I was born in 1947 in Memphis, Tennessee, and grew up there and in New York City. I studied writing at Yale under the tutelage of Robert Penn Warren. I graduated in 1969.
I am the author of The Grizzly Bear (Knopf, 1984), Nature First: Keeping Our Wild Places and Wild Creatures Wild (Roberts Rinehart, 1987), A Story of Deep Delight (Viking, 1990), The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone (Henry Holt, 1997), and Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (Penguin Press, 2007).
My essays, poems, and natural history writing have been published in Audubon, The New Yorker, Life, Natural History, High Country News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Saveur, and a number of literary journals. I wrote the documentary film Alexander Calder, which was broadcast on the PBS “American Masters” series in June 1998 and received both a George W. Peabody Award and an Emmy. Many of my book reviews have appeared The New York Times Book Review.
I have served as a member of the board of directors and as president of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition; as a trustee of Rare Conservation; and as a difrector of the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, which operates the Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market in San Francisco.
I live in San Francisco.
THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT: CRAIG CLAIBORNE AND THE AMERICAN FOOD RENAISSANCE
Click here to go to an op-ed piece by Frank Bruni in the New York Times of April 12. 2012.
The piece is all about Claiborne, and almost entirely derived from The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat.
THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT is dedicated to The Stomach Club.
The review of ALICE WATERS AND CHEZ PANISSE in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW truly got it.
June 3, 2007
Alice, Let’s Eat
By PATRIC KUH
ALICE WATERS AND CHEZ PANISSE
The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution.
By Thomas McNamee.
Illustrated. 380 pp. The Penguin Press. $27.95.
On Aug. 28, 1971, Chez Panisse opened for business. The evening light was streaming across Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. In the kitchen, a complicated sauce for canard aux olives was being attempted. No one there thought American cooking was about to be sent off in a new direction. The question was whether the restaurant could make it through the evening. True to the kind of well-intentioned venture it was, it almost didn’t.
Except for a handful of establishments, haute cuisine in America was a spent force by the early ’70s. But the alternative was not yet clear. Chez Panisse would create a new ideal, one that included seasonal and local aspects, yes, but that also had personal values at its core. The idea of gastronomy would never again depend on preparations named for dead French nobles.
In Thomas McNamee’s “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse,” the careering, chaotic and ultimately inspiring story of that transition is told. This is not a book of great culinary theories; it is a book that shows Waters, the restaurant’s founder and guiding spirit, driving cooks to distraction by plucking an infinitesimal lettuce leaf from a salad because it threw off the scale. Such examples provide McNamee with his great insight. Chez Panisse possessed neither the tradition nor the craft of other restaurants. Instead, it had the shakiest of concepts for founding a restaurant: an aesthetic sense of how things could be. McNamee shows just how crucial that aesthetic sense was to the creation and development of Chez Panisse. For when the technical aspect of its cooking finally caught up to its aesthetic vision, a new direction in American cooking was truly born.
The story has never been so completely told before. But then, no writer was ever given the access to Waters that McNamee enjoyed, and she comes across in these pages as quirky and passionate, by turns exasperating and challenging — in short, a fully rounded person. McNamee’s cleareyed assessment avoids the usual platitudes about California cuisine and shows how one individual with an understanding of food can carve out a personal identity and at the same time make culinary history.
In fact, when it opened, restaurants like Chez Panisse were not all that rare. When one basted the cultural disaffection of the ’60s with enough descriptions of Italian ports and French farmhouses by the English food writer Elizabeth David, the result was often a restaurant. In most cases the cooperative goodwill of these establishments faded with the realization that running a restaurant was like preparing Thanksgiving dinner every day.
Daily Thanksgivings seem like a curious subject for McNamee. He is not a culinary journalist by trade but a skilled nature writer who, in a previous book, “The Return of the Wolf to Yellowstone,” was at his best recounting how quickly cottonwood saplings returned to a Montana riverbank after cattle were fenced out.
Certainly, to see him describe lobes of fresh foie gras as “quivering” gives one pause. Raw foie gras is solid, a consistency that allows a cook either to devein it for a terrine or to slice it for sautéing in a hot pan. McNamee also suggests that the months young cooks spend at repetitious tasks in the classic kitchen somehow dull the culinary voice. The French call the body of skills they are learning le métier, and among the many benefits of its acquisition is to delay personal expression until a cook has something to say. I think we can all agree on the value of that.
Despite such missteps, McNamee has genuine insights to offer. His observation that the desserts by Chez Panisse’s co-founder and pastry chef, Lindsey Shere, were “the first dishes fully to embody the elegance and unassuming perfection” that were the restaurant’s culinary ideals significantly advances our understanding of the restaurant’s development.
