Friday, March 8, 2013


The front porch dining room
photo: Lindsey Shere
Berkeley, March 8, 2013—
ANOTHER TRIP SOUTH to Berkeley today on business — unexpectedly.

I learned of the fire while drinking my second cup of coffee at breakfast, looking at e-mail on the iPhone. Hmmm: something from my brother Jim: Subject: Chez Panisse; body:
I just learned about the loss— I'm so sorry.
Well, that caught me up in a hurry. I phoned Alice, got her friend Marcia on her cell phone: yes, there'd been a fire.

We drove right down, of course. Lots of people standing around watching the firemen going about their meticulous work. We sat in on a meeting of department heads: chefs, floor managers, grounds people, office people — maybe twelve or fifteen people altogether. Alice, of course, and our general manager Jennifer, who's rock-solid, a real blessing.

So many things to deal with, so quickly. Inventory. Save what we can; dump what we can't. Reservations: call people back, apologize, cancel reservations. Insurance: our fine agent was already there, of course, assuring us we were in good shape. I am impressed with the calm and professionalism of everyone I see.

I stepped into the kitchen, through the back door, and was immediately assailed by the smell of smoke — a very unpleasant smoke, not at all nice. But the kitchen looks completely normal, other than being empty of people and work. Spic and span.

The downstairs dining room looks normal except for the porch, which is a bit of a disaster. Its windows are all broken out, the banquettes partially torn out, and a couple of rectangular holes have been cut right through the floor: you can look through them to the charred posts and joists below the porch.

The fire had started there in the crawl space below the front porch, immediately underneath the sprinkler concealed in the copper chandelier that hung in the center of the porch ceiling. When you replace all this, a fireman said to me, you should keep that sprinkler, and bronze it or gold-plate it, and keep it on a desk somewhere; it probably saved the building.

I go upstairs: the café looks completely normal, but of course smells just as smoky as the downstairs, even though all the doors and windows are wide open. A professional cleaning crew is already assessing the damage, and tell me it's not as bad as it seems, they can eradicate all traces of the smell relatively quickly.

Outside, crews from three or four television stations are patiently waiting to interview anyone they find. I talk to a nice young woman from ABC, who asks if I'd be comfortable being interviewed on camera. Well, actually, no, I wouldn't, I say, but thanks for asking. Don't mention it, she says; I'm sorry for the loss.

We hope we can have the café up and running by the end of next week, but it'll be nip and tuck. Downstairs will undoubtedly take a little longer, though it should be possible to be serving downstairs while reconstruction is going on.

Nothing I write here is official, of course, simply my view of things. The office will undoubtedly have a notice on the restaurant website when they can get to it.
Oh well: time for lunch. We troop down to Picante for some rajas — potatoes and chili peppers, a favorite of mine, with a side of pinto beans and some guacamole and, why not, a Margarita. Everything smells of smoke. We think about all the people: our insurance agent, the firemen and the police, the bystanders, the folks at the Cheese Board who rushed pizzas over for the restaurant staff. The wonderful people who work at Chez Panisse, our family, who are so dedicated, and such fine men and women.

We think about the last time something like this happened, nearly thirty years ago — a much more serious fire: but we were up and running before too long, better than ever. About the many events since, so many so pleasurable, and the few that were terribly sad. Why not: I have another Margarita, and we drive back home, and look at the news, and the e-mail and the Facebook messages. And I answer them here, apologizing for the departure from the Eatingday routine, but I know you'll understand.

• Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley
• Picante, 1328 6th Street, Berkeley; (510) 525-3121

1 comment:

Charles Shere said...

Since writing this, I find the following statement of Alice's has been issued:

Early this morning an electrical fire broke out under the front porch of the downstairs dining room at Chez Panisse. Thankfully, no one was hurt and the damage was mostly contained to that area. We would like to thank everyone for their support—particularly the men and women of the Berkeley Fire Department who have now saved the restaurant not once, but twice!

Exactly 31 years ago today, we had our first fire at the restaurant that destroyed the wall separating the dining room from the kitchen. We never rebuilt that wall and it changed Chez Panisse completely, establishing that beautiful connection between the kitchen and the dining room. It is vitally important that things are renewed and restored and we have already begun the process of rebuilding. In the next few days, we will better understand the scope of the damage and be able to determine when we can reopen.

We are deeply touched by the outpouring of support from the community, our friends and extended family. Thank you! It inspires us to think of what might be possible…

With love,

Alice and the Chez Panisse family