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California Neighbors: Some Special People
Alice's Restaurant: Chez Panisse & Inn Kensington
In Berkeley, California

by

Arnie Greenberg

At Alice’s Restaurant: Chez Panisse

This past January, I walked in the footsteps of three extraordinary Californians. Our long awaited vacation took us from Montreal to the San Francisco area. To be more specific, we spent a wonderful week in the Berkeley Hills, not far from the great seat of learning I had read so much about. While I was there I bore witness to three success stories. I didn’t actually meet all of these people but I did take advantage of their successes by spending gourmet time in their restaurants. 

Our first full day in Berkeley, we were invited to join friends for lunch at Chez Panisse. I had heard that this unassuming building at 1517 Shattuck Avenue housed what Gourmet Magazine hailed as ‘the single best restaurant in the United States’. I can’t say whether or not that’s true. First of all, it’s a matter of taste and secondly, I haven’t eaten in that many American restaurants. My specialty is Western Europe but there I was so in we went.

What was originally started by Alice Waters and her friends as a neighborhood bistro, has turned into a Mecca for ‘smart eaters’. You eat ‘smart’ because Alice has created something unusual. Convinced that the best-tasting food is organically grown and harvested in an ecologically sound way, Ms Waters spread the word and got former jail inmates from San Francisco jails involved in her ‘Garden Project’. Later, she developed an edible schoolyard at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Junior High School, a project that involves students directly in planting, gardening, harvesting, cooking and eating. The goal is to teach them respect for each other and responsibility for their planet by illuminating the vital relationship of food in their lives. They tend their own gardens then eat their own food

Alice did and still does more for the community than run a restaurant. She has been called ‘the Reigning Queen of Organic Cuisine’ and the awards and accolades she has received are testimony to her great work.

Born in Chatham, New York, Alice graduated from Berkeley with a degree in French Cultural Studies then opened her restaurant in 1971.The upstairs restaurant, where I ate, was created in 1980 with an open kitchen and a wood-burning pizza oven. Here there is an a la carte menu but not so in the main dining room below where there is a different set menu every day.

I dined simply on a salad and omelets but I noticed that the meal set for that night included salad of tangerines and Oro Blanco with Lucques olives and chicories. The main course was Paella de mariscos a la murrciana: shellfish paella in the style of murcia with chickpeas. The desert was cinnamon flan with winter fruit.  What a feast for a January evening. And it was all priced at only $45.

But, while I enjoyed the restaurant, its ambiance and wonderful aromas, I was most taken with the story of Alice and the praise that has been justifiably heaped on her. Alice is an award-winning author and serves on the International board of governors of the Berkeley convivium of Slow Food to promote and celebrate local, artisanal food traditions threatened by fast food and a faster pace of life.

She has been honored and feted, as she should be. Her work outside the restaurant is the mark of a caring citizen. From her special achievement awards, to her awards as an achieving woman, Alice was named an honorary citizen of Chicago in 1991; Alumna of the year at Berkeley in 1999 and she received an honorary degree from Mills College, Oakland in 1994.

The list goes on. This is a special lady with a special restaurant and a special agenda. It was an honor to eat in ‘Alice’s Restaurant’. Perhaps next time I’ll meet this exceptional Californian.

Inn Kensington in Berkeley

It’s actually in the Berkeley hills set high on the mountainside in a non- descript row of stores. Were it not for the fact that I was staying close by and looking for a quiet place to eat, I might never have known this oasis of ambiance and culinary excellence. It is simply called Inn Kensington and is located at 293 Arlington Ave, Kensington.  I had no idea I would be writing about this simple place far from the throngs of bustling Berkeley. I discovered quickly that I had found a place where I felt at home. We dined quietly on roasted beet salad with apples, dried cranberries, red onion and toasted walnuts on a bed of arugula in balsamic vinaigrette. The main course of Moroccan style lamb with seven vegetables, cous cous Aleppo pepper, herbs and saffron. There was no room for desert but the Café Latte rivaled what I had in Rome recently.

Here again, I did not meet the talented owner or the General Manager but I did find out that owner Hung Tran who is also the chef, started here as a dishwasher when he first arrived in the United States. Together with Drew Lehman, the general manager who started here as the dishwasher, the two learned quickly and created a cozy, simple place where food is king. It’s actually totally delicious. Too bad I don’t live closer. I’d become a regular.

There are only 45 places and there is a need to make reservations. I found it interesting that the picture on their daily menu was a pot-bellied stove. It rings true of the ambiance you come to expect there.

Caution. Inn Kensington does not take credit cards and you should call ahead at 510 527 5919. Don’t worry about parking. It’s a residential area with space for all. I salute both Hung Tran and Drew Lehman. They have created a first class neighborhood restaurant that is being ‘discovered’. Life for them is unfolding as it should. Bon appetit!

LU CHI FA “Double Luck”

Returning to San Francisco along the coastal road from Los Angeles, we stopped at the small fishing harbor (embarcadero) at Morro Bay. After the mandatory picture taking, we wandered into  “The Coffee Pot” restaurant for lunch. Again, we met an unusual Californian. Lu Chi Fa stood behind the counter as we entered. He smiled warmly and showed us to a table. My eye spotted a row of books near the cash and I soon discovered that our host was the subject of a book. Not being one to turn his back on struggling or new authors, I glanced through his work and decided on the spot to buy a copy. Over a simple lunch of soup and a sandwich I discovered another Californian with a story. I learned much more after I read his simply written book. Lu Chi Fa, who was known to his staff as Gordon, explained that the book was a memoir of his years growing up in Communist China from the age of three, culminating in his arrival in the United States as a young man.  We talked for barely five minutes but something told me that the reading of his book would reward me. I told him that I would review it for him, as that is something I do, and after a firm handshake, a hug for my wife and a smile I will never forget, I left Morro Bay, richer for having bought that book. “Double Luck…Memoirs Of a Chinese Orphan” would reward me with insight into a man’s life so different from my own that I began thinking of Gordon for hours at a time. The book is a chronicle actually written by California author Becky White in Gordon’s voice. It is a heartwarming, poignant and illuminating story meant ostensibly for children. Adults would do well to read it too. It tells of the trials of a young boy growing up in poverty and surrounded by people who didn’t want him, wouldn’t feed him adequately and were cruel to him. Aside from one sister, the boy had to fend for himself in a cruel world. He did return to China some years later to see the sister he loved so much.

Written in Lu Chi Fa’s voice, the book may seem juvenile to many. But I stayed with it and am very happy I did. Now, this successful restauranteur has sold almost 20,000 copies and has given $12,000 to a children’s scholarship fund.

Just that brief meeting with the dapper, smiling man they now call Gordon, was enough to win me over. His outgoing personality and winning smile brought us closer almost immediately and the friendly warm hug he gave my wife sealed the relationship forever. When I finally read the book, I realized that this was not an ordinary story. Gordon’s coming to America was the culmination of a dream. It is a feel-good story that I’m happy I was able to read. Becky white has a talent for writing. Together they wrote something important for people to read, especially those brought up in America with everything given to them. This man struggled and won. He now tastes his success and freedom even more than most.

It might be interesting to note that Double Luck was awarded the Parent’s Choice Gold Award for non-fiction (ages 10-12). It might be a nice birthday present for a child or grandchild or someone you love. The book is about love or the lack of it for a survivor of bitter times.

As for the restaurant, it is one of those places you can trust and go to every day. Gordon and his staff don’t fuss over you. They just welcome you to a haven of ‘good folks’.  Even the soup and sandwich were worth the effort.

I have heard from Gordon since that day. He even sent us a picture of himself holding his book at the window of the COFFEE POT. It faces me from its perch on the refrigerator door. Some day, I’ll surprise him and return to Morro Bay. In the meantime I have the book, his picture and the memory of a special Californian.

Double Luck can be purchased for $18.95 through amazon.com or by contacting Holiday House at www.holidayhouse.com

If traveling is meant to broaden one’s horizons, then my trip made me more worldly. Each person has a story to tell and their own special talents. I met just a few of them in sunny California.

At Alice’s Restaurant:Chez Panisse
1517 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 

Phone: 510-548 5525
Web: http://www.www.chezpanisse.com 

Inn Kensington in Berkeley
293 Arlington Avenue
Phone: 510-527-5919
Web: http://www.innkensington.com
Email: info@innkensington.com 

#   #   #

You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at

Email:  Ultours1@gmail.com

Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to:  www.top-travel-ideas.com or contact him directly at ultours1@gmail.com.

(More about the writer.)

 

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