The woman who taught Amer­ica to eat let­tuce

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS - Com­ing to My Senses: The Mak­ing of a Coun­ter­cul­ture Cook, by Alice Wa­ters (Hardie Grant, £16.99), is avail­able from Tele­graph Book­shop for £14.99 plus p&p (0844-871 1514; books.tele­

‘I pre­fer to con­vince peo­ple by giv­ing them some­thing so de­li­cious they will just get it’

AF TER AN HOUR talk­ing to Alice Wa­ters, founder of the game-chang­ing res­tau­rant Chez Panisse, force be­hind the Cal­i­for­nian food revo­lu­tion and face of the farm-to-ta­ble move­ment, I’m ready to throw in my lot with her. She speaks qui­etly, al­most hes­i­tantly, but when you hear her en­thuse about warm rasp­ber­ries or a great mul­berry ice cream, you too be­lieve in the im­por­tance of these seem­ingly small things.

I dis­cov­ered Wa­ters in 1985, a time when food lovers in Bri­tain were pros­e­lytis­ing about nou­velle cui­sine, buy­ing hexag­o­nal plates and re­duc­ing litres of veal stock. Chefs pushed tiny di­a­monds of red pep­per into po­si­tion with tweez­ers. Wa­ters, mean­while, al­ready had a for­ager. I read her menus – goat ’s cheese souf­flé, char­coal-grilled pork, plum sher­bet – and my spine tin­gled, such was the pu­rity of her food. Now, ‘sim­ple and sea­sonal’ is a mantra so ubiq­ui­tous even Mcdon­ald’s tries to con­vince us it ’s on board. But Wa­ters was say­ing it more than 45 years ago, when Chez Panisse first opened on Shat­tuck Av­enue in Berke­ley. Nei­ther a trained chef nor a busi­ness­woman, she has changed the face of Amer­i­can dini ng a nd her phi l os ophy has b e en adopted by chefs and cooks the world over. It’s be­cause of her that restau­rants now give star billing to the farm­ers whose in­gre­di­ents they’re cook­ing. For Wa­ters, it all starts with the pro­duce.

Since 1971, Chez Panisse’s only ex­pan­sion has been a café up­stairs. Wa­ters, now 73 and the au­thor of 15 books, doesn’t have a line of gourmet foods or sig­na­ture saucepans. She isn’t even, af­ter all these decades, fa­mous-chef wealthy. But that was never the point. ‘I thought I’d just open a lit­tle place for my friends,’ Wa­ters writes in her new mem­oir, Com­ing to My Senses, which tracks her life up to the res­tau­rant’s launch. She never in­tended to have the power she now wields (the Oba­mas in­stalled an or­ganic veg­etable gar­den at the White House af­ter her lob­by­ing ef­forts). Her fo­cus was small and in some ways that has never changed. She thought that if she could just get Bill Clin­ton to eat a per­fect Cal­i­for­nian peach he would un­der­stand how im­por­tant good food is. ‘I don’t al­ways like talk­ing about what I’m try­ing to do. I pre­fer to con­vince peo­ple by giv­ing them some­thing so de­li­cious they will just get it,’ she tells me.

Wa­ters grew up in New Jersey in the 1950s. Her hard-work­ing, con­ser­va­tive fa­ther called her Princess. ‘Maybe it’s be­cause I be­haved like one,’ she writes. ‘I was out­spo­ken and had strong opin­ions: “I’m not eat­ing this! I’m not do­ing that!”’ Her more lib­eral mother gave young Alice an Ad­lai Steven­son badge (all their neigh­bours were for Eisen­hower) and traded home-grown veg­eta­bles with the fam­ily across the street. Wa­ters went to the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley (where she be­came aware of ‘some­thing elec­tric’ in its po­lit­i­cal at­mo­sphere, though she never took to the hippy cul­ture), only be­cause her clos­est friends were go­ing, and for a while she didn’t have a clear aim. But liv­ing in France for a year changed ev­ery­thing. She fell in love with good food – baguette, warm from the oven; all kinds of let­tuce; well­made vinai­grette – and with the care peo­ple took over its sourc­ing and cook­ing. ‘I took my Slow Food val­ues – that ev­ery­one should have ac­cess to good food, and grow­ers are prop­erly val­ued – from 1960s France,’ she tells me. ‘By the time I came home they were part of me.’

