Chef Banks White on Chez Panisse, Berkeley Food Scene

by Sarah Henry on June 20, 2011 · 28 comments

in berkeley bites,food businesses,restaurants

Chef Banks White turned down a chance to work at Chez Panisse. Photos: Christina Diaz

Banks White is the executive chef of Five, which calls itself a modern American bistro. Think comfort food with au courant accents: Macaroni and cheese made with orzo, wild mushrooms, tomato jam, and smoked gouda. Slow braised short rib pot roast with mascarpone polenta. Buttermilk biscuits with white cheddar pimento cheese.

The Berkeley restaurant (named for the five senses and its 5 o’clock happy hour) is housed in the historic, refurbished Hotel Shattuck Plaza, which looks like it’s been given the Dorothy Draper treatment. (This writer spent some time last fall at the interior designer’s signature space, The Greenbrier in West Virginia.) Swirling black-and-white wallpaper. Ornate red chandelier. Black-and-white marble floors and red wall sconces. Get the picture?

White hails from Texas, land of barbecue and Buds, but is trained in classic French culinary techniques. The 30-year-old has worked for several upscale boutique hotel restaurants including The Driskill in Austin and Auberge du Soleil in the Napa Valley.

Involved with Five since the planning stages, earlier this year White took over the reins at the restaurant from chef Scott Howard, who recently opened Brick & Bottle in Marin. In a nod to Banks’ hometown, this summer the restaurant is featuring a pre-fixe BBQ, Brews & Blues night every Thursday. Read a review of the restaurant by Bay Area food critic Michael Bauer.

White moved here three years ago and lives in West Berkeley. We spoke last Tuesday afternoon following First Lady Michelle Obama’s visit to The Claremont Hotel, where Alice Waters and other local chefs, including Josh Thomsen, Charlie Hallowell, and Samin Nosrat, cooked eggs and toast for 200 at a political fundraiser.

So, were you there this morning?

No, I wasn’t invited.

You were not invited to cook for this country’s African American First Lady?

That’s right. It was disappointing. I wanted to be there so bad.

Do you know the Chez Panisse crew?

I’ve staged there three times.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Would you please explain for readers what the French term stage means?

In most American restaurants a stage means trying out for a job in a kitchen. But in Europe it really means learning from a chef in the kitchen.

My first stage at Chez was a few years ago, not long after I moved out here, and I was trying out for a job. They offered me a line cook position in the cafe. But I didn’t take it. I didn’t realize there was a long line for jobs at Chez. I got the offer at Auberge and took that instead.

Why?

I’m really most comfortable in a hotel kitchen environment. I love the energy of it and the fact that you’re not just coming in at 11 to cook dinner that night. It’s three meals a day and events and banquets and catering and there’s just always something going on at a hotel.

Can you give us the flavor of those experiences at Chez?

Every chef should have the opportunity to stage at Chez Panisse. It’s a learning experience in a restaurant that you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, just getting the lay of the land there and taking in their approach to cooking food. I’m glad I had the chance to do that.

The first time I was there Alice Waters pulled up a chair and watched me prep. But you know she hasn’t really cooked in the kitchen for a long time. The two chefs are Jean-Pierre Moulle and David Tanis. Jean-Pierre took me downstairs and showed me how to break down a whole pig. The fact that an executive chef took the time to do that really stayed with me, they’re all about teaching and training others.

What’s good about cooking for a Berkeley crowd and what’s challenging about it?

Berkeley patrons are well-educated about food and they expect you to know your stuff. And they really want to know where their food is coming from. That’s all great. The flip side to that is sometimes I’d love to cook lobster or foie gras. But it doesn’t fit with our local, sustainable, farm-to-table sensibility. And, of course you have to be consistently good, because people have options downtown now like Gather and Revival, and we’re all vying for the same diners. I see that as a positive; it keeps us on our toes.

What do you like about the local food?

The incredible quality of produce, meat, and cheese. Cooking here is about choosing and pairing the right ingredients, not so much about trying to coax flavors out of them. You have to get out of the way and keep your ego out of it and just let the ingredients speak for themselves.

Do you like to eat out around town?

I don’t cook on my days off. I like the pizzas and salads at Paisan. I live right near the International Marketplace and I love the diversity of ethnic cuisines there. I can have an Afghani kebab one day and lamb karahi from Chaat and Curries the next. I liked the Jamaican soul food place, Flavah Island Cafe, before it closed down.

What’s missing here food wise?

A really good barbecue place. The ones I’ve tried just don’t smoke the meat long enough.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside. Find more of Christina Diaz’s images here.

You might also like:

Michelle Obama and Alice Waters: Let’s Do Breakfast
Josh Thomsen Gathers Local Talent for Berkeley Wine Fest
Berkeley Bites: Samin Nosrat, Co-creator of the Pop-Up General Store
Berkeley Bites: Amy Murray, Venus and now Revival
Berkeley Bites: Ari Derfel and Eric Fenster, Gather Owners

 

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Kerry Dexter June 20, 2011 at 11:46 am

I used to walk by The Driskill all the time when I was in Austin — and once in a while go inside. Brings back memories.