Indeed, McNamee is well served by his naturalist’s patience and skills of observation. No sooner is the opening scene painted than he is working in an array of genres, from reporting to transcribing recipes to compiling a kind of oral history of Chez Panisse. Chefs, friends, backers, lovers — in fact anyone who has had one angst-ridden moment at 1517 Shattuck Avenue — is handed the mike, and each has something to say.
Waters herself tells us of the first day of her first visit to France in 1965, when the heavy blue draperies of a Paris hotel and the good vegetable soup served there represented something of an awakening for her. Her friend Bob Carrau comments on what drives her to change the way Americans think about food: “One thing that everyone loves about Alice but also drives everyone crazy is how she’s always into the struggle. It can be annoying to some people, because they just don’t want to think of this stuff all the time. There’s a kind of sad beauty in it all — her fixation on injustice and her restlessness about it. I’m sure it also allows her to stay out of her interior, too.”
Letting Waters talk through her approach to certain preparations works particularly well. Recipes can seem like so much padding. Here they enrich the book because they show how someone who never pretended to be a great cook herself could so influence others. The French vegetable soup that threw a switch in her consciousness exemplifies her ability to communicate the spirit of a dish. After she’s gathered her winter vegetables and sautéed them until they’ve started to soften, she adds a really light chicken stock that won’t mask the taste of the vegetables. The soup shouldn’t be ground in a blender, she says, “because that would make it too smooth. I use a food mill with the widest holes, so you still have a sense of the liquid in the soup.” No weights or measures here.
As McNamee comes to the end of his story, he returns to a reportorial mode. He travels with Waters and several of the restaurant’s cooks to a dinner they are preparing for Slow Food bigwigs in an Italian castle. The scene could have been precious since it is so distant from the everyday. Still, here they are, improvising, grilling over vine cuttings, cooking neither an Italian nor a French meal, unafraid of whether they impress or not. Being true to the ingredients is all that counts. That is what they stand for.
If Chez Panisse transformed American dining it is thanks to the passions of the people who have been part of it, particularly Waters. Because of her openness to the personal side of cooking, her ability to embrace it whatever confusion might result, Waters forced gastronomy down a more modest path. For the first time in this country, cuisine could mirror one’s own life and beliefs. And that would be the new way. When McNamee’s patient gaze finally settles on the restaurant’s dining room today, he steps back and lets pure description carry the moment. The evening sun is coming in from Shattuck Avenue, the guests are expected, and behind the pine table that separates dining room from kitchen, the cooks are quietly at work.
Patric Kuh is the restaurant critic of Los Angeles magazine and the editor, with Dorothy Hamilton, of “Chef’s Story: 27 Chefs Talk About What Got Them Into the Kitchen.”
CLICK HERE to see a video of an appearance I did recently at Book Passage in Marin County, Calif. It consists of a little talk, a little reading, and a question-and-answer session.
Here are excerpts from some recent reviews of ALICE WATERS AND CHEZ PANISSE:
McNamee, an erudite journalist, essayist, poet and literary critic,paints a particularly vivid picture of this enfant terrible of thekitchen [Jeremiah Tower]. But he also lays out the whole tableau of Chez Panisse, one peopled with an alternately brilliant, dedicated, madcap and/or stoned lot of characters who percolated through Alice-land, each in his or her own way changing the landscape just a bit. McNamee acknowledges the
influence, good or not so good, of this group, but akes sure to assert,over and over, that through highs and lows, Chez Panisse has always beenWaters' world, according to Waters' vision.
--San Francisco Chronicle
Although McNamee was handpicked by Waters to write her life story, this is no hagiography. McNamee unflinchingly highlights his subject's many idiosyncrasies, including her struggle for perfection, her messianic drive, even her penchant for younger men. The result is a portrait that captures the woman behind the media-savvy figurehead.
--San Francisco magazine
If you come away from Thomas McNamee's riveting new book, Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution (Penguin Press, $27.95), not sure whether you've just read the story of a woman or a restaurant, do not panic. You have read both, the twist being that the two tales are so embraided as to become one.
--Paul Reidinger, San Francisco Bay Guardian
McNamee's book captures that passion without over-egging the pudding by turning Waters into superwoman. She emerges as a disorganized romantic who managed to turn dreams into dinners by putting other people's money where her mouth was.
--Richard Vines, Bloomberg News
Writing the biography of a living person is always risky — but when that person is a minor deity like Alice Waters, the risks spike like cholesterol after the holidays. How to tell the story of the one-woman culinary sensation — the founder of the legendary Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, the spark behind the Delicious Revolution of sustainably raised, elegantly prepared local fresh ingredients — without either fawning or debunking? And why devote an entire book to this story at all? When all is said and done, isn't Alice Waters basically a celebrity chef with a conscience?
