Secretive artist Banksy recently pranked York City by setting up at a street fair and selling his art for $60 a piece. He sold only a handful, some haggled down. It reminds me of the time the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell played in a subway station and no one noticed. It reminds me that sometimes art relies on context. That, sometimes, we need a nudge to see the beauty.
The story came to mind while I was eating a salad at Chez Panisse the other night. My sister, who has a habit of losing herself over the salads here -- she's known to order the greens for dessert -- was floored by the wax beans. As we all are, in our own ways, by the mystery of what makes a simple thing taste so good.
Eating in the café is a sporadic birthday tradition in my family, and every time we've gone, I find the same peculiar phenomenon. We make a ceremony of eating, holding morsels up to the low light, misty-eyed with wonder, jabbing at our tasting banks to pluck the exact, precise flavor descriptor: "This bean, like orange blossom. And the squash! I taste jasmine." The thing is, at the end of the day, when I look into that kitchen to unravel the mystery, I find no jasmine. I find beans, broth, and fire. I find simple herbs and slow cooking. I find, simply, nothing crazy.
And that's one reason why I love eating here, and why Chez Panisse will always be relevant. It makes a fool of you sometimes. Serving food with no trademark that I'd recognize, that I might finish off mindlessly if I found it at a roadside joint. Like passing a virtuoso in a subway station. Food that makes you search for a grand story, and eluding techniques. But they're not there. It's a simple thesis: wonderful ingredients, placed on a plate, taste good. Add to that a few Maillard reactions in the oven, and you have beauty. Beauty you recognize when it's plated at Chez Panisse. But in your own backyard, it can be harder to notice. Happily, Chez Panisse reminds us to look.
The place looms large in my family's collective memory, having sparked the movement that inspired my sister to bring home the local-foods mantra during college. Together, Alice Waters and Michael Pollan comprised our food education. As a high school Francophile, I connected to Waters' French food sensibility. As an newly minted radical, my sister preached Pollan's anti-corporate manifesto. Together, we replaced tradition with nutrition as the pillar of our cooking. We started eating kale, and buying from the farmers' market. We started eating right.
And so it goes with the duck confit and liver toast on the café's menu this past Monday. The duck leg glistened, cracking like brulée over the silky triumph of tender meat. It fell away from the bone, and melted like cream in your mouth. Plating the leg simply with liver smeared on a toasty crust gave the whole thing a pastoral ring.
The story of the duck is simple and romantic, seasoned with salt, pepper, clove, and bay, and simmered in its own fat for the stretch of a few hours before browning in a pan. The liver follows suit -- chopped with shallots, sweet wine, vinegar, and a few basic herbs, it's sounds like a pauper and tastes a good deal more regal. It's a kingly, fatty bird. And, though the duck was my favorite that night, I still daydream about the wax beans. Wax beans, fresh from farmer Bob Cannard in Glen Ellen, that spark a Proustian throwback to the year that food became a guiding rudder in my life. And that, I dare say, is reason enough to order salad for dessert.