Alice Waters’ 40 Year Campaign for Good Food

by Sarah Henry on October 22, 2010 · 49 comments

in bay citizen,berkeley bites,restaurant food,school food

Do readers even need an introduction to the mother of the American fresh, local, sustainable, organic food movement?

Alice Waters is a living legend. For four decades, the California cuisine innovator, Chez Panisse chef, Edible Schoolyard founder, school food reformer, and Slow Food advocate, has influenced how people in this country buy, cook, eat, talk, and think about food.

As with any icon, Waters has her fans and foes. Some see her as a visionary on the food front, a friend to farmers and children, who helped lead a revolution in restaurant dining.

In the Bay Area many chefs and food artisans began their culinary careers at Chez. (What local food industry insider hasn’t played six degrees of Chez Panisse?)

Critics lambaste the breathy dreamer as a self-righteous food elitist who is out of touch with the average U.S. consumer. She cooks eggs in her kitchen fireplace, abhors microwaves and frozen food, and suggests people spend their money on organic produce rather than brand-name shoes, all of which is met with eye rolling in certain circles.

Still others, such as New York Times writer Kim Severson, commend her for her persistence and tenacity on behalf of the American eater. Severson recounts hiding chicken nuggets from the queen of Cali cuisine in her book Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life.

Indeed, despite the naysayers, Waters has never wavered in her message. She is an unapologetic supporter of locally sourced, pesticide-, antibiotic- and hormone-free food, stewardship of the land, and healthy school meals.

The author of several cookbooks, including the recent In the Green Kitchen, Waters, 66, lives in North Berkeley within walking distance of her restaurant.

Currently in Italy for Terra Madre, the international Slow Food event, we spoke by phone after research from UC Berkeley’s Center for Weight and Health, funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation, lent academic credence to her edible experiment in Berkeley schools.

What’s the key finding from the recent school food report?

It confirms what common sense tells us and what I’ve always known to be true: Students given healthy food options at school, along with gardening and culinary curriculum, have a greater knowledge of nutrition and eat more fruits and vegetables than children who don’t.

What have you learned from Chez Panisse’s almost 40 years of success?

You should have a good time cooking or do something else. And you can’t rest on your laurels. You have to show respect for the community of people you work with and for those who eat at the restaurant.

You have to think about what you’re going to cook every single day, and you can’t come in with a preconceived idea about what’s on the menu. On a hot day maybe you make gazpacho instead of what you’d imagined you were going to cook.

Do you have a Berkeley food figure you admire?

Michael Pollan. He so elegantly and articulately takes the ideas we all hold dear and communicates them in ways that reach a wide audience and he’s helped that audience see how they can integrate these ideas into their own lives.

What’s missing in the local food landscape?

Every child from kindergarten to high school should eat school lunch for free. When you charge children for lunch the kids who need it the most won’t buy it.

The Edible Schoolyard began here more than a decade ago. Can you tell us about newer ESY-affiliated programs?

We’re working with like-minded people in different parts of the country — big, small, hot, cold, city, small town — because we feel it’s important that people see that this kind of school garden and kitchen curriculum, along with improved school food, can take place anywhere.

We have affiliated programs in New Orleans, L.A., Greensboro, and San Francisco. Last Friday we broke ground on an Edible Schoolyard site in Brooklyn, New York.

How does In the Green Kitchen differ from your other cookbooks?

I wanted to demystify cooking. So many people go to the farmers’ market and bring food home and they don’t know what to do with it. I want people to feel comfortable in the kitchen, and give them basic techniques so they can cut an onion, roast chicken, saute greens, cook pasta, and make eggs.

How do you handle the criticism that comes your way?

It was devastating in the early days, but I just don’t go there now. I’m content to take the high road and stay focused on the big picture.

What are some of your favorite places to eat in town?

I go to the same places over and over. I’m less adventurous than I used to be. I eat a lot at Chez Panisse, of course.

What I really care about is the purity of the food — where does it come from? — that’s the first question I ask before I eat somewhere.

I like ethnic food. There’s a wonderful new Japanese grill in the center of town called Ippuku. I know the people who run it. I really don’t want to tell too many people about it because I don’t want the place to get too busy.

