Alice Waters visited my home turf in Southern California recently and I was fortunate to have another interesting conversation with her. Much has been written about her and yet there are some aspects I feel that most career journalists in search of the sensational fail to delve into. As we all progress through life our interests and ideas change and I found that to be true in her case as well. She is a very easy communicator and engages passionately in subjects that interest her. Her sense of humor leads to much laughter in every exchange and she has an uncanny ability to bond with with people.
A part of my conversation was published in The Daily Meal recently and the extended version is posted here.
by Geeta Bansal
“I have always wanted to live on a commune” was the surprising response when asked what lies ahead from this ingenious powerhouse of the culinary world. Always a step ahead in everything, she has chosen to take on this Francophile had once even proposed a restaurant at the Louvre in Paris during the 90’s ruffling many French feathers in the process.
She became known for planting the seeds for a brand new concept of cuisine in California in the 70’s influencing the food culture not only in the United States but all over the world. Since then she has been planting not just ideas but virtual gardens all the way from school yards to the White House, and soon even the Vatican. During our conversation she related the story of her last visit to Rome when accompanied by Carlo Petrini the founding president of the International Slow Food Movement, Waters who is Vice President, spent an entire day waiting unsuccessfully for an audience with Pope Francis to present their proposal to plant the Vatican gardens. Unable to accomplish their mission they are hoping for another opportunity soon since as Walters said “the flowerbeds in the Vatican gardens are ready and waiting “and all that is needed is a go ahead from the Pope who has already established a working farm and a supermarket at Castel Gandolfo, the Papal summer residence.
Waters began a virtual food revolution on the West Coast of the United States in 1971 when finding a niche that no one knew existed she opened her restaurant Chez Panisse in the university town of Berkley. She laughed when I mentioned Julia Child’s remark about California cuisine and that it would last just as long as a squash blossom in July. Well it has certainly has been a very long July as is evident by the success and popularity of this farm to table cuisine.
The alums of the Chez Panisse kitchen include Dan Barber, Paul Bertolli, Mark Miller, Judy Rodgers, Gilbert Pilgram, David Lebovitz, Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Towers, Suzanne Goin, Michael Tusk, Mark Peel, Dan Barber, and David Tanis amongst others. The influence of this symbolic cuisine has radiated into their kitchens and projects influencing many others along the way.
Over the years she has become an advocate for school lunches and deeply involved in what she refers to as edible education. Understanding that to carry forth her vision of natural green cuisine and sustainable practices into the future it was important to involve the youth she planted her first edible garden in the local Martin King Luther Middle school twenty years ago. Waters founded the Chez Panisse Foundation in 2003 and because of her initiative thousands of schoolchildren in Berkeley now have access to free nutritious breakfast and a subsidized lunch.
She has always been very vocal on the subject of societal and cultural repercussions of fast food addiction. “We are sadly exporting our culture around the world which is really depressing. Wherever there is a Coke machine it’s happening. It happens very quickly because it’s addictive and it’s going on and when they can’t sell enough Coke there they will just pack up and go to another country.” These days Waters loves to spend time in Rome where in 2007 she joined with the American Academy to launch the Rome Sustainable Food Project to bring the lost food culture back to family tables.
One hot summer day we sat on the deck of a tree house suite in Laguna Beach enjoying the cool breeze from the Pacific and she said, “Go ahead ask me any burning questions,” and so I did!
You opened Chez Panisse in an era when there was a counter culture that allowed for experimentation in the arts, music, food and even drugs. Did that facilitate your opening a new kind of restaurant especially since a pop culture was developing and people were receptive to new ideas and is pervasive social media these days also creating a similar environment?
Yes I feel we really had the support of counter culture and I felt whatever I opened up friends would come and be part of it. That is how it worked then and I felt very empowered by the counter culture. It’s a similar thing going on right now and people are opening restaurants not thinking about making a lot of money or opening more restaurants. They are finding that a restaurant can be a way of life and I think that is the healthiest impulse as well as the most hopeful idea in the restaurant world.
During the initial stages of your restaurant how did you choose your team and what did you look for in prospective workers?