Back in Cal­i­for­nia, all Wa­ters wanted to do was cook. She did so for friends un­til she re­alised she’d go broke, and the no­tion of open­ing a res­tau­rant be­gan to form. She set­tled on a set menu – very French; very un-amer­i­can – and her friends (po­ets, film-mak­ers, il­lus­tra­tors) helped her cre­ate it. She was 27. ‘Her ge­nius,’ says Joyce Gold­stein, a for­mer Chez Panisse chef, ‘is to get peo­ple to ex­e­cute her vi­sion with pas­sion.’ Paul Ara­tow had been a cam­era­man on Agnès Varda’s film about the Black Pan­thers, but Wa­ters loved his risotto and ‘good taste in cook­ing’, so she trusted him enough to open the res­tau­rant with him.

When Chez Pani ss e eve nt ual ly

‘Once you lie on the grass, pick rasp­ber­ries, you re­mem­ber. That is ed­i­ble ed­u­ca­tion’

opened, with din­ner (pâté en croute; duck with olives; plum tart) cooked and served by a team with no train­ing, it was a night­mare. Work sur­face s were in­stalled hours be­fore din­ers ar­rived and guests waited ages for their food. ‘A clown show,’ is how one chef de­scribed it. But Wa­ters con­tin­ued un­daunted. ‘I’ve al­ways said that if some­one makes de­li­cious food, oth­ers will find it.’

Though her mem­oir ends just as Chez Panisse be­gins, there’s much more – The Ed­i­ble School­yard Project, which started when Wa­ters turned a con­crete waste­land at a Berke­ley school into a gar­den for teach­ing ab out fo o d; enli sting or­ganic farm­ers to grow for the res­tau­rant – that Wa­ters could have cov­ered. She didn’t, how­ever, want to write the book at all, and she tells me there won’t be an­other vol­ume. ‘I felt that I would be re­ally ex­posed. I’d never re­flected on my life. I didn’t want to be mis­un­der­stood.’

For while col­lab­o­ra­tion has been at the core of Chez Panisse, some have felt side­lined, es­pe­cially chef Jeremiah Tower. ‘I am al­ways tak­ing things from all sorts of dif­fer­ent peo­ple. I couldn’t do it with­out that di­a­logue, but some peo­ple feel they didn’t get the credit they de­serve, like Jeremiah.’ There are other rea­sons to stay pri­vate. Some food lu­mi­nar­ies mock her. An­thony Bour­dain once said, ‘ There’s some­thing very Kh­mer Rouge about Alice Wa­ters that has be­come un­re­al­is­tic.’ Wa­ters ad­mits to be­ing ‘sad’ in re­sponse. ‘I’m a ro­man­tic. I think we can do this. Chil­dren have to taste good food and then take that idea home to their par­ents. Once you taste, lie on the grass, pick those rasp­ber­ries, you re­mem­ber. That is ed­i­ble ed­u­ca­tion.’

Wa­ters con­tin­ues to fight for Slow Food val­ues in a fast-food cul­ture. She is a mag­nif­i­cent or­ches­tra­tor. She loves a lot, and I don’t just mean men – but places, smells, films, early evening light, gar­lic… Wa­ters is a sen­su­al­ist first and fore­most. She is also a ‘coun­ter­cul­ture cook’ who wants ev­ery­one to have ac­cess to good food, and not just be­cause it tastes bet­ter. ‘The food we eat,’ she says, ‘teaches us the val­ues that we live by.’ I’m ready to get on a plane to Cal­i­for­nia.

Be­low Alice Wa­ters dis­cussing her Ed­i­ble School­yard gar­den with the Prince of Wales, 2005; re­ceiv­ing the Na­tional Medal of Arts from Pres­i­dent Obama in 2015. Far right At a mar­ket in France in the 1960s, in an im­age from her mem­oir

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