Interview with Alice Waters, Chez Panisse, Berkeley, California

For most of my life that I have been living and working in California there is one chef whom I have always looked up to and admired. Dining at Chez Panisse for the first time decades ago was like an introduction to the cuisine I would encounter over ensuing years at numerous kitchens in California and even New York when I went back there on visits. I planted my first garden inspired by Alice Waters and fueled by my own interest in cooking and eating seasonal produce based on Ayurvedic principles. I believe very deeply that seasonality of produce is an indication from nature that it is what our body needs specifically in that season to be healthy.

Meeting Alice Waters was such a pleasure and it was interesting having a casual conversation over tea about various things that had piqued my interest over the years. I remember when my son who has as a result of traveling and dining around the world with us developed a more serious interest in the field my husband decided that a meal at Chez Panisse should be the starting point for his methodical introduction to the industry. All of ten years old at that time he remembers that visit very fondly and when we were back a few years ago he remarked that it looked smaller than what he remembered.
I came away from the meeting with a tangible memory since she signed my jacket for me and she put her signature right above the pocket to be close to my heart she said. In all 2014 was a year during which I crossed paths with numerous people with connections to Chez Panisse besides chef Alice Waters herself such as Jeremiah Towers, David Tanis and Gilbert Pilgram.

I hope to see her again at MAD5 this time in August and am waiting for her to call on me as she said she would to volunteer on one of her gardening projects, hopefully in Rome!

Alice Waters
Alice Waters

Alice Waters, Planting Edible Seeds in Fertile Minds

By Geeta Bansal

Alice Waters is the culinary impresario credited with introducing California cuisine to the world a term that has become a banner of the West Coast food movement. She founded the Chez Panisse restaurant in 1971 with Paul Aratow, a film maker, finding and filling a niche that no one even knew existed in the industry. This landmark restaurant in Berkeley, California has spread the gospel of sustainable, local and seasonal throughout the country all the way to the Maison Blanc. Very fittingly even the logo at this restaurant, named as the Best in America by Gourmet Magazine in 2001, in keeping with the theme was inspired by a giant kelp. Just like numerous famous French chefs have emerged from the Bocuse kitchens, restaurants all over the US have chefs at the helm with links to the Chez Panisse kitchen. These 76 or so alumni include names like Jeremiah Towers, Paul Bertolli, Mark Miller, Judy Rodgers, Gilbert Pilgram, David Lebovitz, Jonathan Waxman, Suzanne Goin, Michael Tusk, Mark Peel, Dan Barber, David Tanis and others who have since opened over 270 operations all over the world. There have been other players in this operation who are, as she states in her book “The Art Of Simple Food”, an entire community of farmers, producers, bakers, wine merchants, wine makers, educators, butchers, fishermen, film makers and journalists who helped to spread the message of this natural green cuisine. Interestingly Chef Michel Troigros of the acclaimed Maison Troigros, the three Michelin-starred restaurant in Roanne, France was one of the first interns in the Chez Panisse kitchen all the way from France!

This beautiful, petite 70 year old chef, writer, educator, activist and  visionary has influenced kitchens at home and in restaurants with her cookbooks stressing the art of simple cooking and by bringing attention to how we source and utilize products. She started the Edible Yard project, first in the Martin Luther King Middle school in the Bay Area to spread the message of safe, clean and sustainably produced foods to the upcoming generation giving them a head start in this direction. According to her sustainable farming and the involvement of youth in these practices will increase geometrically in the coming years along with the rising popularity of farmers markets. In 2007 Water’s launched the Rome Sustainable Food Project at the venerated American Academy to assist in promoting an informed approach to the food production, and the slow food culture at family tables. The Academy is a member of Rome’s Slow Food Community and Waters serves as the Vice President for the International Slow Food movement. The Slow Food Nation in San Francisco guided by Water’s began the Green Kitchen project chronicled in her book “The Green Kitchen”. She has written numerous books that are popular with cooks and chefs such as “Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook”, Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook”, “Recipes and Lessons”, “My Pantry”, “40 Years of Chez Panisse”, and my favorite “The Art of Simple Food II”.

