At an event inaugurating the U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture, the Chez Panisse chef made the case for artisanal, organic foods
"It needs a little je ne sais quoi," Alice Waters said, looking at a table covered with an enormous basket of apples. It wasn't an easy request. The table was set against a painted-brick wall in the austerely handsome, clearly institutional complex that is the American embassy in Beijing, which employs about 1,000 people and looks more like a foundation or a well-endowed secondary school than like Chez Panisse.
Few of Waters's requests for a dinner inaugurating the first U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture were easy. She wanted to move a lot of furniture around the ebassy, not just the tables, set open fires to welcome guests, and bring in many non-embassy cooks and crates of ingredients from farms that had never heard of security, let alone run up against the embassy's multiple layers of screening.
And this was just part of a week of ambitious, first-time undertakings the forum undertook: a concert with Yo-Yo Ma, the dancer Charles "Lil Buck" Reilly, and Chinese artists including Wu Tong, a rock star who sang and played a white multi-pipe instrument like Pan; a screening of Iron Lady, a new film about Margaret Thatcher starring Meryl Streep, followed by a rivetingly open Q&A with her; and panels and discussions in which the artist Eric Fischl guided the audience through his oeuvre, Joel Coen discussed direction and film structure, Amy Tan and Yo-Yo Ma discussed artistry and cross-cultural marriages, Alice Waters and Michael Pollan discussed food policy, and the artist Liu Xiaodong called Ai Weiwei, a friend and colleague when they both lived and worked in New York City, a "bad boy" a bit too given to pranks for his own good.
Waters arranged tables in long parallel rows, the idea being that conversations can erupt at any section and spread down the table.
Designing panel discussions and performances with 28 participating artists whose schedules book up years in advance, arranging coordination with the Chinese People's Association for the Friendship of Foreign Countries, the government sponsoring organization, and maintaining a careful balance between American and Chinese voices, keeping a large group moving around a notoriously traffic-clogged city -- that's challenge enough, though in the hands of Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, and his colleagues from the Asia Society, which in affiliation with the Aspen Institute were the forum's conveners, it seemed easy. Almost. Finding 150 organic ducks -- that's hard.
Schell, a former dean of the Berkeley Graduate School of journalism and the author of 14 books and many articles for The Atlantic, including his current look at Walmart's opening of China, is a sort of planet who exerts his own gravitational pull, and Baifang Liu, his wife, keeps that planet and others spinning just where they're supposed to be. In China, as anyone who reads James Fallows knows, that is an extremely unlikely achievement. Nothing, Schell told the visiting artists on the morning after they arrived, happens in China without "extraordinary effort," and so it had been in the two years of planning for the forum. "We're long past the point at which engagement is optional," he said, assuring the artists, "You should know that the Chinese want this to happen." The hardest part would be introducing the quality least apparent in officially sanctioned gatherings: "We're trying for actual spontaneity, something that's very rare."
Would the Chez Panisse team, which gathers from many corners of the world like a traveling circus and, in various formations, had visited Beijing to scour the city and surrounding region for enough reliable, scandal-free organic food to prepare dinner for a possible 300 guests, pull off the dinner? Without making Chinese guests feel patronized by holier-than-thou American cooks? Could the gathering in a formal, hierarchy-obsessed institution if not country be the convivial, relaxed, noisily chaotic evening Waters had in mind?
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In her own attempt to bring spontaneity to the embassy, Waters arranged, as she always does, tables in long parallel rows, the idea being that conversations can erupt at any section and spread down the table. On the afternoon before the opening dinner, though, the four-story atrium of the brightly lit building, with regimented rows of tables and 250 white-plastic and metal-tube chairs in single-file lines, had a school-cafeteria look. Together with Blake Bachman, a Los Angeles-based events designer who often helps her, Waters went from table to table, moving apples, autumn-leaved branches, and bunches of leeks and garlic still caked with dirt in order to create the casual, in-from-the-woods feel she always strives for. She pushed rows of glasses out of their military alignment and, minutes before the pre-dinner reception began, shooed away a group of waiters carrying little round trays of pre-poured drinks. "Put those glasses back," she told the surprised servers. "I want everyone to feel like they're being served by friends."
And so friends opened wine behind the reception tables and poured glasses for guests, and the Chez Panisse veterans served hors d'oeuvres. Waters greeted guests carrying a bowl of walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts toasted with salt and rosemary -- perhaps the most irresistible of the foods at the reception. Charlie Hallowell, now of the Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe Service restaurants in Oakland, broke up pieces of herb-flecked flatbread he had baked in the kitchens of Culinary Capers, a local caterer the Chez Panisse team had partnered with, to be served with sauteed greens topped them with Yunnan ham, which Sam Lee, one of the Chinese cooks who had been helping the team, sliced to precision thinness. Samin Nosrat, a cook and teacher and Atlantic Life channel contributor, massaged cheese curds for hand-made mozzarella, explained to curious guests the pulling process, and gave them pieces to try on grilled bread. She put me to work beside her, cutting grilled slices of locally Beijing-made sourdough bread (from a bakery with the jaunty name Boulangerie Nanda) already soaked in olive oil from the McEvoy Ranch, in Petaluma, California; the oil, along with five donated Californian wines, was the only American ingredients used. I spread the bread with a crumbly, nicely cheesy handmade ricotta made by Liu Yang--a Beijing native who spent six years in France making cheese before moving back and starting a business he calls Le Fromager de Pekin--and drizzled more oil on top. And I broke into bite-sized chunks a Parmesan-like gouda made by Marc De Ruiter, a Dutch cheese maker in Shanxi, for his Yellow Valley cheese company (he recently closed it, unable to afford the expensive milk-testing equipment the government told him he must buy). Cheese is a great rarity in lactose-intolerant China, and many of the guests wanted to know where they could find it.
Story continues after the gallery.
As we worked, we could smell the rosemary Waters had prevailed upon the embassy authorities to let staff members burn at open grills set beside the reflecting pools just outside the doors to the reception. I could see why the officials might have hesitated: it smelled like a very familiar California crop was being burned, and not rosemary.
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Like many of the ingredients Waters's team had sourced, those artisanal, organic foods at the reception are in fact very hard to find and buy in Beijing. That's something the Chez Panisse team wanted to remedy: by giving the makers publicity at a very high-profile dinner, they hope to help increase their market by creating regular organic farmers' markets, which don't exist in Beijing, and get more organic food into schools. Yes, the food at the dinner would be Western. But the Chez Panisse cooks who visited in the months before avidly explored all the regional Chinese restaurants they could find in Beijing, and they wanted to build awareness of organic food being grown by Chinese farmers for Chinese food.