Longtime Chez Panisse welcomer Fritz Streiff died Wednesday at age 72.
In his early life, Streiff moved from Lewiston, Idaho to Harvard University, where he met lifelong friend Stephen Thomas and received his first taste of food service working summers as a server in Cape Cod and Le Bocage in Cambridge. Streiff later lived in Hong Kong and Paris where he worked at the world-renowned restaurant Au Pactole. He met Alice Waters in the early 1970s after knocking on the door of Chez Panisse, Alice’s new restaurant at the time, and soon became the signature greeter remembered today.
“Fritz was the public face of Chez Panisse in many different ways,” said author Steve Silberman. “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.”
Silberman said Streiff’s role at the front of the house fostered a “reassuring familiarity” for restaurant goers. He made it seem as though he had known guests for years.
Fritz’s typical attire consisted of a white linen suit, bow tie and retro spectacles, Silberman said. He added that Streiff’s welcoming demeanor transformed the food hospitality industry from one of exclusivity into one of invitation and exuberance.
Streiff’s generosity was integral to the Chez Panisse family, according to Waters, who added that Streiff knew every supplier, server, dishwasher and custodian of the restaurant. In conversations with guests, Streiff openly shared his advanced knowledge of food and wine.
“Because he loved to cook and knew a tremendous amount about food, he would always fine-tune everything,” Waters said. “And of course, he was always right — it would be better that way.”
Fritz brought his artistic eye to sophisticated restaurant and menu design, Waters added. She commended his attention to detail and unique prowess for word choice, which was central to her menus, books and activism.
During their frequent morning walks, Waters noted Fritz’s refined interest in nature and “encyclopedic” ability to write and recite poetry. She called Fritz a true “Renaissance man” with a strong passion for the arts, often playing the piano and harpsichord and inviting filmmakers and musicians to the restaurant.
“He was his own kind of artist,” Waters said. “He never asked for recognition because he was happy with what he was giving.”
Waters fondly remembered that Streiff was the happiest he had ever been when celebrating his marriage to his husband Jeffrey Louie in 2008 at Camino restaurant.
Streiff became sick one and a half years ago with stomach cancer and was treated with chemotherapy until the efforts were unsuccessful, Waters said.
Waters admired Streiff’s humility, integrity and philosophical outlook throughout his lifetime. He would have turned 73 on Sunday.
“He was funny, witty and charming,” said friend E.M. Ginger. “He had an incredible life — he traveled, he ate, he saw his friends and had a wonderful time.”