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Chez Panisse, Berkeley Shrine to Innovative Cuisine, Closed by Fire

| March 8, 2013
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Chez Panisse in Berkeley was struck by an early-morning fire on Friday. (Caitlin Esch/KQED)

A fire in a quaint eatery in your hometown? Well, it might feel kind of personal for you, but it would probably be a strictly local affair.

But a fire that broke out at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse this morning? A restaurant known by gastronomes the world over for an innovative approach to cuisine that emphasizes locally sourced ingredients? That’s a fire that’s news for foodies everywhere. So every news and food news outlet from The New York Times to the Washington Post to the Eater.com blog is picking up the story.

And that story is this: Just after 3 a.m., a fire was reported at Chez Panisse’s garden location on Shattuck Avenue in North Berkeley. The fire apparently started below a porch and spread through the front exterior of the wooden structure. Pictures of the scene show extensive damage to parts of restaurant’s front interior, but sprinklers helped stop the fire from spreading further.

Berkeley Fire Department spokesman Avery Webb says the cause may have been electrical and says the investigation is ongoing.

Founder and chef Alice Waters inspected the damage and said it was not as bad as she had feared. The fire “was pretty well contained to the front porch, and it didn’t do structural damage to the main beams,” Waters said during a brief interview on KTVU. “That’s incredible. Maybe they’ll find something, but I’m just feeling lucky.”

KQED’s Caitlin Esch is at Chez Panisse and reports the restaurant is cancelling reservations. General Manager Jennifer Sherman told Esch that the restaurant will be closed at least through the weekend. The kitchen and upstairs eating area were not damaged, and oenophiles can rest easy: Sherman says the wine supply has been stabilized. Much of it is stored off site, anyway.

“They put the fire out quickly,” Sherman told Esch. “But they were very cautious about tearing things apart, … which is great, because it’s a piece of history, a lot of beautiful woodwork and fixtures and things in there. And most of it was not damaged.”

Over at KCBS, anchor Stan Bunger tweeted this:

@BungerKCBS Alice Waters says they will burn rosemary to mask smell after Chez Panisse fire. We don’t make this stuff up.

Eater.com’s Amy McKeever noted this morning that this is not the first time fire has hit Chez Panisse. A March 7, 1982, blaze — that’s 31 years ago yesterday — was sparked when an ember fell into a bag of mesquite charcoal and caused major damage.

KQED’s Bay Area Bites has a complete video interview with an emotional Alice Waters where she describes the fire.

(Note: A household member of this blogger mentioned that 1982 fire when we heard the news early this morning. The incident is recounted in “Fanny at Chez Panisse,” Alice Waters’s “book of stories and recipes” told from the viewpoint of her daughter, Fanny, and illustrated by Berkeley artist Ann Arnold. Here’s the fire story told in the book:

“A very scary thing happened after they put the new grill in downstairs. Someone was pouring charcoal into the fire and a little spark got into the bag of mesquite charcoal and nobody saw it. In the middle of the night, when the restaurant was closed and no one was there, the spark caught all the other charcoal on fire and the restaurant started to burn. My mom got a phone call and rushed over and saw flames coming out of the windows and firemen running everywhere trying to put the huge fire out. No one got hurt, but after it was over everything was burned and black.

“People were very upset after the fire. Everyone was afraid the restaurant might never open again. Hundreds of customers wrote letters that said things like, ‘You can’t close Chez Panisse, we had our wedding dinner there.’ Or, ‘When I lived in Berkeley I had lunch in your cafe every Thursday.’ Or, ‘We celebrated our children’s graduations at your place!’ And so many people helped that the restaurant got rebuilt even better than it was.”

Here’s more news and reaction to the fire:

Original post:
BERKELEY–(Bay City News): A fire at Chez Panisse Restaurant in Berkeley was brought under control by firefighters early this morning, according to fire officials.
The fire at the famous restaurant, located at 1517 Shattuck Ave., was reported at 3:04 a.m., fire officials said. According to fire officials, a working sprinkler system inside the building greatly helped stop the fire from spreading to the entire structure.

The fire was brought under control at about 4:27 a.m. and firefighters remain at the scene this morning, according to fire officials.

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Category: Berkeley, Food

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About the Author ()

Dan Brekke has worked in media ever since Nixon's first term, when newspapers were still using hot type. He had moved on to online news by the time Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky. He's been at KQED since 2007, is an enthusiastic practitioner of radio and online journalism and will talk to you about absolutely anything. Reach Dan Brekke at dbrekke@kqed.org.

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