40 Years of Chez Panisse
40 Years of Chez Panisse

In 2009 she is believed to have encouraged Michelle Obama to make the White House garden an exemplary vegetable garden to help focus attention on proper stewardship of land and to emphasize that produce grown organically and ecologically is vital to our future. The seeds from this now flourishing garden were carried to the Vatican by President Obama last year as a gift to be planted in the Pope’s own gardens a project that Waters has participated in for the past few years. Walters is perceived by her critics as a somewhat polarizing figure in the politics of food but no stranger to controversy she goes about her mission undeterred and encouraged by her fans. Her personal life has been unconventional and typical of a very self-confident woman living life on her own terms.

Waters recently stated in an article in the Times that the fate of our nation rests on school lunches and her Edible Schoolyard Organization is a testament to her continuing efforts in this direction. A few days ago, along with Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper, she launched the Food Truth Coalition to emphasize awareness of food education that teaches the young the difference between fast food falsehoods and real food truths.  Her delicious revolution has transformed our tables and pantries and helped connect families and communities. I planted my own gardens 30 years ago encouraged by her efforts and cook what I plant and harvest in each season in my restaurant. In 2007 a lifetime achievement award was bestowed on her by the Restaurant Magazine acknowledging her as the most influential figure for 50 years in American Gastronomy. A more recent accolade, the Humanitarian Innovator Award, was presented to her by The Wall Street Journal. The James Beard Foundation has honored her over the years with the Best Chef and Best Restaurant awards, and in 2011 with a Leadership Award. She has a lifetime of achievements that have been recognized and celebrated with countless other awards and tributes.

We met over several days in Mexico City, where she was a presenter at Mesamerica, and I had a very interesting and encouraging informal conversation with her. It is not a surprise that she is a role model for women in the food industry all over the world.

Our conversation:

What was the most important element from the French cuisine or culture that you brought back from your time in France prior to embarking on your own culinary journey?
It was the food. I think I was awakened by the taste of things and the way they were prepared and the experience opened my eyes to everything. I didn’t actually realize this until I was involved in writing the Chez Panisse 40th birthday book. Then I really understood what I had taken from that experience. I took in a whole food culture which happened to be a slow food culture of which I adopted and absorbed all the values. It was as if by osmosis and it was that time in their world when children came home for lunch and they were with their parents for two hours! It was a time when people stopped work and met their friends in the afternoon. It was a time when students were given free passes to concerts and museums, and when even the cafeterias had delicious food. It was all of those things.

School lunches in France are decidedly different from the U.S. Did your early Montessori training link into your projects related to schools and children and If you were to define or talk about taste to a young child how would you go about it?
I would begin in the garden as I feel it has to be something hands on if you will, because I feel you taste with all of your senses and not just with your mouth. Smelling it, looking at it, you are almost hearing it and touching it and when you are touching food you are able feel something and sense something about it. That is the basis for my edible education program that I am involved in. We have to open up the senses and we have to educate the young child and that is the bottom line of the Montessori. Regions that have been successful in this are poor parts of world. I feel that poverty and hunger that existed in those places are analogous to what happened in the United States in a fast food culture. In this case senses were shut down maybe not because of poverty or hunger but by the limited awareness of a world of slow food culture. In this fast food environment the young are imprisoned and addicted and unable to see the world around them. It is almost as if they are not awake.

Alice Waters and Carlo Petrini, Found of the Slow Food Movement
Alice Waters and Carlo Petrini, Found of the Slow Food Movement

Is it a result of too many easy choices available? In economies where people exist in a more basic level there are not as many choices so the question is not of making the right choice but the only choice available?
I think it’s the illusion of choice in reality as there is actually no choice. Everything being available 24/7 and everything being done so quickly that you cannot really understand what is happening to you. You are just asked to be courteously thankful all the time as if that is the meaning of life without actually understanding it. Without understanding you are dismissing children and old people thinking they are not consumers. We are focused on increasing this addictive behavior.

