Chez Panisse’s Stacie Pierce: A Tidy and Beautiful Tornado

Chez Panierce.

Stacie Pierce hasn’t slept in two days. She was planning on making it even longer, but her body took over and started making some executive decisions. So it was Friday afternoon that I woke her from a nap when I knocked on her door. Maybe it wasn’t a nap exactly, as naps are often a kind of planned undertaking. This seemed more like a betrayal to her, like her body had robbed her of agency with its nagging need for a brief period of unconsciousness. The body and its untimely callings. She wasn’t happy about the whole thing.

This is a woman with a plan. A good plan, a solid plan, and it’s a plan that will work for her. It’s not that she wants her plan to be your plan, or that she thinks her plan is better than yours, it’s just that she doesn’t want your plan to get in the way of her own, even if it is the plan of the body she lives in. And so it is that I cross the threshold of her beautiful little abode in Bernal Heights. ” I have NO idea what’s going on,” she says as she sends me up the stairs past her clean chefs jackets hanging in the hallway, through the baby proof gate at the top of the steps, and into the kitchen for a drink of water while she gathers herself for the interview she planned for, in the post-sleep haze she did not.

And even under these conditions, it is clear that this is not merely a woman but a force of nature: an organized, steadfast, determined tornado. She has a way about her of whirling, but all her particles move so fast, it seems solid, cutting a path of grace and fortitude. And yet entirely ready to take a fork in the road when life offers.

This is exactly the thing you wear if you are as awesome as Stacie Pierce and have to make it to your Viking Age Anthropology lecture for graduate study in Oslo.

For instance, when she set off to Oslo for graduate school years ago to acquire her degree in Nordic Archeology, with a concentration in anthropology of the Viking Age, she’d never cooked for a living. She would go sit at this bistro in town called Kafe Celsius. The food was okay, but the building was the real showstopper, a 1509 stone number featuring an enormous courtyard peppered in the summer months with beer drinkers and conversationalists.

Ms. Pierce set up shop there to study, have meals, listen to her brain go. By chance she overheard the owner talking one day about needing a cook. She needed a job. She offered her services never having cooked in a restaurant before. It wasn’t so big. Of course she could do it. Turns out there was a room in the building with a hundred more tables she didn’t know about in addition to the 90 tables she was accustomed to seeing. So with 190 tables, one other cook, and a set menu, Stacie Pierce had her first professional cooking stint, a trial by fire that lasted her entire six year stay in Oslo.

It was perfect for her, a complete disconnect from the vigorous intellectual riot of graduate study. The restaurant was all physical, all motion and scent. I like to imagine her wandering home late and exhausted, vexed by Viking Problems and keeping the lanky torso of her 5’11” frame warm in that blue family heirloom sweater up there. Something about this garment welled actual feelings up inside me before I even heard the story. I plucked it right from her collection of things immediately, my jaw slack and eyes glistening. “Oh that was my mom’s”, she said. “A Norwegian aunt made it for her when she was a teenager. She gave it to me. I guess I must have been about the same age. I’ve been wearing it regularly since then.” The other main influence she cites from her closet is a vague feeling that she should have been a GoGo dancer for Nancy Sinatra. She probably would have done that with the same zest for perfection, each little kick with just enough lilt to be stunning and just enough heel to be badass.

Muse dress for Sinatra enthusiasts.

I'll have what she's having.

Upon her return Stateside, she made her way to San Francisco and edited books for awhile. She loved the writers, felt kind of bored by the content and heard the calling back to the kitchen. She got a job cooking on the line at Foreign Cinema on Mission Street. The place had been on the tip of the town’s tongue since it opened in 1999, it’s chef/owners Gayle Pirie and John Clark native darlings of the San Francisco food scene. But always on the lookout for a challenge, she decided to try her hand at pastry and began an internship one day a week in Oakland at Oliveto under then-Executive Chef Paul Canales. After a time he told her that if she really wanted to do pastry, his wife was hiring.

Oh yeah? Where?

Chez Panisse.

And then she burst out laughing. But went and tried out anyhow. And when a thing seems like a dream, there’s no need to be nervous. When one assumes they don’t have a shot at a part in the play, something magical becomes possible. A person can show up just as they are, offer their honest ability and self without the nagging weight of Hope or Longing. There is the touch, the action in a wrist, the selection of a fat strawberry and rhubarb. A person in an audition with nothing to lose, well… they have nothing to lose. And so she got the job. That was eight years ago. Now our intrepid hero is the Pastry Chef there, the Queen of Tarts. The Head Honcho of the Sweet Divine.

Free and Heavy, man.

She makes the trek to Berkeley five days a week arriving at Alice Waters’ world famous restaurant: the home of simplicity, elegance, and genuine care. Waters’ philosophy has filtered down to the whole staff, from the dishwasher to the forager. The guy who cleans the windows. The waitstaff. There are 146 people on the payroll at Chez Panisse and each one of them has health insurance. Each one has a profit share. And each and every person there strives to put the utmost of care into everything they do.

