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Doing Alice proud


When she was 19 years old, Alice Waters spent a year in France, eating. Her most memorable meal took place in a little stone house in Brittany. Stairs led up to a small dining room that seated no more than a dozen people, from which one could look through the open windows to the stream running beside the house and the garden in back. The chef announced the menu: cured ham and melon, trout with almonds, and raspberry tart. The trout had just come from the stream and the raspberries from the garden. It was this immediacy that made the meal so special.

Waters went on to change American dining when she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., in 1972, "a place to sit down with my friends and enjoy good food while discussing the politics of the day," she says in one of her best-selling cookbooks. Her bywords were freshness and excellence of ingredients, harvested locally and as recently as possible. "My definition of fresh is that the perfect little lettuces are carefully hand-picked from the hillside garden and served within a few hours," she writes. The timing and the location of her restaurant encouraged her idealism and experimentation. "We all believed in community and personal commitment and quality," she says, and "the final goal is to nourish and nurture those who gather at your table. For me food is a totally painless way of awakening people and sharpening their senses."

Waters came along in spirit when I dined recently at the new Carrboro restaurant, Panzanella. Manager Rob Thomas invoked her name at the table as he sat with me and The Independent's art writer, Kate Dobbs Ariail, looking over the selection of Italian and Mediterranean dishes placed before us. "We chose a Mediterranean menu because that cuisine features fresh vegetables," said Thomas, "and that area of the world, like ours, is perfect for produce. When we looked around at the restaurants in this area, what was missing was really fresh vegetables."

When he says "we," Thomas means Weaver Street Market, the locally owned cooperative grocery store in Carrboro and proprietor of Panzanella; the restaurant sits immediately behind the market in the old Carr Mill. Thomas has worked for Weaver Street for 10 years, most recently as the manager of the bakery. When he says "we," he also means me: Along with 3,500 other people, I am an "owner" of Weaver Street Market. When I came here in 1993, I purchased my share of the store for a one-time cost of $75, and ever since then I have been getting a 5 percent discount every time I shop.

It was at Weaver Street that I first became aware of the ring of enlightened organic farmers surrounding the Triangle who fill the market's bins each season with gorgeous, pesticide-free lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, herbs, potatoes, peas, beans, mushrooms, apples and more. These farmers inspired me. I had just moved to the countryside near Carrboro, with the din of Los Angeles still ringing in my ears and its smog still polluting my lungs. The longer I live in the fresh air, surrounded by acres of undisturbed natural landscape, the more I am moved to grow my own food when I can, and to shop at Weaver Street for the other things I need. It seems I have worn a path from my house to the market, as naturally as a deer walking through the woods making customary stops for its nourishment.

Weaver Street Market nourishes me in so many ways. I can eat delicious, healthy lunches in Weaver Street Café, or drink coffee on the patio amongst growing flowers, talking with friends or watching the local citizens go about their lives. I can find Celebrity Dairy cheeses in the dairy case, produced perhaps a matter of hours before by the hand of my friend and local cheesemaker, Fleming Pfann, in Chatham County. I can find creamy, rich milk in glass bottles from local cows at Maple View Farms, only 10 minutes away in Chapel Hill. I can find that great gustatory treasure, the freshest of fresh fish--trout and catfish and salmon and tilapia. I can get just-baked breads like Italian ciabatta and whole-grain and sourdough made on the spot by bakers who are obviously glad to be there.

Healthful, environmentally friendly products are only part of what I get at Weaver Street. I am waited on by workers who are also owners in the corporation. I share with them the option of becoming intimately involved in the one of the few locally owned co-ops in the state, electing the board members and sharing my views on ownership with them. I was charmed to find out that Weaver Street's stated mission is "a vibrant, sustainable community" with a heightened sense of shared values.

"Our true mission is to make Carrboro a better place to live," general manager Ruffin Slater told me a few days before my meal at Panzanella. Slater has been with Weaver Street for 12 years--ever since it opened in 1988 with a loan from the Self-Help Ventures Fund and a community development block grant from the town of Carrboro. "We began with a vision," said Slater. "We want to promote a vibrant, locally owned downtown. I don't like to hear people say Carrboro used to be so great, but now things are changing, they're going to get worse and there's nothing we can do. I say: It's changing, and it can get better if we do something."