Is it our American culture that does not focus on the pleasure of food or dining responsible for this?
That is true, and the idea that things are available all the time, you are eating everywhere, you are eating in your car, you are always pressing because time is money and it’s making us sick and crazy. We are supposedly in a democracy and nobody takes the time to vote anymore to be a part of making choices and only 35% of the people that are eligible actually vote. The whole insidious culture of advertising and the whole mentality and set of values of fast food culture have become insidious and pervasive. It gets into everything and we have to become aware of this so that we can resist it.

Coming back to France Michele Troigros came to train at Chez Panisse from France so was that a beginning of awareness of American cuisine in France? He came from a classic and very famous French kitchen, so what was that experience like?
He came to Chez Panisse when he was quite young and we had a Frenchman cooking in the kitchen. I think he was truly surprised by our focus on ingredients even though things had not changed as dramatically here when he came as they had in France.  It was very early on and I don’t recollect the timing.

There is a perception in France that the term “terroir” applies only within the boundaries of France and not other parts of the world. Do you sense that?
(Laughing) Yes true they do!

Who else was training in the kitchen when Michel Troigros was at Chez Panisse?
He was almost our first sort of intern who came into the restaurant very early on. John Pierre was there and I was also in the kitchen. It was a time when the French came to Chez Panisse and said that is not cooking that is shopping. Now of course when they come it is still shopping and when chefs like Jacque Pepin, Daniel and that group has come now they really understand our purity of food that is a beautiful thing. It has always been part of their training and upbringing back home that they took for granted and that food was real. I think they were shocked when they came to United States when they had to look for ingredients and ask for organic products. They had to go out to the farms, see how things were produced. Yesterday it was impressive when they showed the film about Jacque Pepin ( at Mesamerica in Mexico City) I noticed all the eggs he was using  were different colors and I know he has gardens and gets his food from all the right people up there in Connecticut. It just pleases me no end to see that kind of understanding and that you cannot take food for granted.

When you talk about French gastronomy you don’t talk about where food comes from and how it is grown. Incidentally they are the fourth largest users of pesticides in the world and their markets have produce from all over and not just from France as you see at Les Halles that has now moved close to the airport and where  they give priority to international vendors.

There was a time when you were interested in opening a restaurant at the Louvre in Paris? Where did that idea come from and have you thought of going back?
I thought what a gift I could give to the French and open the right sort of restaurant and show them.  I did not see it as sort of mine but thought it could almost be like an international culinary center. I never saw it only as sort of my restaurant there but I saw it as place where people could come and learn about everything from origins of all the food to products that they had not seen before. It could almost be like a feeling of a Farmers market with a broad range of things on display.

Maybe be you were ahead of your time in that particular area especially in a location like the Louvre?
I probably was. There was a recent article in NY Times food section about restaurants in Paris where they wrote about a lot of well-known restaurants being owned by non-French nationals and I was fascinated by that. It is a lot different now than it was at that time. I recently ate at a small bistro in the 5th arrondissement and I was so surprised and delighted that they talked about the source of their food. A young man there recognized me and told me he was trying to do something very simple and hoped I would like it. I felt it was the first time I really ate a very simple French meal that had taste and authenticity and was real.

You have always stressed simple food and were never into the transformational techniques used in kitchens these days. Do you think in our present restaurant culture and attributed to reality TV shows these techniques are taking over at the expense of taste and health and they could instead address more pertinent issues regarding the food industry?
That is what the talk is talk is about today, really exactly that. These are all the young people who are trying to make their way and understand the issues about the future of our planet and they could be leaders of change. They have access to television, to media and I feel it’s a very important responsibility they have.

