Still Wa­ters

On the Chez Panisse founder

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Alice Wa­ters is a chef, au­thor, food ac­tivist and the founder and owner of Chez Panisse Res­tau­rant in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia; chez­

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

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