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The Hemi Q&A: Alice Waters

As Chez Panisse, her influential and studiously humble li le eatery in Berkeley, turns 40, the chef, author and godmother of the organic food movement takes a look back.

Author DAVID CARR

ILLUSTRATION BY JEFFREY DECOSTER

EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER had the pleasure of eating at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ remarkable restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., you have likely dined at a table that she has indirectly set. When your grocery store stocks a legit organic produce section, you have Waters to thank. When the waiter at your local bistro goes on and on about how local and fresh the ingredients for the day’s special are, he is channeling Waters’ philosophy. And when a dish arrives at your table glorious in its simplicity and unadorned by all manner of highfalutin, ego-driven flourishes, Waters can take a bow.

Given all that has happened in American food in the last few years, it’s difficult to imagine just how revolutionary Chez Panisse was at its launch in 1971. It was initially conceived as a modest little place where Waters and her friends could meet, cook and laugh. The cooks — all women, which was almost inconceivable at the time — spent their days combing local markets for food that seemed worthy of sharing and crafted dishes that were built on French traditions but still firmly rooted stateside. When a dish was ready, it was set down on a table covered in red-checkered oilcloth. Though tiny, the place was a testament to the notion that simple food, treated with care and respect, could achieve transcendence on the plate.

A new book, Forty Years of Chez Panisse, is a gorgeous collection of memories from the people who built the restaurant and the foodies who came to adore it, tracing the rise of an unassuming restaurant into a global food movement. Ms. Waters, 67, rose with it, becoming an award-winning chef, best-selling author and foodie do-gooder. Hemispheres called Ms. Waters in Berkeley to talk about the book, and about the little restaurant that ended up playing huge.

HEMISPHERES: Alice, I just spent the morning staring at your book and now I am wildly hungry.

WATERS: [laughs] I’m sorry I can’t just deliver you something through the phone.

HEMISPHERES: In the introduction, Calvin Trillin suggests that Chez Panisse is very much a reflection of a time and a place: Berkeley in 1970.

WATERS: I was sort of educated through the free speech movement. I became so idealistic about changing the world and feeding everyone. It was very powerful, and I’m not sure that I would have gotten indoctrinated in quite the same way anywhere else. But I do believe that anybody who serves good food in this country will be successful because people will find them. They could be in the Four Corners [in the Southwest] and people will find them.

HEMISPHERES: When you go on tour for this book and see organic food in the grocery stores and restaurants doing ambitious things with local foods, do you see your own hand at work?

WATERS: Well, it’s not just me. I think that people are just coming back to their senses. It’s something that really is so much bigger than any one of us. We’re coming back home. We’re coming back to the table. I’m particularly excited that children seem to be getting the message. You hope they see and taste good food before they’ve been indoctrinated by the fast food world. They really are so open and ready. They want to run in a garden. They want to pick things that are growing and try them. And that’s what we’re playing on: The pleasure principle is part of the guiding message of the Edible Schoolyard, our school lunch outreach program.

HEMISPHERES: But do you ever drive by 12 fast food joints on your way back from an Edible Schoolyard event and think, “They’re winning”?

WATERS: I went to Amherst, and when we came into the town and there was a stand that was selling amazing asparagus, we were so excited! Then one block later on both sides of the road there was every fast food place imaginable. It was deeply depressing.

HEMISPHERES: What is the one thing that we don’t understand about food?

WATERS: That it’s precious. We need to pay for it. We need to pay for the food and pay the people who produce it. That’s profound and terribly important. We still think we can get it for free. And you know, it’s that idea that we have been indoctrinated to believe, that food should be fast, cheap and easy. And it’s really that kind of thinking that is destroying the world.

HEMISPHERES: Do you worry that we, as a culture, will be split into two groups: people who have the time and money to eat well and those who don’t?

WATERS: That’s why I want to go into the schools. I want to go in there with edible education when kids are in kindergarten and give them real food. That way, they’ll grow up with a different relationship to food. It becomes as important as physical education used to be in the schools. It’s about being healthy. I think we could take away the corn subsidies in this country and use that money to subsidize organic food. That would go a long way. And I think that having food stamps that are redeemable in farmers’ markets for more money is a great thing. Also, I think we need more demonstrations like the ones Michelle Obama gave at the White House garden.

HEMISPHERES: Speaking of the first lady, do you think having leadership from the White House puts significant wind in the sails of the good eating movement?

WATERS: There’s nothing more important than having people in a place of power who have these values and can articulate them. I think that we have some wonderful new ambassadors for the Edible Schoolyard, for instance. One of them is Jake Gyllenhaal. He’s fantastic every time he speaks, and people pay attention to him. And I remember when Hillary Clinton was talking about it in New York, how food here comes from our New York State farms. It was great. It made an impression.

HEMISPHERES: The pictures in your book remind the reader that a lot of what Chez Panisse came to be known for was cooked up by women.

WATERS: I remember being interviewed early on and having someone ask, “What does it feel like to be a woman in the kitchen? You know, it’s so rare.” And I never really thought about it that way. I had the good fortune to find people who brought their talents and their spirit into the collaboration, and many of them happened to be women. It was sort of a counterpoint to the natural male ambition to be the head of the kitchen, to be on top of the pyramid.

HEMISPHERES: Well, traditionally restaurant food was served with a hearty portion of testosterone.

WATERS: A little of that goes a long way. We are a nation that is pretty undeveloped in terms of gastronomy. We never allowed ourselves to have that kind of pleasure at the table, to understand how important it was for the mother of the family to be cooking great food.

HEMISPHERES: So now that the book’s done, you can relax a bit, right?

WATERS: [laughs] Well, I’m getting right back to work on a book about going from the garden to the table. It’s going to be about backyard gardens and cooking and preserving, things that are all of a piece. And then I have to write a little memoir, which I’m dreading. Plus, I’m trying to launch a website tied to the 40th birthday of the restaurant as a gathering place for best practices, so we don’t have to invent the wheel all over again. The goal is to find someone who is doing something remarkable and give them a place to share it.

HEMISPHERES: Well, it’s good to see you continuing to spread the gospel of quality after all these years.

WATERS: It’s all about taste and the provenance of the food. And if the two go together — if you just take that fish out of the water and you cook it with beautiful garlic or whatever, it is irresistible.

DAVID CARR, who covers media and culture for The New York Times, had a chili cheese dog before he spoke with Waters, and he feels awful about it.

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