Chef Banks sounds like a thoughtful chef. It will be interesting to see how his career unfolds.

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Sarah Henry June 20, 2011 at 2:15 pm

Agreed, Kerry, re Chef Banks. As for the Driskill, I think I’ve been there for a family wedding, many moons ago.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart June 21, 2011 at 7:29 am

Oh, man! That mac-n-cheese sounds awesome. Chef Banks seems like a really good guy. I’m going to feel bad for him all day that he didn’t get the chance to cook for and/or meet Mrs. Obama.

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Sarah Henry June 21, 2011 at 2:21 pm

That mac-n-cheese is pretty darn good. As for Chef Banks, while he was clearly disappointed by the absence of an invitation, he was gracious and showed class in how he handled the situation, which I raised.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart June 21, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Oh, I agree. His answer was perfect. I just wanted him to know that I feel for him in that situation. :o)

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Sarah Henry June 22, 2011 at 7:31 am

You’re such a kind soul, Rox.

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NoPotCooking June 21, 2011 at 12:41 pm

Orzo mac and cheese? It was in the first line but I still can’t get over it. I’m going to have to make that!

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Sarah Henry June 21, 2011 at 2:22 pm

The smoked gouda and the wild mushies and the tomato jam just add to orzos creamy goodness. I can only ever eat an appetizer size serving.

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Living Large June 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm

This is a great interview. We, who were blessed to be from great places known for its BBQ, can never be satisfied by any BBQ but whatever our home grown flavor is. I’m from KC and just hate the BBQ where we live now. I’ll put KC BBQ up against Texas BBQ anyday, though. :)

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Sarah Henry June 21, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Good point, Living Large. Sometimes it’s the comfort and familiarity of home we crave, something outsiders may not even be able to taste.

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merr June 21, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I learned a lot here – about the term stage and also about orzo mac and cheese. Enjoyed this interview – many thanks.

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Sarah Henry June 22, 2011 at 9:44 am

I think the way Chef Banks White explains the term stage — and the different cross-cultural interpretations of this concept are revealing of the different continents, no?

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Susi June 21, 2011 at 6:14 pm

My tummy’s grumbling, I’m missing the food in Berkeley already. To all your readers, I hope they are grateful on a daily basis that they are privy to such an awesome selection of great eats.

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Sarah Henry June 22, 2011 at 7:29 am

Well, my friend, you’ll just have to come back for another visit so we can eat our way around the Bay Area. You just had a taste of what’s here. Glad you have good memories from meals shared in my neck of the woods.

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Sheryl June 22, 2011 at 5:06 am

Reading this convinces me that I must visit Berkeley and embark on a non-stop eating tour. I am really missing out on some good things.

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Sarah Henry June 22, 2011 at 7:29 am

Happy to serve as guide, Sheryl, if and when you swing by this coast.

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Alexandra June 22, 2011 at 5:23 am

I was fascinated by these pairings of foods. Interesting interview!

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Sarah Henry June 22, 2011 at 7:30 am

Did it make you hungry, Sandy?

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sippitysup June 23, 2011 at 6:57 am

Berkeley. It seems it has always been such a great food destination. I guess because of chefs like this– who think as well as they cook. GREG

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Sarah Henry July 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

Great to see you here, Greg. And I like the sentiment you express above.

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Jennifer Margulis June 23, 2011 at 9:38 am

I am SO JEALOUS of all the excellent eateries you have in Berkeley. The chefs need to open branches in Ashland, Oregon, where we live.

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Sarah Henry July 6, 2011 at 11:55 am

How is the food scene in your town, Jennifer? I imagine you have some favorite haunts.

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Jane Boursaw June 25, 2011 at 11:59 am

That’s a bummer he didn’t get to cook for Mrs. Obama. He sounds like the kind of guy who won’t carry it around with him, though.

And I love the name “Five.”

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Sarah Henry July 6, 2011 at 11:56 am

That’s exactly what I thought, Jane. He was so diplomatic and gracious about it, while being honest about his feelings. A class act in my book.

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Susan June 26, 2011 at 2:21 pm

Five sounds like a great restaurant! I’ve eaten at Chez Panisse but I’d love to try Five the next time I’m in the area.

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Sarah Henry July 6, 2011 at 11:57 am

Lemme know when you next swing through town, Susan. I’d be happy to point you to some other spots to try as well.

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MyKidsEatSquid June 27, 2011 at 7:30 pm

Like NoPotCooking, I’m still thinking about the mac ‘n cheese with orzo, mushrooms, tomato jam, etc. That sounds sooo good. Interesting that there’s no good bbq place. I was in the Rockies this weekend and every small town seemed to have a little bbq dive that was just tasty.

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Sarah Henry July 6, 2011 at 11:59 am

I wonder why that is, MKES, the BBQ gap in these parts. Could be an opportunity for an aspiring edible entrepreneur here, especially with the availability of humanely raised livestock here.

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