I picked people I really liked and I wanted people that inspired me. I wasn’t looking for someone who wanted a job cooking in a kitchen or who had qualifications. I wanted to like them more than all of that especially when you are working with people for ten or more hours a day you want to have a rapport. So I always hired my friends and I have never really regretted that. Though sometimes you face a reckoning and it’s difficult but I have had such a pleasure and such a camaraderie with people that work in the restaurant over the years.
In the early 80’s this new cuisine that you were introducing was viewed with skepticism and was there a point in time when you felt vindicated?
Actually yes, I did feel vindicated especially since when the French first came to visit in the 70’s they said oh! It’s not cooking this is just shopping. Then fifteen years later they said shopping is what it’s all about, at least the French chefs who came to the United States. Chef Jacques Pepin especially has always been passionate about this since he has always had a garden and he understood . Many others though wanted excellent ingredients yet took a while to understand that they should be organically grown and sourced responsibly.
You recently spoke about an epiphany, so when did that happen and did that change the focus or direction of your work into a “before and after” period?
I would say certainly there were two different periods, one before my daughter was born and one after. I started to think about the world very differently because I was concerned about her future and all of a sudden the very self absorbed restauranteur at age twenty, so far very content in herself changed. Prior to that my concern was to be successful and achieve the goal of connecting with a farm and setting up a real farm to restaurant system and we had achieved that.
Then I had a child and I realized that we just couldn’t be an island unto ourselves. Whatever was happening upstream was going to come downstream and I really needed to be involved with what was happening. It actually happened when I was thinking about her going to school, I thought about where she would go, to a public or a private school? Could she go to a public school and were they good enough? Then the whole world opened to me and since then it really is my passion.
In the United States there is a resistance to paying more for food since food grown and sourced in this manner is more expensive. What steps can chefs and restaurants take to overcome that?
We really have to talk about that publicly as much as we can. This is the reason that I want to work in schools and have free healthy school lunch but I want to pay the real cost of that lunch and pay well the farmers who take care of the land. In fact this is a real obsession of mine and the more we acknowledge the farmers and the hard work that they do and how little they are paid the more we will understand.
If I had a cooking school the first thing on the curriculum would be one full year working on a farm or ranch, and learning how complex it is. You really need to be an intellectual to take care of the land, rather an intellectual of the land and that is what farmers are. We so underrate farmers and it’s all coming from our fast food culture that we live in. It’s not just food that we are eating but also the values that we are absorbing while we are eating it. It’s not just a quick hamburger that is bad for you but you are also understanding that food should be cheap. Fast, cheap and easy is the value conferred by advertising which promotes this idea that more is better. There is no understanding about waste since it is suggested that there is more where it came from. We want things available 24/7 and we don’t value cooks or farmers. Subsequently you want the same wherever you go in the world and this is what we have become.
Are restaurants supported by their own farms like Dan Barber’s Blue Hill or now the Noma 2.0 by Rene Redzepi changing the industry and people’s perceptions about food?
Without a doubt they are and they do and when you visit Noma you see there is a complete focus on what is local, some of it may not taste great , some of it is wonderful but the fact that he has said let’s use what can we find here and it is amazing. It’s a real experiment and a very important one like what Dan Barber is doing with grains and essentially just understanding his own understanding so to speak.
Doesn’t this depend on how deep people want to delve in their passion and be willing to share their experience?
The ideas of eating what really tastes good but then looking at what can be grown locally and what is nourishing for you is really where Dan Barber is right now. He is tying those together and I have always been concerned about the aliveness of food and doubly concerned about the nourishment from it. All kinds of things are happening right now that concern farming that really interest me for example the ability to evaluate vegetables for their nutrients. I thought all organic carrots were the same being organic carrots but in fact that is not true. Some farmers really focus on the soil helping the carrot be all that it can be and in fact they are more nutritious. It’s endless what we can learn from nature.
Do you feel that young chefs are working in this direction and are sharing knowledge? Mid-range restaurants and chefs are struggling to stay afloat, so how can they implement these ideas?
I feel that chefs particularly those that have been connected to our restaurant or farms are very generous both with their time and what they are doing. I think it’s not true of the ones that have a lot of money and most of the time they are tied to corporations and they can’t or won’t speak up.
The question is: Do you want to make a whole lot of money or not? The goal of Chez Panisse was never to make money and I just wanted to survive. If I couldn’t survive with the food that we were serving and it wasn’t good enough then I probably would have done something else. I think if a restaurant is really good then people will come. One reason that it has become harder to open restaurants is because of the real estate and so it really puts pressure.
Doesn’t this give rise to these fast food operations since mid-range restaurants are closing everywhere? How can the industry support these restaurants and help them survive?
I think it’s all in a transition right now and one way is just like we help farmers we need to support these restaurants as a community. You can get fifty friends who want to open a restaurant and they all buy a share. We have to think of ways in which we can collaborate. We have to learn how to cook with ingenuity and with thriftiness. The French have always been thrifty, using every little part of a product and we have to learn how to do that.
We need to be able to conserve and preserve. That is in our future and I love the idea of being connected to a farm directly. Maybe it’s two hours away and you meet in the middle and exchange produce for the compost. I don’t know what kinds of systems we can work out but we really need some non profit in the distribution. This is where all the money is lost in the middle and maybe we can begin this in the farm to school process and really set up the pathways that will help us all in the big picture.
Even if it is just a hip thing it is encouraging because people are buying food, giving the money to the farmer and they are changed by the fact that they have to walk through the market, meeting farmers. This is a way for us to take care of the farmer and the farmer to take care of us. I am also encouraged that there are a lot of young people going into farming.
Does your celebrity status in the food world empower you to help make changes in the food culture?
I think there is a segment of the population that does listen when you are well known, have books out there and are at conferences or speaking. The majority of the population in this country is woefully uneducated and unless you engage them or really cook for them the chances of them learning about this from reading a book or listening to a lecture is very very unlikely. That is the reason that we are going to the public schools, a last democratic institution and we have to go there , feed every child and make school lunch an academic subject. That is what I am really focused on as to how we can reinvent it so that we are talking about whole grains or vegetables and fruits. I am looking at the Middle Eastern cuisines especially for the spices, yogurts and their benefits, the foods of India for example The kids really like these foods too and it’s affordable food.
Food can never be cheap, it can only be affordable. That can be understood if it can be widely implemented in the schools beginning in the kindergarten and not just middle schools and high schools. We need edible education.
You mentioned Middle Eastern and Eastern cuisines so has the cultural globalization had a positive impact on cuisine or are we losing the nuances? Is food getting homogenized?
I would say that both things are happening but I think it’s more for the good. I never really understood the use of many spices until I got involved with Mexico. Now it’s is a part of my cooking and I love Indian food too. I think in this country particularly we miss the great taste of well made food that it also good for us. We are missing garlic, spices and the textural complexity and are talking uniformity and richness in much of the basic fast food diet.
We have been making these place mats for teaching school lunches as a subject where on these mats there is a history of the ingredients thereby making it part of the whole lesson. For example if we are serving the food of India this history on the mat gives the food a whole other dimension. A picture is worth a thousand words and I think this is the best way in which we are engaging children and teaching about people who are different from yourself through food. I really have to see things myself in order to engage and so do these children. They want to come sit with these people and learn about their culture and history since there is something really wonderful about each country and its culture. We need to find these things and celebrate the country where they come from and there is no better way to teach than putting these things in the school curriculum.
Is this pictorial representation conducive to teaching or learning?
I really have to look at something, touch it and understand it. The place mats are the lesson in themselves and there is no better way to teach a child but through pictures. The kids eat that food and make memories and find out what cumin or cardamom tastes like. Similar mats with a map were used in French schools to teach where things were grown and were from and what was growing in the season. At one time the school lunches in France were fabulous but they are not so anymore. The French pretend that they are but in reality they get food from China which is not organic.
In your opinion can ethics and politics be in the same mix since the food politics have taken on a whole new dimension in the food industry these days?
