screenwriter).

In a foreword Alice wrote for a 1986 North Point Press edition of Marcel Pagnol’s memoirs of childhood, My Father’s Glory and My Mother’s Castle (still in print), she remembers, “Every one of those movies about life in the south of France 50 years ago radiated wit, love for people and respect for the earth. Every movie made me cry.”

In 40 Years of Chez Panisse, Tom writes, “Alice cried and cried and cried. She saw everything she believed in those movies. All her values were there. And she liked the restaurants in Pagnol’s movies, places in Provence where it wasn’t like the fancy restaurants in Paris, where you were intimidated if you couldn’t pronounce something on the menu. And I said let’s name it after your favorite character in the movies, Panisse….”

After the restaurant opened, Alice and Tom, on one of their several pilgrimages to France, knocked at Pagnol’s door in Paris, hoping to meet their hero, bearing a copy of Chez Panisse’s first poster. A servant opened the door and said Pagnol was not well; they left the poster with him. Eventually, when the restaurant partnership incorporated, they (“immodestly,” Alice says) took the name Pagnol Et Cie Inc. Her loyalty is constant: her only child, Fanny, is named after the girl Panisse marries to legitimize her baby by another (actress Orane Demazis plays both Fanny and the lead in Harvest, and also bore Pagnol an illegitimate son). Fanny is further immortalized in the tiny Café Fanny, a breakfast-and-lunch spot that is the only other restaurant Alice Waters has opened. The walls of the upstairs café at Chez Panisse are lined with posters for Pagnol’s movies.

In Alice’s own modest yet beautiful book-lined office, her trademark décor, an artfully artless blend of Asian, Craftsman and French influences, familiar from the restaurant and her own home, works its serene magic. A sense of luxe, calme and volupté ensues as we sip mint tisane.

We segue quickly into anecdotes about filmmakers and Chez Panisse, in the days when Tom and the Pacific Film Archive were hosting, he says, “six, seven, eight filmmakers a week, and taking them to dinner after: crazy mixtures of Nicholas Ray and [Roberto] Rossellini having dinner.”

“Rossellini was besotted with food, a real gastronome,” Alice murmurs. “Kenneth Anger popping in, Glauber Rocha and Werner [Herzog] staying in my house … he met his wife in Berkeley! Wenders says he remembers his first time in Berkeley being taken to the café.”

They agree that, unlike Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard was uninterested in food: “He watered his wine,” Tom says. “Pierre Rissient brought Howard Hawks. Joris Ivens came, and Satyajit Ray.”

And Chez Panisse, of course, famously cooked the shoe (“stuffed with garlic and seethed in duck fat”) that Herzog swore he would eat if Errol Morris finished his first documentary, Gates of Heaven. Les Blank, gourmand director of Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, captured the event for posterity in Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. “Another great friend of the restaurant and ours was Francis Ford Coppola. George Lucas and Coppola brought Kurosawa to dinner one night, and Kurosawa talked about how he was unable to do a film, and George and Francis got 20th Century Fox to agree to co-finance Kagemusha. Born of a dinner upstairs….”

Alice remembers “Kurosawa wearing a white linen suit with sunglasses, very tall, very elegant, a wonderful man.”

“Eating is an agricultural act,” as Alice’s friend Wendell Berry has said. From the acorn of Chez Panisse sprouted the Chez Panisse Foundation, the Edible Schoolyard, politicking with the Clintons for an organic garden to be planted on the grounds of the White House (which bore fruit in another administration), the Yale Sustainable Food Project (which began when Waters’ daughter attended the school), the Edible Schoolyard built on the Washington Mall, the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the American Academy, and Alice’s ongoing work with Slow Food. “It’s so much more than the restaurant,” Tom says.

And indeed Pagnol’s Harvest, a lyrical paean to bread and the wheat from which it comes, resonates not only with the issue at the heart of another festival film, Bitter Seeds—wherein fertile heirloom seeds are replaced by genetically engineered sterile seeds, throwing an entire Indian ecosystem and economy out of whack—but also with larger issues of food production and consumption we debate today, in a conversation begun long ago, back when Alice Waters set out to serve local, organic, sustainable food at Chez Panisse.

Another cross-fertilization has sprung up between Alice and the Berlin International Film Festival, whose director Dieter Kosslick is a passionate eater. In 2006, she was part of a Berlinale panel, with Slow Fooders Carlo Petrini and Vandana Shiva, on “Hunger, Food and Taste.” Waters returned in 2008 to help inaugurate a new section of that festival, Culinary Cinema, in which recent food movies are paired with a meal inspired by the film. And Alice was the first-ever chef to be a juror at a major film festival, at the 2009 Berlinale, alongside such international filmmakers and authors as Isabelle Coixet, Wayne Wang and jury president Tilda Swinton.

Alice has attended all but a handful of the Telluride Film Festivals, which Luddy began (in concert with Bill and Stella Pence and James Card) a couple of years after the founding of Chez Panisse.

The relationship has been a synergistic one. After meeting Ann Cooper, for years the chef in charge of the festival’s food—the Opening Night Feed and the Labor Day Picnic being the essential social bookmarks of the Show—Alice brought her to Berkeley to be the director of Berkeley Unified School District’s Nutrition Services, under the auspices of the Chez Panisse Foundation. And Alice has been overhauling Telluride Film Festival’s food service itself, notably the Patrons Brunch, a Pagnolesque feast served en plein air in the mountains high above the town. Since Alice’s intervention, local food reigns: luscious, oily smoked Colorado trout has replaced indifferent lox, jewel-colored jams nestle next to fresh-churned butter and the eggs-cooked-to-order are mere days away from the hen.

Much of Alice’s daily film viewing is on the Turner Classic Movies Channel: she tends to end an evening watching whatever is on. I mention that usually I’m not taken with their August programming —each day devoted to a different star—but Alice disagrees: she loves to immerse herself in an artist’s work, whether it’s a director or an actor. She watched a number of Bette Davis movies a few days ago, and she’s excited about John Garfield, whose movies are unspooling that very day. “Oh,” I say, “the wonderful, very sexy The Breaking Point is on tonight,” and Tom tells Alice that Alexander Payne programmed it to great acclaim at Telluride a couple of years ago, when he was the Guest Director. Alice’s eyes light up; she knows what she’s watching tonight.

As I leave, I pass a huge flat woven basket, heaped with the tiniest, thinnest haricots verts, atop a desk otherwise encumbered with phone, paper, office detritus. I wonder if they are there for idle snacking, or topping and tailing in odd moments. We could be in Provence….


Meredith Brody has been the restaurant critic for the Village Voice, the LA Weekly, and the SF Weekly. She has written about film for The New York Times, Cahiers du Cinema, Film Comment, Interview and many other publications. Currently she writes a film festival diary for Indiewire.

SPOTLIGHT ON MARCEL PAGNOL

Hosted by Alice Waters and Nicolas Pagnol

MERLUSSE

France, 1938, 72m

Director/writer:Marcel Pagnol

HARVEST

France, 1939, 127m

Director: Marcel Pagnol

Writer: Pagnol, based on

a novel by Jean Giono
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