Ripeness is All: The Fruit Bowl

I arrived at the party that is Chez Panisse fairly late in its history, some time during its fourth decade. My first meal at the restaurant, upstairs in the Café, came during the late spring or early summer of 2001, and, a decade later, I cannot tell you what I had for dinner. It might have been the salmon, which at the time were still running not far outside the Golden Gate. The only thing I really remember from that meal was not a dish exactly, at least nothing cooked, though it did appear on the menu. It was, very simply, a bowl of fruit—some peaches. The menu gave the name of the farmer and the variety, neither of which meant anything to me at the time. But figuring those peaches had to be something pretty special to earn a spot on that menu –and to command a price only a dollar or two shy of the profiteroles and galette– I ordered it for dessert, not quite sure whether a plain bowl of fruit on a restaurant menu was best interpreted as an expression of culinary modesty or culinary audacity.

What arrived at the table was a small, unpolished bowl of hammered copper set atop a round, hammered copper base, and in that bowl rested two perfect peaches wreathed in a scatter of equally perfect raspberries. But by “perfect” I don’t just mean perfect looking, like a picture of fruit in a painting or magazine, though they were that, too: blushing, downy, plumped with juice. No, this was the higher perfection Ralph Waldo Emerson had in mind when he wrote, in reference to a very different fruit, “There are only ten minutes in the life of a pear when it is perfect to eat.” In the case of a peach, that window is probably closer to seven minutes, and in the case of raspberries, maybe five. The wonder of it was that the kitchen had somehow arranged for those peaches and raspberries to land on our table not a moment sooner or later than that narrow interlude of perfection.

At the risk of offending the restaurant’s many gifted chefs, that unadorned bowl of unimproved fruit strikes me as the essence of Chez Panisse, captures the restaurant’s philosophy in a copper bowl. Since the fruit bowl first appeared on the menu in 1991, the presentation of the perfect Sun Crest Peach or Warren pear has been Alice Waters’ wordless way of saying that the true genius behind her food resides in the farmers who grew it and the breeders who bred it; the chef merely celebrates that genius by seizing on the moment of moments and setting it off between the quotation marks of a dish. Which is why the menu goes to the trouble of informing us that that the peach is a Sun Crest, the pear a Warren, and the tiny tangerine a kishu. There are times, the kitchen is saying, when no amount of culinary artifice can improve on what nature has already perfected, and it would be folly –hubris!– to try.

Not that there isn’t a kind of genius in selecting that perfect peach or pear or tangerine. Samantha Greenwood, who worked in pastry back when the fruit bowl made its first appearance, remembers the hours spent sorting (and tasting) through bushel baskets looking for the Elect — a few dozen peaches worthy of the copper bowl. On the days when she couldn’t find enough of them, the fruit bowl simply fell off the menu.

The fruit bowl is also a kind of time piece, a way of marking the seasonal calendar, which is a rite that has always been central to the restaurant’s project. When Churchill’s kishus show up it must be late December; Swanton’s strawberries say May, and the mulberries– the most fleeting fruit of all— signal the start of summer: somewhere around the third week of June. These moments remind us exactly where we are in the round of the year, or rather, where nature is. But try not to miss the moment of the mulberries, a fruit so fragile and ephemeral it’s fallen completely out of commerce, except here on Shattuck Avenue on the very day they arrive. The mulberries, which come from a single tree in Sonoma owned by a man named Hugh Byrne, perhaps best exemplify the restaurant’s fierce devotion to the knick of time.

Okay, but is it cooking?

Some would say no; the rap in certain culinary circles is that what Chez Panisse does best more closely resembles inspired shopping than inspired cooking. But I doubt that particular critique carries much of a sting in this particular kitchen. For Alice Water’s genius has been to show us there can be no inspired cooking without inspired shopping and, behind that, inspired farming. It’s become a cliché of restaurant menus to mention farms, but Chez Panisse was the first to share bylines –pride of authorship– with the men and women who grow the food, recognizing that many of them are as gifted as any who have passed through the fabled kitchen. So we learn that the kishu was grown by Jim Churchill and Lisa Brenneis in Ojai, the Warren pear by Farmer Al at Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood, and the Sun Crest peach by Mas Masumoto down near Fresno. The modesty of the fruit bowl consists in these acknowledgements.

But make no mistake, there is a certain audacity in play here too. It is the audacity of a Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol, artists who understood that sometimes the best art is found, not made. To pluck something out of the welter of the world and put a frame around it, or in this case a copper bowl, is a way of making us stop and pay attention, so that we might see the familiar with fresh eyes, and in this case not just eyes, but with every sense. Rightly seen, rightly tasted, the fruit bowl reminds us, the commonplace becomes miraculous.

First published in 40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering