My Family Recipe

The Pizza of My Unconventional, Incredible Childhood

In a new memoir, Fanny Singer writes about growing up in Chez Panisse, never too far from her mother, legendary chef Alice Waters—or its pizza station.

May  9, 2020
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Rather appropriately, Chez Panisse was made out of a structure built as a single-family home in the 1930s. From the time of its purchase in 1971, it’s been molded to accommodate a business—a family, really—that necessarily expanded over several decades of use.

When the restaurant first opened its doors, the downstairs hearth—now the most prominent feature of the kitchen—had yet to be built. All the grilling for dinner service was performed over a steel drum in the back courtyard. This ad hoc outdoor grill station was adjacent to where the first pastry chef and co-owner of the restaurant, Lindsey Shere, conceived of confections in the gussied-up toolshed that predated a formal pastry department. The addition of an open kitchen upstairs in 1980—to execute a café menu distinct from the downstairs prix fixe—was followed by a series of auxiliary buildings, storage areas, a wine cave, staff changing rooms, and offices next door, both for the restaurant and the Edible Schoolyard Project. Chez Panisse spread out like a kind of medieval market town—in phases and as dictated by a growing family—and prevailed despite two significant fires, in 1982 and again in 2013.

My mother always romantically refers to the expansive body of employees as La Famille Panisse. Many couples have met there, have fallen in love and gotten married, have had children, and have still been there fifteen years later when their kids started a first shift as prep cooks in training. Elsa worked in the kitchen alongside her father; Maud became one of my mother’s favorite hosts. Cal Peternell’s elder two sons came through the kitchen, working their way through college summers alongside their father. Nico Monday, my mother’s godson and the son of Sharon Jones, one of the first waitresses, cooked upstairs and down, met his wife, Amelia O’Reilly (then a garde manger), and moved with her to Massachusetts to open two restaurants. Former chef Paul Bertolli’s son was recently a busser downstairs, his graceful, elongated form and pacific demeanor an echo of his father’s. This list could go on; there are so many of us.

For an only child like me, it meant feeling myself a part of a massive extended family, with a hundred aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, and grandparents to spoil and scold me in equal measure—a family on the whole more functional than most. I’ve always thought my mother should have had a dozen children; she’s possessed of such a mothering nature, sometimes bordering on an archetype. But, for whatever reason—timing? ambition? lack of a suitable mate?—she didn’t get around to having children until she was approaching an age at which it was already considered very difficult, if not impossible, to do so. I think the familial nature of the restaurant, and the constant acquisition of young surrogates and mentees, quelled the anxiety over the eventuality of childbearing, or at least provided ample distraction from any absence of family she might have felt before she met my father.

A mixing bowl turned into a cot for "restaurant urchins" like baby Fanny. Photo by Fanny Singer

That said, my generation was the first to actually grow up at Chez Panisse. And I, like my contemporaries there, knew the place inside out. For starters, I had internalized its litany of smells: the astringency of the cedar that paneled the cloak closet, the ripe fruit that was stored on the shelves of an outdoor breezeway in the summertime, the faint smell of the ethanol lamps glowing on each table, the freshly vacuumed carpets of the downstairs dining room, the smell of a pizza blackening in the wood-fired oven. My knowledge of the place was like different layers of a map: overlaying the olfactory blueprints were the memorized oddities of the building’s architecture. And I used this knowledge to flagrant advantage—like a thief equipped with the plans of a building, weeks before attempting a heist. I knew the best alcoves for games of hide-and-seek, performed with whomever, staff or staff ’s offspring, was willing to engage; how many of the steep back stairs could be cleared in a single leap (I’m amazed Nico and I are still alive and unconcussed in light of this activity); from which shelf in the walk-in refrigerator a selection of pastry delights could be looted undetected.

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“What I wouldn't give to share a pizzetta with Fanny and Michele (and Alice) at Chez Panisse!”
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I had a particular penchant for the barely sweet, gummy-textured rounds of uncooked galette dough. Why, I don’t know, but I would open their plastic wrap, pinch off a buttery mouthful, eat it silently in the cold, pat the round back into shape, and reseal the wrapping. It never occurred to me that the pastry chefs might be scratching their heads about the slightly diminished galettes that showed up every now and again. If I wasn’t in the downstairs walk-in getting up to no good, I might be found sidled up to the bar, ordering “a pint of foam, please, no liquid milk,” from the lunchtime bartender. I hated the taste of coffee as a kid, but loved the sweet, densely creamy texture of the kind of foam that topped a cappuccino, and would often spoon it off my mother’s when she wasn’t looking. At Chez Panisse, if my mom was too distracted to pay attention to what I was doing, I knew I could request this “drink,” and that, out of a sense of professional obligation, the poor bartender would prepare it for me, even though it took at least a quart of milk to yield that quantity of foam. The less outrageous request was for a Chez Snapple, a drink frequently ordered by the cooks on the line on summer days: black iced tea mixed with apple cider and a squeeze of lemon, poured over ice.

I had internalized its litany of smells: the astringency of the cedar that paneled the cloak closet, the ripe fruit that was stored on the shelves of an outdoor breezeway in the summertime, the faint smell of the ethanol lamps glowing on each table, the freshly vacuumed carpets of the downstairs dining room, the smell of a pizza blackening in the wood-fired oven.

Another sure attraction was the delivery of a great big crate from the Chino Farm, one of the few farms my mom consented to buy from that wasn’t located in Northern California. The Chino Farm, situated just outside of San Diego, traces its history to the early 1920s, when Junzo Chino emigrated from a small Japanese fishing village and settled in Los Angeles. Junzo and his wife, Hatsuya Noda, worked in a farming community there before moving south, where they rented land in a rural expanse near Del Mar. After a period of forced internment in Arizona during World War II, the family returned to the area and purchased fifty-six acres of farmland. It was on that land that they raised their nine children and established the now-venerated Chino Farm. They were the first to grow certain rare and heirloom varietals of vegetables in the United States, and my mom was the first chef of any notoriety—in the early seventies!—to truffle them out. Their friendship has persisted unbroken ever since (and has included her near-annual visit to the farm—sometimes with me in tow—to partake in their traditional Mochi Festival, which marks the beginning of the Japanese New Year).

My mom once described the Chinos as having tended their land with “an inexhaustible aesthetic curiosity,” and I think it’s fair to say that their attention to beauty was at least as responsible for my mother’s being seduced by their work as the exceptional flavor of their produce. Of course, when I was a kid, being present for the opening of the delivery box from the Chinos was akin to watching a treasure chest be prized open. Before anyone else was doing it, the Chinos were growing a rainbow of carrots (red, white, pale orange, yellow, and purple); white, violet, and pale green egg- plants; unusual tomatoes before “heirloom” was a thing; and dozens of other vegetables and fruits from seeds sourced around the world. It was as if they trafficked in an alchemical type of agriculture. What they grow is still some of the most beautiful produce I’ve ever seen or tasted.

Of course, the collective favorite place of all the restaurant urchins was the pizza station in the upstairs café, with its oak wood-burning oven and endlessly obliging pizzaiolo. Michele Perrella, who worked at Chez in the same capacity for more than two decades, was in the most wonderful way possible almost a caricature of an Italian cook. Over more than twenty years, very little changed about his appearance—he wore the same tidy mustache and the same visored white cap, and his creaseless skin remained completely smooth, with the exception of a proliferation of wrinkles fanning out from the corners of his eyes whenever he smilingly greeted us. He also spoke in heavily accented English, as if he’d landed in California mere minutes before his shift.

For the under-ten set, visiting Michele at his station during dinner service was the highlight of a meal at Chez Panisse. And despite the constant thrum of diners flowing in and out, not to mention the persistent automated buzz of a countertop printer spewing orders, Michele would always find a moment for me to join him. There the two of us would stand awash in the heat of the oven, as intense and unexpected as the feeling of stepping off an air-conditioned plane into a hot, arid climate. Sometimes Michele would hoist me up by the armpits to look at the progress of the pizzas but also to “get a suntan,” so that I could go back to my “mamma” and tell her I’d taken a trip to Hawaii. When I was still too small to see over the counter, he’d invert a large plastic tub—the sort used for dough—and hold my hand to help me climb up.

We’d turn the dough out of another bucket to let it spread out over the flour-dusted counter. First I’d help him cut the big swollen mass into the smaller blobs we’d gently massage into balls for individual pizzas. The smell of the yeast exhausting from the doughy form was intoxicating. That smell, he would patiently explain, is what allowed the dough to grow from a paste to the fluffy elastic stuff I could stretch between my hands. Once the balls of dough had been allowed to rest and rise again to nearly double on their oiled sheet pans (this usually required the amount of time it took to eat a course or two back at my table), I returned to my roost to make a pizza . . . but “ONE extra-small pizzetta ONLY,” my mom would mouth from our booth across the way, referring to the smaller of the two sizes featured on the menu.

Sometimes Michele would hoist me up by the armpits to look at the progress of the pizzas but also to “get a suntan,” so that I could go back to my “mamma” and tell her I’d taken a trip to Hawaii. When I was still too small to see over the counter, he’d invert a large plastic tub—the sort used for dough—and hold my hand to help me climb up.

I’d use my fingers to begin stippling the dough, gently pressing it outward, mimicking the motions I’d learned from Michele. Finally I was allowed to pick it up and stretch it between my hands. We scarcely employed the rolling pin—I was less interested in perfecting a restaurant-grade pizza than in making a series of custom shapes: a bottle of olive oil, say, which I’d thematically decorate with black olives, or a swimming fish, whose scales were fashioned of gypsy pepper ribbons. Regardless of the shape of the pizza or its topping, Michele would show me how to brush garlic-infused oil evenly over the dough and how to carefully lay down ingredients so that the flame would touch each judiciously. As the fire did its swift work, he’d hold me up again to watch the transformation, our faces glowing hot before the spectacle.

Excerpted from Always Home by Fanny Singer. Copyright © 2020 by Fanny Singer. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Fanny Singer

Written by: Fanny Singer

5 Comments

lois May 24, 2020
I still have my copy of 'Fanny at Chez Panisse.'
 
FrugalCat May 10, 2020
What I wouldn't give to share a pizzetta with Fanny and Michele (and Alice) at Chez Panisse!
 
Arati M. May 11, 2020
Same. And Michele sounds wonderful...all heart and ever obliging. But one extra-small pizzetta only! :)
 
Stephanie G. May 9, 2020
I can't wait to get my copy on Monday. :)
 
Arati M. May 9, 2020
It's a lovely read! Enjoy.