Forty years ago, Berkeley, California’s visionary chef, Alice Waters, asked her friend Steve Crumley if he wanted to be a part of an “environment where friends could get together” over good, local, sustainable food. It was the inception of the restaurant Chez Panisse, an inception that would plant the seeds of a food revolution, California Cuisine, and eventually, everything we know now as the locavore, artisanal, foodie-or-what-have-you culture.
At the time, to Crumley, it seemed like it would be “pals having fun.” So he recalls responding, “Oh, yeah!” And he says he’s been having fun ever since.
Behind every famous name in the restaurant business, there are legions of unknown contributors, the guys working in the back, the dishwashers, the sous chefs. And in honor of Chez Panisse’s 40th anniversary celebration this weekend, we figured we’d get to know one of those lesser-known names — although to anyone who’s a regular at the restaurant, Crumley’s hearty grin has become as familiar as Waters’ delicately delicious garden lettuces.
Crumley is the sort of maitre d’ you’d imagine Ernest Hemingway might feel comfortable with; he’s a man’s man with a romantic soul. Just check out his old, beat-up Chevy truck, parked outside his Berkeley house where we meet him. He tweaked the lettering in the back so that it reads, “Chevre et.” (Read in French, that’s “goat cheese and.)” There’s something just so macho and Old World about that.
He’s also a typographer and an arborist, having for many years tended Chez Panisse’s century-old Araucaria tree out front. And he speaks of Chez Panisse’s golden age in the 1970s with a smile, comparing the “burning genius” of chef Jeremiah Tower as being like listening to Sonny Rollins playing his saxophone on the Williamsburg Bridge. “You had to be there,” Crumley says, while pointing out sights along the 10-minute walk to the restaurant.
Crumley grew up in the projects in Pittsburgh and came out to California for the cheaper education in the 1950s. He was taking care of a property when Waters told him about her plans for a restaurant. He was one of the first five employees, starting out as a bartender, moving on to waiter, and finally, by the late ’70s, becoming one of the maître d’s, which is what he does now in the upstairs café (there’s also the main restaurant downstairs).
There’s a California gentility that Crumley bears effortlessly while shepherding people to their tables, no doubt because he considers his work “a joy.” (This is the land where people work to live, not live to work, after all.)
The hardest part of the job, Crumley says, is getting that last-minute request for a five-person table when there isn’t a five-person table. And that “people come with such high expectations, which have to be met,” he says, before adding: “And they are.”
He’s not one to dish about the restaurants’ famous clientele, but he will confess his favorite dishes at the restaurant — anything cooked in the wood-burning oven, but especially squid, and a simple green salad.
He describes how he does what he does as “being present to people’s needs,” which is what probably best defines what it’s like to a have a conversation with him: he’s entirely present.
Does he have anything else to say?
“There are so many other people here who have so much to say, and who contribute so much to the restaurant,” says Crumley, who’s clearly a little uncomfortable with the attention, while restaurant staff swirl past him, preparing the evening’s meal.
We know, Steve, and you’re definitely one of them.