Thanksgiving of her junior year, Katherine Bell ’08 returned from CC to a flock of chickens in her family’s front yard, a rented chicken scalder, and a mother who needed a hand.
“It was the first time I’d ever killed something,” she said. The experience was a turning point for Bell, who had been a vegetarian for eight years. Little did she know those few quick thrusts of a knife would lead to a job.
Bell told this story over homegrown mint tea and mandarins at Chez Panisse, the world-famous Berkeley, Calif. restaurant known for its intimate approach to food. It’s where she works.
Bell is one of three CC alumni who work for the small restaurant. Monica Linzner ’07 joined a few months after Bell was hired in March 2009, and resident elder statesman John Chalik ’67 has been involved since the restaurant’s early years in the 1970s. Chalik has served on the restaurant’s board since 1997. Together, they are exploring their passion for food at the epicenter of America’s “Slow Food” movement.
The Chez Panisse chefs know the farmers on a first-name basis (“our mandarins came from Jim Churchill, a farmer in Ojai,”); the food is usually organic, and they butcher and cure meat in-house. While it may seem a rebuke to industrial agriculture, Slow Food is really a celebration of quality. The point is to do it right and savor it.
All three feel lucky to be a part of “the family,” as the staff refers to itself without a hint of insincerity. Says Chalik, “I stay involved at Chez Panisse for the same reason I stay involved at CC — the reward of being part of a first-class organization populated by dedicated, caring, and professional people far exceeds my contribution.”
Their paths to this culinary landmark have differed widely, however.
While the cuisine is exquisite, community was the aspect of Slow Food that first drew Linzner to Chez Panisse. As an undergrad, Linzner wrote her thesis on grocery store redlining and helped create the CC Garden, a 1.5-acre plot behind President Celeste’s house that now provides Rastall dining hall with fresh produce.
Linzner became a volunteer for the Edible Schoolyard Project, an urban garden for students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, run by Chez Panisse’s nonprofit arm. She teaches in the garden and in the kitchen. The restaurant offered her work soon after.
Bell’s path was more circuitous. An art history major, she moved to San Francisco after graduation, hoping to enter the art world. “I knocked on every door,” she said. “I was at my wit’s end.” On the verge of giving up, she contacted the Career Center at CC and was put in touch with Chalik, who is a trustee of the college as well as the chair of the Chez Panisse board. Chalik introduced her to the restaurant’s manager, the conversation went great, and Bell began work within weeks.
“The moment I walked into this place, I thought, ‘This place is so beautiful,’” said Bell. “The smells from the kitchen! I was entranced. It was a new type of art — a new way for me to get into art. Every day, it’s art we put on the table.”