Some of the market's strongest held ideals are to keep resources within the community and to convince businesses and community organizations to invest in each other. As good as its word, Weaver Street donates to local organizations, presents concerts and exhibitions by local artists, loans money to local businesses like the new Mexican restaurant El Chilango, sponsors a spring farm tour, and participates in civic issues to influence how Carrboro grows.

Because of its mission, the market has not gone the way of other local health-food purveyors who sell out to national chains, as Wellspring did to Whole Foods. Once that happened, said Slater, "Whole Foods gradually eliminated local variance in what they do in each of their markets. Wellspring used to offer a senior-citizen discount like ours," he said, "but they eliminated that at the national level because it wasn't profitable. The Whole Foods shareholders' goal is to maximize profits, and ours is to provide the best service to the community. And we see ourselves as a motor for more co-op businesses in Carrboro." Indeed, locals who want to invest cooperatively come to Weaver Street for advice, as did the planners of Arcadia, a nearby cohousing project where Slater lives. "Once you get things going in a certain direction," said Slater, "people see the possibilities. Weaver Street's success is a built-in ad for local control, flexibility in service and knowing the community really well."

Weaver Street's success is, indeed, visible to the community. In the first six years it just broke even and in the last five years it's turned a profit, reaching a good sales volume. The newly expanded café, deli and bakery are the fastest growing part of the operation, Slater said, now comprising 25 percent of the store's business.

About two years ago, the management team approached the employees with the idea of expanding the business, said Slater. A few options were considered, like a satellite store, a second co-op and a restaurant. When Aurora moved out of the Carr Mill Mall space, the market moved quickly to take a 12-year lease with a 12-year option on both spaces (Panzanella adds 5,000 square feet to the market's 15,000), and the restaurant opened in February. Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. daily except Monday, to start. In May, Panzanella will open a patio and in June the restaurant will open for lunch. Future plans include weekend breakfasts and late-night hours. Filling the new place with customers has been easy. "The reason we're in the restaurant business," said Slater, "is our 3,500 owners, a natural constituency. Our only marketing has been to get owners in here. We had no advertising costs because we offered our owners a free dinner for the first week we were open."

The market's goodwill has paid off. "It's all designed for community interaction," said Slater, describing diners greeting each other, or eating together at a big communal table--all because they recognize each other from town or from shopping at the market next door. More than a business, in Weaver Street's view, Panzanella is family.

When looking for a chef, Rob Thomas said the management team felt Panzanella needed a good cook who understood the Mediterranean food they wanted to serve, but "we were looking for a certain type of personality." They found what they were looking for in Phil Breitweiser, a chef who never stops smiling.

Standing in his brand-new kitchen, next to a stack of trays bearing roasted onions, red and green peppers, and fennel ready to decorate a polenta, Breitweiser told me how much he loves to cook. More than that, he loves feeding a room full of hungry diners, and especially treasures that moment when one of his creations exits the kitchen in a cloud of aroma. It's hard work, he says, but for him, it's a way of life. Breitweiser came to Panzanella with an education at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco and 25 years of experience in French cooking and spa cuisine. He loves working with fresh vegetables and "lots of color. You can get monochromatic real fast if you're not careful."

Walking through the kitchen, he told me Panzanella is a work in progress. "We haven't hit our stride yet," he said, stopping to caress the big, six-burner South Bend gas ranges made in Fuquay-Varina. "This is a local product. It's one of the very best stoves, and I've worked on them all. We have these on for four hours a night, and it can get hot in here."

Breitweiser said the old Aurora establishment was gutted for Panzanella, and the new space gave Weaver Street a chance to rearrange the market as well. "When I first came to be interviewed, the floor was gravel and they were breaking out a big rock back here where you see the employee restrooms. They put in five or six new windows and a mezzanine for the offices, away from the store to give it more room. They've moved the café kitchen to make more room for the hot line in there, and for the salad bar and the retail space."

