In 1971 Alice Waters founded the restaurant Chez Panisse, now known around the world as the birthplace of California cuisine and the sustainable food movement. Her work as a chef, activist, and author has spanned nearly half a century, throughout which she has remained engaged in every aesthetic and operational decision at her pioneering restaurant.

Having worked with Alice previously, we were familiar with her highly personal approach to every project she undertakes. Every piece of equipment in her restaurant has a story, every member of her staff is like family, and every recipe is connected to a sense of place.

When she asked Albertson Design to help her re-imagine the restaurant’s web site, it was understood this would be a side-by-side artistic endeavor. Over a series of lunches, the collaboration became a journey into the love of food, familial bonds, and the story of the restaurant’s origin. When the subject of the name “Panisse” came up, she knew where she wanted this design project to go.

The restaurant’s name comes from a classic of French cinema, the “Fanny” trilogy by Marcel Pagnol. Set in Marseille during a time when people’s connection to food and farming was a more direct experience, the films follow the love story between the local café owner’s son and the fishmonger’s daughter. The character Panisse, a local wealthy merchant, intercedes to marry the young girl when her lover has gone to sea.

Generally, a web site’s design is built from audience profiles, user-flows, sitemaps, and style guides. Alice showed us, with the material of a love story, a more direct way to get at the heart of an experience. By the time we had finished that lunch, we had the elements of surprise and delight that are the cornerstone of this legendary restaurant.