Public Comment

Animal Rights Meets Chez Panisse: Which Berkeley Is It?

Zach Groff
Thursday September 15, 2016 - 09:37:00 PM

Last Friday, a dozen animal rights activists made headlines all around the Bay Area and the national food scene by disrupting dinner at Berkeley golden child Chez Panisse. If commentators and participants disagreed about the details, they all agreed about one thing: the event was classic Berkeley. 

“A Very Berkeley Protest”, SFist declared

“Alice Waters pioneered a food philosophy that prioritizes local, sustainable, and organic ingredients… but she still ended up as the target of Berkeley protesters,” lamented Grub Street

Why was this protest so classic Berkeley? With hipsters and hippies tripping over each other to see whose version of hipness was better, which one was more Berkeley? 

I was born in Berkeley’s Alta Bates and love few parts of the world more than the Bay Area. It’s undeniable that the Bay Area is a unique place. The people are uniquely warm, the culture is uniquely laid back, and – especially in Berkeley – the politics are unique as well. 

The culture of Chez Panisse feels more to me like a fake version of Berkeley culture than the real deal, though. It’s known for its trendy progressive nature, but it throws around concepts popular in foodie culture – sustainability, organic farming, local sourcing – more like buzzwords than a deep philosophy. 

Chez Panisse boasts about its work with school children on healthy eating and urban gardening, but those same children and their families would never be able to dine on its $100 meals. Chez Panisse goes further than just charging a lot for meals, though: it makes paying for such expensive food a moral virtue even as this virtue is out of popular reach. 

On the other hand, the activists – who are part of a group, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE), that I participate in - have some serious points that go right to the heart of Chez Panisse’s progressive goals – and where Chez Panisse comes up empty. Whether Chez Panisse’s meat was raised locally or far away, what matters more when it comes to sustainability is the fact that they’re serving animals in the first place, which is devastating for the climate. Chez Panisse and other restaurants’ selling of fish exacerbates the problems from climate change even more. Whether the fish and meat are organic is nearly as irrelevant when it comes to sustainability. 

Perhaps most poignantly, though, is the basic point the animal rights activists are making: how can it be humane to kill animals at all given that we would never accept that for dogs, cats, or other animals we care about? We can call it compassionate and raise animals with the nicest lives they can get, but at the end of the day, we still do something that they try to avoid with every fiber of their being (indeed, animals have been caught repeatedly trying to escape). 

It’s made worse when one looks at how obscure and corrupt so many of the supposedly ethical animal products are. Repeated investigations, including in the Washington Post and New York Times, have found horrific conditions at some of the most prestigious farms in the country. What are we to make of Chez Panisse’s supposed prestige? 

Of course, Chez Panisse’s prices speak for themselves when it comes to their supposed support for universal access to healthy food. Perhaps they suggest reason to doubt the pureness of its goal of sustainable, organic, local, and ethical cuisine. Chez Panisse is a business, after all, and businesses’ fundamental goal is to increase profits. 

If that’s really the case, and activists are pointing it out, then who is more true to the spirit of Berkeley? Is ethical marketing in the service of profits really the spirit of Berkeley? 

In the city that birthed the Free Speech Movement and nursed the disability rights movement in the suburbs of the capital city of the gay rights movement, perhaps it’s only natural for animal rights to start to have its day.