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The story of a food revolution

Photograph of Tom McNamee by Dickie Spritzer

Celebrity food guru Alice Waters had been approached by a number of writers who wanted to tell the story of Chez Panisse. But they didn’t “get it,” and getting it was the whole idea behind Chez Panisse.

So she approached Tom McNamee, whose work on food and natural history she admired, and asked if he might be interested. Thus began a four-year project for the Fillmore resident that resulted in “Alice Waters and Chez Panisse,” published in April 2007, which stimulated favorable reviews both from critics and the book-buying public.

McNamee wrote the book in the Victorian facing St. Dominic’s Church that he and his wife Elizabeth have called home since 1998.

“This neighborhood probably has as high a percentage of people who care about food as any neighborhood in the world,” he says. “And some of my favorite places to eat are just around the corner,” Florio and Johnny Rockets among them.

After he wrote the proposal for the book, Waters flew with him to New York to meet with potential publishers. Ever the evangelist for organic fruit and vegetables, she brought along a bowl of tangerines. Every half hour a different publisher came to hear the pitch, leaving with tangerines in tow. Five of the six publishers bid for the rights to publish the book, and Penguin Press won the bidding.

“I was very lucky,” McNamee says. “Alice is a celebrity, and as a result I got a lot of money for it.”

The Chez Panisse book is McNamee’s fifth, and he’s already at work on his next, a memoir that, he says, “uses food as a way of looking at history.”