Jerry Budrick, original waiter and former partner at Chez Panisse, dies at 78

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Jerry Budrick, one of the original waiters at Chez Panisse and longtime maitre d’ at the Berkeley restaurant, has died at the age of 78.

Budrick died July 24 after a five-year battle with esophageal cancer.

Budrick was born Gerald Budrick on February 23, 1944 to Alphonse Budrick and Anne Walanga of Chicago. From an early age, Budrick developed an affinity for hospitality, serving beer and bourbon at his parents’ South Side Tavern while he was doing his homework, he later wrote.

But on the opening night of Chez Panisse on August 28, 1971—a watershed moment that marked a before and after in American dining and dining culture—Budrick had no formal experience as a waiter, save for a brief gig at an Austrian lakeside cafe.

That didn’t stop him from impressing guests.

In her book Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook, Chez Panisse founder Alice Waters recalled Budrick’s flair in the dining room. He had, she wrote, “a flamboyant performance, almost theatrical, with exaggerated gestures, a full-lipped, beautiful, expressive face, like Malcolm McDowell in ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ Jerry was notorious – he exuded an air of sophistication, but he could also be very funny and crack jokes with customers, the other waiters and the chefs.”

Jerry Budrick helped open Chez Panisse in 1971 and later served as maitre d’ and associate.

Courtesy of Rick Wise

In a foreword to Budrick’s 2021 memoir, Waiting at Chez Panisse, influential Chez Panisse and Stars chef Jeremiah Tower wrote that Budrick “balanced Alice beautifully in the dining room.” As waiter, Budrick brought “professional service to a dining room that was sometimes strained by the pressures of a different menu each night and a kitchen that responded slightly differently than other Bay Area restaurants.”

In his memoir, Budrick acknowledges both Waters and Tower as the “parents” of California cuisine, but also sheds light on the roles played by lesser-known personalities within the pioneering restaurant.

Budrick became maitre d’ and co-owner of the restaurant in 1975 when the restaurant went public. He left the restaurant in 1987 and moved to Amador County, where he opened a bottled water business. In 1992, when that company was facing financial difficulties, he sold his shares in Chez Panisse back to Waters. Budrick later ran the Via D’Oro Mediterranean restaurant in Sutter Creek with his wife, Deborah Budrick.

He leaves behind his wife and two children.

Mario Cortez (he/him) is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

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