In "Alice Waters and Chez Panisse," journalist and essayist Thomas McNamee deftly brushes such concerns aside. Neither a toady nor a pathographer, McNamee proves that if you write well enough, mesclun salad, blue trout, foraged shellfish, mulberry ice cream and a hot-enough pizza oven can indeed serve as the ingredients of a delicious narrative… a wonderfully entertaining, gossipy glimpse inside a kitchen that continues to surprise and delight.
--Paul Laskin, Seattle Times
A food shopper or diner need never have set foot inside Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., to find their life touched by the restaurant and its guiding light, Alice Waters. Anyone who has visited a farmers' market, snacked on fresh domestic goat cheese, ordered a mesclun salad, tossed an organic vegetable into their cart or sneaked a quick toke in the kitchen has come under their spell.
In the scrumptious, tonguewagging and thoughtful new biography Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution, author Thomas McNamee explores how these most unlikely byproducts of the 1960s Free Speech Movement came to wield such great influence over America's eating habits and food production over the past 36 years.
Passion (both culinary and sexual), enlightened thinking, willpower, discerning taste, great karma and oceans of Champagne explain much of the connection, but not all. McNamee liberally quotes dozens of folks who have spent time in the restaurant's loosely structured kitchen and/or her inner circle, and he draws from menu archives and financial ledgers.
He also supplies enough savory ideas and spicy details to satiate most foodies and perhaps inspire a new generation of "eco-gastronomes."
Anybody who enjoys eating superb food in a restaurant setting is quite likely to consume every word.
--Steve Weinberg, GuideLive.com, Dallas
Here are comments from several advance readers:
Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters and Chez Panisse is a fascinating book. Over and above Waters’ obvious leadership in the food revolution, McNamee’s work is as compelling as a very good novel.
Tom McNamee's addictive tale of Chez Panisse is full of gems--Alice Waters dressed as a vegetable garden is one--and explains exactly why the Queen of Local Food deserves credit for a revolution. She foraged for one reason: Local food tastes better. What's remarkable is how her fierce passion for flavor actually created more farmers, ranchers, watermen, and other small producers. Farmers and eaters owe Alice Waters a great debt.
--Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat & Why
All great restaurants are part food, part service and part opera. At Chez Panisse we already knew about the food and the service, but now Tom McNamee has given us a rich accounting of the Alice Waters opera in all of its glory, drama, trials and triumphs in vivid prose and tantalizing detail.
The world is full of restaurants, but none like Chez Panisse. Tom McNamee has touched the thing that Alice brought—disarming charisma, romance and the will that made possible the lucky mix of characters at just the right time.”
-–Judy Rodgers, author of The Zuni Café Cookbook
In his landmark book on Alice Waters and Chez Panisse, Tom McNamee has written compelling layers of complex flavor and rich texture to explain a topic that has to be at the cornerstone of any serious discussion of why we eat the way we do in America. By taking himself out of the picture and allowing his subjects to speak for themselves - weaving their stories so seamlessly throughout – McNamee gives the reader a sense of watching the definitive documentary film on Alice Waters and Chez Panisse. This story matters to anyone who has ever wondered about the power of passion, culture, leadership, values, and even human frailty to change the course of how a society behaves, and it explains in black, white and lots of grey how Chez Panisse came to mean so much more than just about any other restaurant in this country.
--Danny Meyer, author of Setting the Table
With his seasoned and distinctive voice, Thomas McNamee is the ideal storyteller for the "parable" of how Alice Waters has creatively reshaped American gastronomy. More than any other American alive, Alice Waters has changed the way we eat and the way farmers, ranchers and the land itself benefit from our eating. Both McNamee and Waters are innovative practitioners as well as far-sighted philosophers, and both are making the world around us more sustainable, more memorable and certainly more delicious!
Thomas McNamee, who has previously written eloquently and intelligently about bears and wolves and other wild things, has here penned an engaging and informative natural history of a wondrous creature named Alice Waters in a unique environment called Chez Panisse—a work that is indispensible for anyone who wishes to understand the state of good food in America today and how it got that way.
--Colman Andrews, founding editor, Saveur
Every revolution needs a hero, Tom McNamee tells us, and the food revolution in America found its ethicist-in-chief in the sparkling Alice Waters and her restaurant. But McNamee has written more than a juicy, intimate biography of Alice; his is a biography of ideas, brilliantly connecting the dizzy dots of the movement from fast to Slow, from style to substance, recounting with urgent intelligence how the look of the plate implicates nothing less than the health of the planet.
--Dorothy Kalins, former executive editor, Newsweek, and founding editor-in-chief, Saveur