They have to be in the same mix to make changes and they are not so and I think education is the way. You teach children to value the land, you teach them how to communicate at the table, you then help them to decide for themselves the importance of ecology , sustainability and to always save for the next person. All these values are learned at the table and this set of values is what is going to make us sane. Right now we have not made this education a priority.
How has our industry or the politicians addressed the subject of GMO’s?
It’s shocking the way the industry has really talked about GMO’s. It’s shocking to me that Hilary Clinton could be supported by them and not know and not be informed properly about it. I don’t know if she is just closing her eyes and ears or she took the money but she needs to be better informed. There is concern that even people like Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan has a very questionable opinion about GMO from my point of view, and she might even be the Secretary of Agriculture in the future. People need to step out and see what is happening.
What are you optimistic about?
I am optimistic about school food especially because of the health issues which are so acute. One in two people in California right now have diabetes. This is in the whole state and while I knew one in two kids had the possibility of getting it I didn’t know that one in two people already had it. It makes you wonder where we are going. Is it over the edge?
The fact that there is hunger in this country is a giant embarrassment and every time the statistics come out we are going to have to think about feeding children in schools something good and soon. There is no halfway good it has to be all the way good. We need to introduce and incorporate the cultural influences in schools.
We are sadly exporting our culture around the world which is really depressing. Wherever there is a coke machine it’s happening. It happens very quickly because it’s addictive and it’s going in, when they can’t sell enough coke here they will just pack up and go to another country, I just read that in Venezuela which is in dire straits, Coke left the country.
I recently wrote an introduction for a book by Olafur Eliasson, a Danish Icelandic artist who makes lunch every day for all the people who work in his studio with the help of two artist cooks. It’s all organic, all local and mostly vegetables, whole grains and fruits with a little bit of meat stocks and chicken broth. This is done 365 days a year even when it’s freezing cold in winter. Originally intended as a small cook book for friends he gave me a copy and then I asked Phaidon to publish it and they did. It’s full of pictures of the proper size of school lunches with a bowl of something hot like a lentil or minestrone soup and couple of salads and homemade bread. It’s so wonderful to see that in a book, especially the proportions.
Are you still working on planting the Vatican gardens?
I am enamored with the new Pope. Did you read the article about God’s garden? He has done it by deciding to convert the Papal summer residence into a garden and sell the produce to the people. He kept talking about the raw donkey milk that he used to drink as a child and now they are selling raw milk as well the cheeses that they make. It’s pretty beautiful and I am going to visit this fall.
I want to do the garden at the Vatican and Carlo Petrini and I are trying to make it a slow food project. The beds are already made but they are using chemicals in all the farming at the Vatican. As a result they have green grass but can have wonderful edibles and it could happen overnight if they got a group of organic farmers in there. The Pope is the best person to make this change.
In your opinion, which food issues are being neglected in our country and need to be addressed?
I feel we must address hunger, school lunches, overhaul our system and teach gardening and cooking not as extracurricular activities but actual subjects like math and science. Montessori was always about learning through the senses and we have to do that in every school. We are so painfully uninformed about our physical selves and nature. We don’t even have botany or anatomy as a subject anymore. I have been talking to people about a Slow Food book of the foods of our country. Maybe it begins with all the art, beautifully visualized art and in fact I would like to go state by state and include everything that is edible and really understand the biodiversity of this country because We Have No Clue!
We have never had agriculture for taste, it’s always been for quantity, we let go of our culinary roots because we wanted to be part of a melting pot in this country. We have lost so much of our tradition and identify in an effort to become part of a fast food culture.
What are the projects that interest you the most these days?
I am becoming involved in much bigger projects in the world. In the last stage of my life I always imagined I would be living in a commune!
In fact I always thought about it , even when I was thirty. I have watched what happens to people in this country in that age and again it’s the fast food culture which doesn’t want to have anything to do with someone who has no money, especially children and old people, and it’s seriously disrupting a way of living that has been part of civilization since the very beginning. Old people need to have a purpose and it has always been to take care of grandchildren and be engaged with young people. Now they are completely isolated and I have always wanted an inter generational project and I think it is something that can be an adjunct to the public school system.
I am afraid I am not going to get that ready in time and have to go live in Italy for that part of my life!