“I think that for me it’s basically just about giving people an experience where they are able to take a moment and really “notice” the food and either be transported back to some long ago food memory or to a new place where they have never been. It’s about being able to honor the ingredients by making the best dish possible with those ingredients and putting yourself into what you are making so that whoever is receiving your work will notice that effort. I guess it’s more or less about giving people something more than just another good meal at a restaurant.”

And, of course, the restaurant, having just celebrated its 40th year, is famous for supporting The Edible Schoolyard. The brainchild of Ms. Waters, the program has thrived in Berkeley. Maybe that’s part of its success. It can exist other places now, but could it have began someplace else? The town fosters a kind of generosity unlike other places. See those pots up there? The beautiful and broken-in orange enameled iron pots with the perfect wood handles? Stacie found them on the street one day just alone, gorgeous in the sun. Dumbfounded by abandoned Le Creuset, she scooped up the pots and took them to the front door of the home they rested in front of. A woman answered the door, and simply explained to Pierce that the pots, a gift from her son, were “too heavy”. Still confused, Stacie said, “You know these are REALLY expensive. Are you sure you want to just give them away on the street?” “Well, they’re too heavy.” the woman insisted, the period at the end of the orange pot story. So now the pots live in Bernal Heights with Stacie, her partner Adria, and Charlotte.

Who’s Charlotte?

Charlotte! Would you look at her little PAW!!! Geez.

Charlotte’s the one who changed a lot of things. She’s the one who’s responsible for the gate at the top of the steps. Stacie worked while she grew, the kitchen’s pregnancy stool already enshrined by those who came before her. Ladies would bring out the stool, alternating between standing and sitting, creating one perfect tart after another, rows of apples blossoming out of flaky pastry, waiting to change your life. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. The aim is for the food to make a difference to people. Have them stop and think about what it took for that tart to really arrive on the plate. How much water did it take to grow the tree. How many years? Who tended to it? Who picked the apples? Who drove the truck? What about the gas to transport the fruit? Where did the flour come from? The butter? Who is the cow? What did she eat? WHAT DOES YOUR DESSERT ACTUALLY MEAN?

That’s the goal here: to bring this modern luxury of fine dining around the bend from cultural excess to its elemental beauty through the skill, love, and precise intentions of some of the world’s finest chefs. It is about this, and from what I can gather, it is also about a freedom from constraint. Yes, there is Alice. But Alice is a the joy of her staff, the beloved leader. She comes in. She tastes. She observes and guides, and her ways seem to have permeated the kitchen. Stacie says her favorite part of the job is the trust she has in the chefs and cooks that she works with. “It’s not interesting to me to solve people’s problems. It’s interesting to bring out the best in people, to watch them solve their own problems in the best way possible to them. To support people’s relationship to their own craft.”

This is her favorite coffee mug. It was her grandfather's.

Working at a restaurant that’s been building relationships for decades offers a ton of support for this idea. When people stay at something year after year, learning, experimenting, tweaking, failing, climbing, triumphing and then starting all over, you can’t help but trust they have learned something that’s working for them. So when a guy named Freddie pulls up to the restaurant in an old truck at the end of August with a smattering of the ugliest apples Stacie Pierce has ever seen in a rumpled bag from Trader Joe’s, she knows better by now than to judge a fruit by its looks. It’s a hard sell to coax a pastry chef toward an apple tasting in August when the kitchen is awash in peaches, bursting and juicy at the height of their season. No locavore chef wants to see an apple in August. It’s too soon. It’s too sad. But she puts down the peaches and she goes out to taste the apples. Each one is an heirloom variety from way back in her memory or some she’s never even heard of. Christmas Reds and Pink Pearls and Cox Orange Pippins. They appeared shy and homely, beige one the outside and you’d slice into them and the insides spit out pinks and crimson, wild children at heart. And just like that, eight bushels later, and August be damned, the peaches made way for the apples and the tarts were ready by lunch.

Buried treasure.

She seems to have a talent for this kind of thing, a razor vision to cut through the ordinary, set her sights on something exceptional, carve away at it until it shines. Apples are not the only heirloom things she shows me. Or GoGo dresses. Alongside the Norway family sweater (that I still think about daily) I find this cardigan culled from a thrift store. It really is something special. The trim slides down the from edging the buttons and makes its way to the hip where it then proceeds to hold court, the olive leaves a perfect compliment to the periwinkle blossoms painted or screened over the front. The thing is very pretty but somehow manages to stop short of prissy, a tough girl’s sandpaper for an edge, a competent woman’s nod toward an era that wouldn’t have known what to do with her. She also shows me this sparkly dish.

Crazy Diamond.

