“We must understand the concept of flavour, of sustenance, and the sensual humanity of the table.”
Elissa Altman on Alice Waters
Atime of unapologetic excess when shoulder pads are massive, hair a three-foothigh fire hazard, and meals are served on gleaming black charger plates the size of hubcaps. I’m standing at the back of the original Dean & DeLuca in Manhattan’s SoHo, where I’m working as the cookbook department clerk. Early one morning, before the rush – the gallerist Mary Boone buying a $10 tomato, JeanMichel Basquiat trying to not fall into the chevre display – the front door blows open and a petite lady dragging a heavy, cast-iron Tuscan fireplace grill huffs and puffs her way down the aisle to where my boss and I are waiting.
“I’m just back from Tuscany,” she says in a breathless pant, “and I’ve fallen in love with it! Can you find someone to make these over here?’
“Of course, Alice,” my boss says to this woman – who schlepped this behemoth thousands of miles because she loves the pure, dramatic carnality and elemental flavour of fire-roasted foods, and wants others to enjoy it as much as she does – even if their only live flame source is a suburban fireplace. Alice wants others to experience what she did on a lifechanging trip to France in the early 1960s: that single moment when the gears click into place, when something shifts, and the sensory act of cooking and eating and breaking bread with others will never be the same again.
“Thank you,” she says, leaving the grill in at my boss’s feet. She floats down the other aisle, out the door, and is gone in a blur of muted silk crepe.
Thirty years later, Alice Waters remains in constant motion; for almost half a century she has arguably done the heavy lifting for a nation that, when the doors of her restaurant Chez Panisse opened in Berkeley, California in August 1971, was drinking jugs of Mountain Burgundy and eating aerosol cheese. That Waters’ new memoir, Coming to My Senses, is dedicated not to her family but to 1960s activist and leader of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio, runs parallel to her commitment to a clear moral issue: not only should good food – honestly grown, picked at the height of its season, prepared simply, served beautifully, eaten slowly and convivially – be available to everyone, but we must recognise and support those who produce and purvey it: farmers, fisherman, ranchers, local growers, farmers’ markets, and Community Supported Agriculture. We must understand the concept of flavour, and sustenance, and the sensual humanity of the table.
In America, which is built on supply and demand, speed, entitlement, and instant gratification, virtually nothing has been more revolutionary, challenging, or complicated, than saying: “No; there is another way.”
As Savio implored the rioting students of Berkeley in 1964, Alice has “put her body upon the gears and upon the wheels” of an odious machine. And if she has not entirely stopped it, she has certainly altered its course. In every city in America, farmers’ markets abound; organics are widely available; small vegetable gardens thrive from inner cities to suburban front lawns to the White House; the Edible Schoolyard Project, founded by Alice and the Chez Panisse Foundation in 1995 now exists in 33 countries.
The chefs who have passed through the Chez Panisse kitchen include Deborah Madison, the late Judy Rodgers, David Tanis, Paul Bertolli, Joyce Goldstein, Jeremiah Tower, Jonathan Waxman, Mark Miller,
Cal Peternell, Suzanne Goin, Steve Sullivan, and Russell Moore – and two Cook contributors, Claire Ptak and Samin Nosrat. All have gone on to write seminal cookbooks, open landmark restaurants and bakeries, and put their own mark on an ethos that has forever changed the way we think about food and the table.
I never bought one of Alice’s Tuscan grills; I had no fireplace. What I did have was a small kitchen where I often cooked for my friends, hopelessly scouring the city for Meyer lemons because Alice said I should. After she left Dean & DeLuca that day, my boss gave me a stack of books: Elizabeth David’s A Book of Mediterranean Food, Richard Olney’s The French Menu Cookbook, Jane Grigson’s Good Things. “If you love Alice,” he said, “you’ll want to read these.”
While having dinner at Chez Panisse this past summer – 30 years after my first encounter with her – I ordered a peach for dessert, served with nothing but a knife. Picked at the perfect moment, its flavour was explosive and almost lewdly mouth-filling, and its juices dribbled down my chin.