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Alice Waters on Rebuilding After the Chez Panisse Fire

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Photo: Gilles Mingasson

Two and a half weeks ago, tragedy once again hit Alice Waters' iconic Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in the form of a fire. The restaurant — long credited with launching California cuisine — was forced to rebuild 30 years ago after one terrible late-night fire. Now, Chez Panisse is rebuilding once more, as a teary Waters vowed shortly after learning of the fire. Though the damage was far less extensive than it was in the last fire, Chez Panisse revealed to the dismay of many last week that it will be closed until June.

When reached while cooking soup at her home, Alice Waters discusses the déjà vu brought on by the fire, as well as the silver linings. Not only has she seen an outpouring from the Chez Panisse community — the restaurant's original builder Kip Mesirow flew in from Vermont to help rebuild — but Waters says that the fire gives the restaurant a chance to enact some "beautiful ideas" in the renovation.

I'm so sorry about the fire.
Thank you. It's psychologically hard, but, in fact, it's something that's really good in the end to have a kind of renewal. We'll just count on the silver lining.

Tell me about receiving the call.
I was very sound asleep. It took me some time to register what was going on and that I needed to get immediately out of bed. But then all of a sudden I realized, "Oh my God, just get in the car and go."

So I arrived there when it was dark and the street was closed. It looked really pretty disastrous and it reminded me of the fire that we had 30 years ago, which really nearly burned down the whole restaurant. This is not that kind of fire. It has really destroyed the workings, the electrical, and the plumbing of the restaurant, which is why it's going to take us quite a time to open up. But it didn't do the kind of damage that the other fire did, [in] which every wall, every surface, everything in the whole downstairs dining room was pretty much burnt to the ground. You could see through the floors. It burnt the whole wall between the kitchen and the dining room. But that had a silver lining too: we never put the wall back up.

That's right.
I never liked that wall there anyway. So it was great in that respect, sort of making the kitchen and the dining room into one room. It was beautiful that we were able to do it, and do it in a very short period of time as well.

A lot of people remarked on the day of the fire that you were already talking about rebuilding and maybe extending the dining room.
You kind of have to protect something. I mean, I do believe that sometimes these disasters, well, they are a wake-up call. We could have had a fire when people were in the restaurant. Fortunately, it didn't happen that way, but it could have happened. And so our having now the ability to rewire the restaurant is something great.

You're rewiring the whole thing?
We're rewiring the whole thing. You know how you repair things along the way of 42 years, and you kind of you do them a little bit ad hoc? You're repairing one thing, but you're not repairing the whole thing or just doing a part here and a part there. And they're being done by different people. Inevitably, you're just going to feel the, how shall we say, charming irregularities of that, which are some lights are dim, some lights are strong. When you turn one off, other ones go off that you don't expect. All of those things when you're dealing with an old building. But we're going to make it right.

I know you were talking about maybe being able to open the upstairs sooner. At what point did you decide to do the whole thing?
I really wanted to open up quickly because I just wanted not to lose customers and I was just worried about a kind of momentum. If you're closed too long, you're just losing something important, I think, in terms of people's reservations, their coming from wherever they're coming from to eat in the downstairs. I just didn't want to disappoint people.

Then all the people who were working on it just said, you know, it's going to make our job more difficult because we have to stop when people are in the restaurant. And then I realized that we have insurance covering all the people who are working there, and we have insurance for the fire. At least three months' worth of insurance. And I thought, well, why don't we take that time and just do it all at once? As soon as I got into that place, I realized that was the best way to do it and not in a makeshift way.

Are you still planning to do any other renovations?
While we're at it and while so many people are scrubbing and cleaning, we're thinking of all kinds of things. Re-imagining the dishwashing area. We're going to change the tables — we're going to invest in that, it's not something the insurance would cover — but it's something we've always wanted to do, have beautiful tables for the café. We're seeing the opportunity to do the floors differently. We're going to paint every surface in the restaurant. And we're consulting with a wonderful artist who's going to help us. So there are lots of beautiful ideas that might actually come to pass.

That's great. And I saw that you were able to bring Kip Mesirow back in to rebuild what he created.
Yes, and he brought all his friends who had worked on it originally. So we had a kind of family reunion. It was great.

Did he reach out to you when he heard the news?
You know, I was about to call him. Just at that time he called me. And to see him, it just brought back very, very good times of early on at Chez Panisse. It was just great. Sadly, he had to go back to Vermont to continue his work back there, but he's going to come back probably the last couple of weeks of the construction. But he's doing drawings and sending them. We've already gone to the city and presented the basics. We're doing a lot of the finish work as it unfolds from Kip's mind.

Mesirow's preliminary sketches of the facade. [Photo: Facebook]

I've seen the photos on Facebook from the clean-up and you guys cooking for the crew.
We have an awful lot of people who want to help. It's so beautiful. That's something that every day we have about 20 people that need to eat lunch and people are giving us things to feed them and we're making things for them. So it keeps everybody busy.

Are they employees that are helping out or regulars or?
Oh, it's mostly all the people, they're paid full-time while we're closed. So they're offering 20 hours a week.

And the community, it was clear they were devastated by the news as well. What was it like to have that kind of response? Have you had a lot of regulars dropping in?
Oh yes. Just wonderful. People have come by and they just offer to kind of do anything. They just want to bring a broom and sweep. It just reminds me of why I have that restaurant. It's to be connected with community and to have people feel like it's their own. It's their place to eat. I always felt that about certain restaurants. They were my place. That was my corner table that I liked to sit in and whenever I went, I wanted to have that stuffed chicken. It just made me feel happy to be there.

I think a lot of people over the years have those kinds of real attachments to [Chez Panisse]. I discovered that at the first fire. Before that time, I was pretty self-absorbed. I was paying attention to the customers, but my first desire was to cook what we wanted to cook and do it the way we wanted to do it and just hope the folks out there wanted to eat it. And fortunately they did. But after the fire, I just realized we have to really pay attention to what they would like to have, too. I was so touched by it. And now I am again. I realize that we have had an awful lot of good friends.

It's unfortunate to have to even ask this, but since this is your second fire, was that first experience helpful in dealing with this?
I mean, I've always felt like we have maintained the restaurant in the best of all possible ways. I feel like it's like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. As soon as you get to one side, you start again. It is a work in progress in that way. This house was never meant to be a restaurant. It's a very old, nearly 100-year-old house. We've essentially rebuilt it, but still there are things about it that are just irregular. We're just trying to take care of all of the fire codes in a major way.

Now, what saved us this fire was really the sprinkler system on the porch. I think we will absolutely make [sure] that any wooded area of — the restaurant is pretty much all wooded — but [has] as much of that kind of fire prevention. I won't complain about the way it looks anymore. I'll just do it.

So sprinklers everywhere.
Everything. Sprinklers everywhere. We've always had many, many fire extinguishers. But, you know, no one was there. So it makes it a very different sort of situation of emergency.

Finally, you said last week you were targeting early June for a reopening. Does that stand?
Yes. That is still the case.

And it seemed like there was some hope it could happen earlier.
Well, probably not. Now that we have really settled on this three-month schedule, I think we are really thinking about the beginning of June.

· All Alice Waters Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Chez Panisse Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Chez Panisse

1517 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94709

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