On the Chez Panisse founder
Like most people, I had no idea what I was going to do after I graduated. I was waitressing, and doing the Alice’s Restaurant column with my artist friend David Goines. I had my fantasy of a little French bistro, but it never felt like a real way to support myself. I was also finding out more about Montessori teaching. My sister Ellen’s friend Barb Carlitz was a Montessori teacher, and I was fascinated by the philosophy. I could never learn in the abstract, and Montessori was all about learning by doing. It felt like a reform movement, a hopeful way to enact change.
I started interning at a Montessori school down the block from me on Francisco Street, and after about a year, I applied to the international Montessori training school in London, for a nine-month certification program. It was a big decision to go to London in October 1968, but I made the leap.
The work wasn’t hard, but it was detailed and time-consuming. We had to learn puzzles and make scrapbooks. Montessori was also about handwriting, and I had a leg up in that department already, because David had been teaching me calligraphy. Writing longhand takes time – as Maria Montessori said, the hand is the instrument of the mind. You have to practice endlessly to get it right. I would do As over and over again, working on lined paper so I’d get the right proportions each time. I think the way you write to someone tells them how much you care about them.
When all the senses are educated and empowered, Maria Montessori said, every child discovers something he or she can do that’s amazing. They each have something incredible to contribute. I’ve thought of that in the restaurant every day since it opened – that someone who’s not good here might be really good there. He or she just hasn’t found the right calling yet.
Making things look and feel beautiful is important to Montessori pedagogy. The idea is to make the classroom so inviting that the kids come into it and immediately want to explore. In the same way later on, I wanted Chez Panisse to be enticing to people from the moment they walked through the front door – I wanted to awaken all their senses.
When we built the Edible Schoolyard kitchen in 1995 at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School in Berkeley, we made very conscious choices about everything we put in the room – just as Maria Montessori had, and just as Martine and Aunt Ina had done with their homes. We were given a low-slung, charmless portable building to work with, so we started by taking out all of the partitions to make one large room with as much natural light as possible. And then we got artists involved in the design.
We made sure there were always flowers on the tables, and that all the knives and kitchen tools were laid out neatly, the vegetables and fruits of the moment arranged at the entrance. When the kids walked into the room, they knew that something special had been done for them. You don’t have to say a word – they just know it instantly, and they know they’re loved. In fact, the students would often come back later just to do their homework or play the old piano that we put in a corner. Beauty is the language of care.
Back to when I was training, when I first arrived in Hampstead, I walked through the neighbourhood looking for a place to stay. I saw a lovely old brick house that had a turret and a plaque by the door that said: Mrs Wanda’s House for Girls. I knocked and asked the woman if she had any rooms to let. I was crushed when she said: no, it was full.
“I’d love to live up there in that turret,” I told her.
“I don’t want to rent that out because it doesn’t have any heating,” she said. But I told her it didn’t matter, so she showed it to me and I rented it for something like seven pounds a week. It had a minuscule bedroom, a little sitting room, and the tiniest kitchen you’ve ever seen. I could just barely stand in it. It had a small enamelled front stove – just two burners and a broiler, with no proper oven at all – and a sink.
I’d often have little dinner parties, lots of French cooking, usually from Elizabeth David’s books – I steamed mussels, and I actually managed to make some half-decent tarts. It was very cold all that winter, and you had to bring the coin-operated electric space heater everywhere you went. I’d stand so close to it, that one night the whole back of my nightgown, a polyester thing, went up in flames. All of a sudden it just burned up and disappeared – one second it was there, and the next it wasn’t. That could have been the end of Mrs Wanda’s turret.
I never imagined I’d meet Elizabeth David, but she did come to Chez Panisse much later, with the writer Gerald Asher. They were on their way to Yosemite, so I volunteered to assemble a picnic basket for their lunch. I went to my favourite antique shop and bought Early American glasses and dishes I knew she would appreciate: two ancient wineglasses, vintage linens and a patchwork quilt for the two of them to sit on. I spent way too much money, and it was heavy – especially with two bottles of wine! They had thought they were getting a bagged lunch, and this picnic basket was gigantic. But they loved it, and she took all the glasses and linens back to England.
▲ Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters (Hardie Grant) is available now