There was an outcry about the Time magazine cover depicting the all-male Gods of cuisine. If they had done one with goddesses would you have been on it?
It’s funny as it is probably the reason I was one of the 100 in their list. They wanted to recognize the women and knew they had done something wrong.

Do you think that people following the organic food trend are believers of this or just jumping on the bandwagon for publicity?
I think these people are understanding it and not following a trend. Molecular cooking is a trend but I think all these ideas of seasonal, buying local and organic, meeting with family and friends at the markets are all things that have been part of our civilization since the beginning of time. Now I think we are all just coming back to that place for finding that meaning in our lives, and now people long for that meaning, being in sync with the change of seasons, being in concert with nature and being able to perceive it around us. These are universal ideas that we all need to think about.

Should cooking be spontaneous?
It has to be because the ingredients are always changing. We are talking about things that are alive and you need to be able to taste and adapt. Sometimes it is a last minute decision. For example, you find a melon is too ripe to serve so you find another use for it, perhaps make it into a sherbet. I never even write a menu until the very last minute and sometimes we have enough of something for one seating so we change the menu for the next seating. You have to be on your toes constantly and think what the weather is like outside and should it be a cold soup or a hot soup. In a way you are trying to connect with the environment and nature.

Do you have an opinion about chefs introducing products or alternate proteins from other cultures?
I am worried that with the weather and climate changing rapidly crops are more susceptible to drought or floods. It means that we are going to have to be really clever farmers. We may have to change our diets accordingly. I think there are we looking beyond beans and rice and are opening up to this world of alternate foods and I would really like to see it to come into the school system and we all learn together right from kindergarten. We can all learn by osmosis about nutrition and by having all the subjects available in schools that are connected to food and agriculture. I think we are going to need to be internationally ingenious.

In Denmark they have made a real change in their food culture by exposing schoolchildren to these ideas with the MAD food program and introducing them to all ethnic cuisines and cultures in Copenhagen. Do you think that if we offered all these different tastes to children in school lunches we will educate them about food in the process?
I am not so familiar with that program but I think there are two things that are terribly important. One is where the food is coming from and the other is to take care of the land. I am worried about where food is being purchased from or grown. Have you seen the film “Our Daily Bread”? It is so shocking considering it was made 8-10 years ago and narrative is disturbing and the situation is probably worse now.

You have opened the doors to involving children in these issues at a very early age. Has it made an impact?
It’s very exciting that the University of California launched an initiative for sustainability in 2014 and it could really make an impression. They want to change the provenance of the food by focusing on and supporting the small farms in California. I am not sure how quickly it will happen but Janet Napolitano is the new president who is a powerful person and I am very impressed by her.

She has an advantage of understanding the political system?
Yes she does, and she is a very calm and forceful person. We had meetings at Chez Panisse where every chancellor at the university signed that initiative. Napolitano wants to integrate food and agriculture into every subject and change the provenance of food and all the bond practices and she wants to shout out the best practices to the world. So all my eggs are in her basket so to speak. (Waters presented a basket of eggs to Napolitano when she toured the Edible Yard Project)

What made you succeed in this industry where very few women have made it to the top?
I was doing something unusual in a fast food culture and I stood out that way. I was not interested in making money but I was interested in opening people’s mind to food and getting them to eat real food. I did not care how much olive oil I was using I was going to get people to eat it and love it. I practically cried when anything came back on a plate. I was just sure that my idea of a French restaurant would show the way we all should eat. I believed that the way to eat in small portions, with a little bit of dessert and all those things would be eventually be appreciated.

Are you traveling to other events such as MAD in Copenhagen this year?
Not this year but maybe next year. It’s very hard for me to leave in summer and I am always in Europe in fall. I have been in Rome working on a project at the American Academy for six years and it has been fantastic for me to have the experience of living in Italy. I used to go four or six times a year but now I go a couple times a year. I am working with the Pope in the Vatican on planting their gardens. I am there cheerleading.


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