The woman who taught America to eat lettuce
‘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