She’s had cause to pull together some fancy duds lately. Although Charlotte’s  softened her hardcore line against jeans, at her heart, she’s a lady who likes a turn in something fancy.

“I have tried to resist the whole jean/t-shirt thing, but it doesn’t always work. I’m trying to make sure that I wear jeans that look good, that I really like and feel good in and shirts and sweaters that are interesting, but super easy to wear – lugging around all 25 pounds of Charlotte requires that I need to feel comfortable.”

But being one of the founders of one of San Francisco’s most interesting collaborations has called for some gala duds. OPENrestaurant began as a “project of a collective of restaurant professionals who moved their environment to an art space as a way to experiment with the language of their daily activities. This displacement turns the restaurant, its codes and architecture, into a medium for artistic expression which is made available to cooks, farmers, artists, educators and activists as a way to explore issues around food and society.” While accurate, the description makes it sound a little bit less F.U.N. than it is. In fact, the project has grown so organically, no pun intended, that the scope has reached Japan for their next installment, OPENharvest. Stacie will be there teaching 220 Japanese women to make tart dough. Two things: She doesn’t speak Japanese, and she’s been making tart dough for so long, she has to relearn what she’s actually doing in order to explain it. The technique lost its words long ago and came to reside in her body, her hands knowing the exactly feel of when it’s time to stop. She can look at a dough in a bowl and know if it will work or if it will fail. How does one back up enough to explain a thing like that? A notion of  “you just know.”  Those hands must slow down, ask questions of themselves. The chef must break down assumptions of the nimble hands, guide them back into questions and inquiries. Slow the canter to a trot, a walk, an amble.

Muscle memory. Teaching tools.

Stacie Pierce can make this happen because she wants to. She wants to make connections across the globe, go to Japan and Oslo and Berkeley, California and prepare food that stops people in their tracks. She wants to use all the skill she has to make people think. To change their day, pull them up short when they chew, sense something different about the life force they are enjoying. She wants people to see the divine in the mundane each and every day, each meal, the way Charlotte sees it, her puffy little hand pointing at everything on the street . It’s her own street, the same one she’s seen every day of her fourteen months on the planet. She points and points, each turn of her head a new vista, each toy a brand new empire to learn. She’d be a great bottom line for OPENrestaurant. They could call Charlotte OPENmind or OPENuniverse.

OPENharvest begins in Japan October 25th.

It’s funny to hear Ms. Pierce speak of other chefs she admires. She insists that she isn’t like them because she could “never win the James Beard Award” or “anything like that.” The thing is, she could. She could if she had that as a goal. It’s clear she could do whatever she wanted. And all she’d have to do is actually WANT IT. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t cook to win awards. She cooks because it is the fabric of the life she wants to live. Her agenda isn’t about judges and stars and awards.

Of course it’s the real world and she is a chef at a world class ESTABLISHment. She understands this carries clout. She understands the onus of excellence is on her shoulders. But the nature of that excellence is to keep on doing what it is she does: have a hand in each step of the process from the farmers to the cooks to the waitstaff to the diner who is lucky enough to make their way to her kitchen.

Not because she thinks she’s the best of all the chefs, but because each day she cooks for you, she shows up and gives you her best, no matter who you are, because she’s in it for the experience, and not to win a thing. Because if she wanted to win, her house would be wallpapered in blue ribbons.

About Sara Elise Seinberg

I love a princely oak cabinet fronted with leaded glass and piled with Heath ceramics. Give me sun dried linen sheets and red ticking. I like wild and calm at turns, a person who can mix a pattern successfully, and I often daydream of paint chips tumbling in file across a wall at the hardware store. My longing to return to the outfits of Jewish summer camp has been fulfilled with a recent return to pond fashion and striping, raw leather, a fisherman's bracelet from a beach town for $2.95. Thanks, world. I can't wear ruffles or bows, even handsome ones, and honor those who can. I want my food on a pretty plate in explosions of color with exclamations of texture collisions. I want it healthy, divine, and crammed with life. I love a snack, a scarf, and a good belt. I have a running wish list for my dream kitchen. My favorite articles of clothing are a pair of used boots I got while New York living was eating me alive. They cost $42 and I couldn't afford them then, and they are my personal sign of the intrepid. The other thing is a stripy French sailor shirt, thick and too big, like wearing a friend on your shoulders into the world.

3 comments

  1. this is a really lovely piece. i’ve known stacie for a long time and really appreciate that you were able to capture her “essence” with your words and photos. bold, poetic and full of creative energy. thank you!

  2. What an incredibly rich and epic character study! I’s like a miniature tapestry of Stacie where her past and present have been very densely and compactly interwoven. It’s also satisfying that some beige little apples have the power to arrest a busy, famous chef intent of suing peaches!

  3. Charles Shere

    Thanks for this; it’s a very nice portrait of a woman I’m happy to know, now, a little bit better.

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