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Chez Panisse's Salty General Contractor on Why He Was the Only Man for the Job
Caleb Pershan | Photo: Courtesy of Vogue, Chez Panisse, and Caleb Pershan | June 27, 2013
"Knowing all the old carpenters, having a general contractor's license, all that shit played into it."
The rebuild of Alice Waters' Chez Panisse restaurant after a devastating spring fire owes a lot to Gene DeSmidt, the general contractor responsible for the icon's comeback. The March 8th catastrophe reportedly caused over $200,000 in damage, but the restaurant responded with a remarkably quick recovery (under four months), with the grand reopenning this past Monday. The past few months haven't been a walk in the organic lettuce garden: As customers clamored for the reopenning of the restaurant and employees received paychecks under business interruption insurance, DeSmidt wasn't exactly at liberty to take his time. Here, his intel on the rebuild, hippie carpenters, and why he was the only man for the job:
What was Alice's first question to you?
It wasn’t "how much [money]," it was "how long." We made a tentative [reopening goal] date, and they sat me down three weeks ago and asked me: Can you promise to finish this in three weeks? I promised, and I went home and it was on the television that we had set an opening date. I was like “Oh shit, this is real."
What's improved about the space?
Let me tell you a secret: what we had to do out there [with the reconstruction] is hold the rest of the building together. They had to put what’s called a strong wall in. There wasn’t even a foundation for it, but now it’s totally solid. You don’t see the steel frame anymore cause the whole idea was to cover it up.
So, why the Chez Panisse design T-shirts, like the one you're sporting with the design on it? A souvenir?
This shirt is hiding my Chez Panisse belly.
Do you feel lucky to work on such an iconic project?
I’m not gonna put it in religious terms, no heavy references, no reverence, but it was a very lucky moment when I got this opportunity. I was probably the only person that could do this. Knowing all the old carpenters, having a general contractor's license, all that shit played into it.
How much is Alice paying you?
I’m just working for food. (Followed by a wink and a smile.)
What was it like to see the work completed?
When they took the scaffold down, it was stunning. We could see the realization of this drawing on my shirt, which is fanciful: Alice calls it her pagoda. I call it classical style Shinto. The roof is built by Japanese temple builders, cut it all out on site, and put it together like Lincoln Logs. It’s not nailed together. I’m not shitting you.
What kind of folks were working on the rebuild?
You can’t find a lot of really seasoned guys everywhere who do this kind of work. We had a lot of regular old hippies from Berekely. A couple young hippies, too, and then me and my foreman June. Whatever we are.
Thanks so much for chatting, Gene!
Oh no problem, Alice is paying me.