Chez Panisse Manager Talks Comeback

By Tamara Palmer  |  August 7, 2013
Credit: Tamara Palmer

Chez Panisse reopened on June 24 after a devastating fire kept the iconic Berkeley restaurant closed for three months. Owner Alice Waters and her staff used the time not only to rebuild, but to reach out even further into the community to help and learn from others. We caught up with manager Jennifer Sherman while on a well-deserved vacation in Japan to find out how the forced break helped Chez Panisse expand the love and the reach of "Famille Panisse."

Zagat: How do you think the cafe and restaurant have improved since reopening?

Jennifer Sherman: Well, the easy answer to this is the improvement to the physical space, which is more open, brighter and more unified. The whole restaurant was repainted, the woodwork redone, the floors redone, the bar removed and rebuilt. We took the time to rethink and retool the menus, particularly in the Cafe. We also spent a lot of time on training and retraining staff. Most fun was a host of field trips to farms, winemakers, beer brewers, cheesemakers, chocolate makers etc. So there is a powerful sense of renewal and investment both in the building and the people who make up our "Famille Panisse."

Zagat: It was reported that your staff was still able to get paid thanks to the business interruption insurance. But is it true that in exchange, they volunteered at the restaurant and for different community organizations? Can you tell us specifically about some of the places where they worked?

JS: We were able to continue paying our entire staff thanks to our excellent insurance policy. And yes, they all came and helped get so much done - wood refinishing, organizing, cleaning. It was truly inspiring. And we wouldn't have moved the rebuilding forward nearly as quickly if they hadn't come to lend a hand. Much of the staff spent a week at the Edible Schoolyard, gardening and helping with their plant sale fundraiser. Several people volunteered at a fundraiser for Creative Growth, an arts therapy center for disabled adults.

Zagat: Chez Panisse has always been known to have many philanthropic interests - how did it feel to have been supported by the community after the fire?

JS: The support from the community was unbelievable. For me, the best encouragement came from our immediate neighbors, businesses around us who sent food for the staff and so much positive support. And because I spent so much time out in front of the restaurant with contractors and inspectors, I got to receive the wonderful feedback and kind words of people passing by who expressed concern and affection for Chez Panisse. I think it really drove home how beloved this place is by so many people. Alice, of course, got so many sweet messages of support from all over the world and here at home.

Zagat: Are there any future ideas or endeavors to know about right now?

JS: Nothing major on the horizon. Always planning and evolving but right now we are still settling into the new space and just enjoying running a restaurant again! Our 42nd birthday is coming up at the end of the month and we will celebrate that with special menus and Champagne.

Zagat: My first time eating at Chez Panisse was for lunch on reopening day, which was such a lovely day. Do you find that the cafe and restaurant have a lot of new customers and fans now?

JS: So glad you were here on the first day and that you had a nice lunch! Mostly we have had a lot of pent-up demand from our regular guests who were so happy to come back. We always have lots of travelers from out of town this time of year, and we are welcoming lots of them right now. So it's a great mix of old friends and new.