Lewiston man was the face of iconic Berkeley restaurant

Fritz Streiff, greeter at Chez Panisse, died last week of stomach cancer

When the “signature greeter” for iconic California restaurant Chez Panisse died last week, the loss was felt not just in Berkeley, but in Lewiston, his hometown.

Fritz Streiff, beloved by frequenters of Alice Waters’ famed restaurant, was remembered in a story published Oct. 2 in The Daily Californian for his generous nature, welcoming manner and eye for detail.

The author Steve Silberman recalled, in the article, “Fritz was the public face of Chez Panisse in many different ways. He had an exquisite sense of presence and welcoming. When you came in the door, he right away established that you were not just in a place where you were safe and taken care of, but where you could be beguiled and fall in love with flavors you had never experienced before.”

Waters remembered him as an integral, and humble, part of the Chez Panisse family: “He was his own kind of artist,” she said. “He never asked for recognition because he was happy with what he was giving.”

Streiff died Sept. 28, of stomach cancer. He was the son of the late John and Elinor Streiff, of Lewiston.

The following interview with Streiff by former Lewiston Tribune reporter Michael R. Wickline was published Aug. 3, 1987, under the headline “Lewiston High grad to city: ‘Bon appetit.’ ”

– Inland 360 Editor Mary Stone

A former Lewiston man must have recipes coming out of his ears.

For most of the past 12 years, Fritz Streiff, a 1967 graduate of Lewiston High School, has worked at a Berkeley, Calif., restaurant considered among the best in the United States.

It’s called Chez Panisse (pronounced Shay Pa-neese), and never serves a repeat of its five-course dinners, which go for $45 a pop.

“The only food worth eating is as fresh as possible and made with ingredients as fresh as possible,” Streiff said, in touting Chez Panisse’s high standards.

These days, Streiff spends a lot of his time trying to convince others to follow the standards of Chez Panisse. He has appeared in myriad television and radio shows, including “CBS Sunday Morning,” as well as magazines.

“I am proud of my work with the restaurant in that it changes people’s ideas about what to eat,” Streiff said in an interview Saturday. “The restaurant is an inspiration to many people because it’s attempting to do something that hadn’t been — sticking to the highest possible standards.”

Fritz, whose formal name is John J., returned to Berkeley on Sunday after spending the past week at Lewiston for his 20th high school reunion and the 75th birthday of his mother, Elinor J. Gnaedinger, of Lewiston.

His father was John F. Streiff, who died in 1979 and was president of J.D. Jacobs, a Lewiston farm implement business, and chairman of the Idaho Water Resources Board in the 1970s.

Streiff, 37, started cooking for Chez Panisse in 1975 after working at several restaurants in France and Cambridge, Mass., following graduation from Harvard University in 1972.

During high school, he was one of two delegates in Idaho to attend the 1967 Senate Youth Program at Washington, D.C. He also attended Boys State.

In his youth, Streiff would cook only when his mother was gone, she said.

So, Gnaedinger said the family was surprised when her son decided to become a cook after spending a college summer working at a restaurant at Cape Cod.

“I liked to eat when I was young, and I grew up in a family that ate and entertained at the dinner table,” Streiff said.

As a chef and maitre’d at Chez Panisse, he still believes strongly in the importance of people dining together.

It’s important to bring people together to talk, to each other and what better way to do that than over a meal and a glass of wine,” said Streiff. “I enjoy the whole role of being host, putting people at ease and trying to get them to relax and enjoy themselves.”

Returning to Lewiston — where few know of Chez Panisse’s reputation — has been a good break for Streiff.

“It is refreshing to come back to Lewiston for a reunion and talk to people who never have heard of the restaurant,” he said.

“If the people have heard of you (Chez Panisse), they have expectations,” Streiff said. “People make peculiar assumptions after hearing you work for a French restaurant, such as you have high prices, have to make reservations two months in advance, etc.”

He said he was gratified to see the Farmer’s Market still operating and people growing grapes for wine at Lewiston.

“After all, wherever there is good wine, there is good food,” Streiff said.