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Simple food, farm life and deliciousness – Chef Alan Tangren’s life comes full circle

Laura Petersen
Special to The Union
Chef Alan Tangren with his cousins Rosie Bierwagen and Farmer Chris Bierwagen at Donner Trail Fruit Farm Market in Chicago Park where the grand finale harvest of peaches are now on sale. Tangren is a former chef and "forager" at Alice Waters famed Berkeley restaurant and cafe, Chez Panisse.
Photo by Laura Petersen |


WHAT: Zinfandel tasting, appetizers inspired by Chez Panisse, book signing and meet-and-greet with Alice Waters

WHEN: Friday, Sept. 8 6:00-7:15 p.m. – Off Center Stage

COST: $32

Must have a show ticket to attend. Pre-show event does NOT include a show ticket. Limited to 80 people

WHAT: In Conversation with Alice Waters

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8

WHERE: Main Stage Theatre

COST: Reserved Seating $67 members, $70 general public; General Admission SOLD OUT

Learn more at:







These days, Alan Tangren doesn’t have to go far to forage.

The former chef and “forager” of Chez Panisse, Berkeley’s famed restaurant and café founded by Alice Waters, is surrounded by good things to eat in Chicago Park, where he retired to his family’s farm 13 years ago.

Tangren, accompanied by his first cousin removed, Rosie Bierwagen as his sous chef, will share his local food making mastery on Sept. 8 when the duo prepares Chez Panisse-inspired hors d’oeuvres during a Zinfandel wine tasting and Meet and Greet, featuring slow food revolutionary Alice Waters, at The Center for the Arts.

A chef, author and food activist, Alice Waters has been a champion of local sustainable agriculture for over four decades. At the Sept. 8 event, she will be signing her new memoir, “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook” and have a conversation with moderator Beth Ruyak, host of Capitol Public Radio’s program, “Insight.”

“I think Alice’s visit will be important for inspiring the local food movement,” said Tangren.

Locally based nonprofit educational and advocacy group Zinfandel Advocates and Producers will bring three legendary California winemakers to town to pour their wine during the event: “Godfather of Zin” Joel Peterson, Randle Johnson from Artezin, and Bill Eason from Terre Rouge and Easton wines.

Tangren will prepare some of Waters’ favorite things, featuring locally-grown Nevada County ingredients, like a wilted greens, garlic crostini, pork and pistachio terrine.

Back to his roots

The idea of farm-to-fork is nothing new to Tangren’s family. His great-grandparents started the Bierwagen Farm as a way of life in 1902, specializing in tree fruits like peaches, nectarines, plums, apples and pears.

Tangren’s interest in food was fostered early on. He grew up in Southern California in the 1950s when convenience foods and TV dinners were in vogue. But every summer he spent at the Bierwagen farm, where he learned to appreciate fresh, perfectly ripe fruits picked from the orchard.

His happiest hours were those spent at his grandmother Bertha Bierwagen’s side in the kitchen, canning corn, green beans and tomatoes, frying pork chops, and making desserts.

“She was pretty much my first cooking teacher,” he said.

Tangren worked with Waters at Chez Panisse from 1982 until 2004. He cooked in the upstairs café on the salad and pizza line, and later helped supervise the café kitchen. He also spent several years cooking in the downstairs restaurant with Chef Paul Bertolli and Waters.

Besides her newest memoir, Waters is the author of fifteen books, including New York Times bestsellers “The Art of Simple Food I & II,” and “The Edible Schoolyard: A Universal Idea.” In the early days, her simple food philosophy rocked the culinary world.

Tangren remembers attending a big chef benefit in New York. While other chefs brought elaborate dishes, Waters focused on the basic essentials — homemade wild strawberry ice cream and a salad made of hand picked baby lettuces at a time when flavorless iceberg dominated grocery stores.

“She always wanted to bring the most simple things and surprise people with the deliciousness,” said Tangren.

From 1991 to 1997 Tangren was the “forager” for Chez Panisse, nurturing relationships with farmers, ranchers and other suppliers who helped shape the style of cooking at the restaurant. He was responsible for assuring the quality and integrity of the ingredients and for coordinating their use on the daily-changing menus of the café and the downstairs restaurant.

“We went to a lot of trouble to get beautiful ingredients. It was a real collaboration between the farmers and the restaurant. They brought us the best things they had and we used them,” said Tangren.

In 1997 Tangren became co-pastry chef for Chez Panisse, where he was responsible for planning and realizing dessert menus, and obtaining organic produce and other ingredients. The Chez Panisse menu includes cakes, tarts, custards, cookies, ice creams and confections, all made with fresh fruits and nuts.

About that time, Bierwagen’s organic peaches began appearing on the menu.

“Of course I was very happy when Ernie and Chris (Tangren’s cousins) started growing organic peaches, because then I could get them for the restaurant. They really made an impact,” said Tangren.

Chez Panisse is known for featuring a perfect fruit, unadorned, just at the right moment — a peach sitting in a copper bowl.

In addition to working at Chez Panisse, Tangren was sous chef for the Great Chefs program at the Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley of California from 1984 to 1991.

There, he worked alongside many well-known chefs of the nouvelle cuisine of France, including Gaston Lenotre, Paul Bocuse, Jean and Pierre Troisgros, Georges Blanc and Alain Chapel. He also worked with North American chefs Julia Child, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, Nancy Silverton and Bradley Ogden.

In 2004 Tangren moved back to the family farm to start a cut flower business. For the last four years, he has taught cooking classes at Tess’ Kitchen Store in Grass Valley. Since May, Rosie Bierwagen has worked at his side, as sous chef for the classes and monthly demonstration dinner series known as Chef’s Table. Cooking fine food pairs nicely with her current nutrition studies.

“Properly prepared, nutrient-dense food is the best way to go,” she said.

Chris Bierwagen joined Rosie and Tangren under the shade, next to the apple orchard and family’s restaurant, Happy Apple Kitchen. Chris Bierwagen says the local food movement is growing one customer at a time. On Sept. 7, he will host a hog roast during a Sierra Harvest potluck at the farm. While he grew up the son of a woman who was always scratch cooking and canning, taking time with food is the only way of eating he’s ever known.

“It’s nothing new or special for us. I never tire of eating good food or cooking,” said Chris Bierwagen.

Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at laurapetersen310@gmail.com or 530-913-3067.

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