Photo by Corby Kummer
Lost loves, restless and handsome young men of Marseilles called to the sea instead of romantic and familial duty, short-tempered and randy but kindly older men, some of them rich and willing to give their wealth to a young woman simply because she's pretty—is it any wonder Alice Waters wanted to name her restaurant for a character in a trilogy of 1930s films by Marcel Pagnol?
If you haven't seen the films, do. Like everything to do with Chez Panisse, they're more rooted in reality, including full recognition of tough truths, than you'd think from the image of the restaurant, which gets more fey and precious the farther you get from it. Abandonment, broken families, economic depression, wasted youth, and lechery all appear in Pagnol—as do tenderness, redemption through friendship and benevolence, and the love that only burning disappointment and acceptance of human failings can bring.
Plus, of course, there's the south of France in the thirties, which helped bond Waters to Pagnol and his evocation of a place she came to love in her own youth. She named her daughter, Fanny, for the romantic heroine of the series. She didn't name the restaurant Fanny, she told the young man who played Marius, the romantic lead in a revival of the 1954 musical Fanny that opened last night at the Encores! series in New York, because someone pointed out that "Panisse was the one who had all the money." The founders didn't even know that the name also referred to the chickpea pancakes that are the street food of Nice (pain de Nice, she explained), for four years after they named Chez Panisse.
Waters had seen the classic, marvelously gritty and stylized French movies of the 1930s based on the books, many times; she had also played the Harold Rome score of the 1954 musical, but never seen it on stage. A later film starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, and Charles Boyer adapted the plot of the musical, which compresses the trilogy, but uses the songs only as underscoring. When someone pointed this out, Waters, not a musical comedy fan, said, "It was still waaay musical for me."
The actual musical verges on opera, particularly in the first act, with the aching longing for the sea in the title song, which anyone who's heard the record recalls instantly (along with a bouncy song in the second act called "Be Kind To Your Parents," which sounds like something from the Shari Lewis show). It's beautifully sung, particularly by the romantic leads, who are artless and heartfelt. And Fred Applegate makes Panisse so winning, frank, generous, and accepting, that you'd name a business after him too.
If you're in New York this weekend, see it—like every Encores! production, it's here and gone before you know it, and the last performances are Sunday. And pay Chez Panisse a tribute by eating a long block or two away at Beacon, the midtown restaurant whose chef is Waldy Malouf. Malouf started buying from and promoting Hudson River valley farms long before the fashion came, and wrote a book about them, the Hudson River Valley Cookbook. Waters didn't want to like the sliders and lamb meatballs and bacon with angel-hair pasta as much as she did, because the name of the farms and "grass-fed" weren't listed on the menu (though Elysian Farms lamb "nose to tail" is listed on the online menu)—and she was wary of the huge split marrow bones that came to the table, because "I want to know the bones." Malouf is a chef who cares about sources. He knows his bones.