We passed through a doorway into the adjoining bakery, which has been moved from the market, and he opened the huge bread ovens that were shipped in pieces from Italy. The ovens have an auto loader that runs like a conveyor belt. Long-handled "peels" or paddles lift the bread out of their hot caverns, which are more than 8 feet deep and can bake 250 baguettes at a time. "It's steam-jacketed," he said, appraising the giant appliance with his fists on his hips. "It cost $70,000 and makes 500 pounds of bread a day."

"This place was a big undertaking for them," he said, opening a huge steam kettle full of minestrone soup. "When we get the patio open, we'll be feeding 30 to 40 at a time out there, and 85 in here. With everything in operation, including the café, we'll be feeding 250 at a time." Perusing the menu taped to the refrigerator door, he called it a "late winter" menu, offering soups and polentas, pastas and root vegetables. As spring nears, the menu will lean toward fresh greens, then the summer crop of locally grown vine-ripe tomatoes.

As we parted, Breitweiser said his love of the food business springs from "that great feeling of knowing exactly what you are supposed to be doing in this life. You know," he said, "I've been in this business a long time, working my way up from the bottom. One thing I've learned is that cooks have the tendency to call themselves chefs, but we're all just cooks. You're not a chef till you're acknowledged by your peers." And he recalled with fondness the night his mentor from California--now living in the Triangle, unbeknownst to him--happened into Panzanella for dinner. "He found out the cook was from Sonoma," he said, "and the next night he came back and told me how much he liked the food and the restaurant. That's acknowledgement, when your own teacher calls you a chef."

Several nights later, I sat with Rob Thomas and Kate Dobbs Ariail, listening to them reminisce about the growth of the Triangle and its food history, as our waitress, another Kate, brought in a special treat from Breitweiser, a bruschetta of sweet, slow-roasted roma tomatoes, infused with fresh garlic, garnished with flakes of asiago cheese and resting on a slice of just-baked and toasted ciabatta bread.

This was in lieu of the panzanella after which the restaurant is named, an Italian dish that Kate said is very common to this part of North Carolina in the summer. "We have so many good, fresh tomatoes," she said. "Panzanella is a bread salad made with leftover bread and dressed with olive oil. The juice from the tomatoes works with the oil to create a natural vinaigrette, along with the flavor of fresh garlic and--of course--basil." Marveling that I have reached my present age without having ever heard of this dish, I devoured panzanella's winter cousin, and moved right along to an appetizer of creamy polenta with fontina cheese and wild mushrooms. This was a perfect complement to Kate's choice of marinated beets with goat cheese, walnuts and greens. The creaminess of my dish and the slightly tart sweetness of hers fairly danced together, and we pushed our plates up close in the center of the table and took turns demolishing everything. I had to follow this course with the pizza Breitweiser says is so popular already. I chose one with Italian sausage, caramelized onion and fontina cheese. Unlike the northern, thin-crusted pizza I had been hungering for, this one has a Roman thick crust, but the dish was saved for me by the fresh onions, so sweet, so tender.

For our second courses we chose carefully--Kate picking penne with pancetta and bright green grilled asparagus with lemon, a modest little dish with a very light touch. I went for the pan-roasted chicken, which, to my astonishment, arrived completely boned. This beautifully roasted bird was formed like any half-chicken, but I could slice right through it with my knife and fork. It gave up such a fragrance of rosemary I felt light-headed. Only at my own table have I ever felt so blessed by a fresh herb. The chicken roosted on a bed of dark green kale and was surrounded by a host of tiny, sliced and roasted potatoes.

The desserts were refreshing instead of devastating--no death by chocolate here. Mine was a chocolate almond torte, a flourless, almost black chocolate cake flavored deeply with marsala and accompanied by a fluffy cloud of mascarpone cream. Kate chose a Tuscan cornmeal pound cake studded with dried cherries and pine nuts.

As I glided out of Panzanella with a trove of take-home leftovers, I could still taste the freshness of those dishes. I looked back over my shoulder and saw Rob Thomas settling in with another table of old friends, and beyond him through the big window into the kitchen, the smiling face of Phil Breitweiser as he watched another creation make its way into the community of diners. They were hard at work nourishing and nurturing, awakening their neighbors and sharpening their senses. They do Alice Waters proud. EndBlock

To contact Panzanella, call 929-6626.

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