I like Ajanta, a neighborhood Indian restaurant on Solano Avenue, because they use organic produce and serve seasonal foods on their menu.

The Cheese Board Collective is another favorite. This worker-owned and run collective, right across the street from my restaurant, sells fresh sourdough baguettes and a wonderful selection of cheeses close to home and further afield, and people spill out onto the median strip to enjoy their pizzas and the sunshine. It’s just magical.

I also frequent the stores of my friends and Chez Panisse alum in Elmwood: Mary Canales at Ici and Charlene Reis at Summer Kitchen.

What gives you hope in the growing food movement?

The next generation of eaters — those under 25. There are some extraordinarily eager and committed young people who really care about food and where it comes from. And they understand why we need to go back to basics like growing our own food and sharing a simple, home-cooked meal.

This age group really gets the importance of nourishing ourselves and the planet.

This post originally appeared on Berkeleyside and was republished on The Bay Citizen.

You might also like:

New School Food Study: Victory for Alice Waters
Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education
Book Giveaway: Spoon Fed by Kim Severson
Inside Berkeley’s School Kitchen
Inside Berkeley’s School Kitchen: Part Two
Veteran Restauranteur Dishes up Recipe to Success
Slow Food Folks Serve Fast Food with Style

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{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart October 22, 2010 at 9:20 am

I only know of one school with an onsite garden anywhere close to us. It’s an expensive private school.

My grandma was a “lunch lady” in public schools when I was a kid, and I know she did her best with what food they gave her.

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Sarah Henry October 22, 2010 at 11:48 am

Chances are, Roxanne, your grandma was serving real food, versus processed, edible food-like substances.

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MarthaAndMe October 22, 2010 at 9:21 am

Great interview! Don’t most states have reduced/free school lunch programs?

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Sarah Henry October 22, 2010 at 11:43 am

Yes, M&Me, but there’s a movement within the school lunch reform crowd to push for free school lunch for ALL.

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MP October 22, 2010 at 9:59 am

Wish I could contribute something wise to an on-going dialogue. Instead, I’ll just let you know that this was a lovely profile of a complicated, larger-than-life person. Well done!

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Sarah Henry October 22, 2010 at 11:43 am

Why thank you, MP.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi October 22, 2010 at 10:32 am

Primary schools here in New Zealand sometimes have school gardens. Seems so sensible to me.

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Sarah Henry October 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

Good to know, Melanie. And of course there’s a huge cooking & gardening movement in my homeland, started by the Aussie equivalent to Alice, Stephanie Alexander.

Details here: http://www.kitchengardenfoundation.org.au/

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Susan October 22, 2010 at 11:42 am

Wow, I’m so impressed that you interviewed THE Alice Waters! When I visited Cali with my former foodie boyfriend several years ago, we just *had* to eat at Chez Panisse. Yum!

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Sarah Henry October 22, 2010 at 11:46 am

Glad you had a good meal, S. We’re spoiled for dining choices in the Bay Area.

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steph October 22, 2010 at 12:59 pm

You know, a lot of people give Alice Waters crap, and I really don’t get. How can you be against eating better? How can you be against making changes that are better for the world as a whole? It baffles me to no end.
steph´s last [type] ..Lemon Verbena Macaron Recipe

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Sarah Henry October 22, 2010 at 3:22 pm

Well said, Steph.

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Jennifer Margulis October 22, 2010 at 1:32 pm

I agree with Steph above. We all need to champion better eating. I was at my kids’ school today and the lunch ladies were hard at work. Everything was out of a can. Everything wrapped in plastic. Nothing organic. We almost always bring lunch from home. A lot of people in my town are working hard to make a farm to school lunch program. I hope it happens. And soon. Thanks to Alice Waters for championing something so important for so long!
Jennifer Margulis´s last [type] ..Why You Should Believe in Your Book and Never Give Up- Guest Post by Alisa Bowman of Project Happily Ever After

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Sarah Henry October 22, 2010 at 3:23 pm

And thanks to you Jen for reminding someone like me, who lives in this Berkeley bubble, that there’s still a lot of work to be done on the school food front.

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Alisa Bowman October 22, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I like her cookbooks because she doesn’t just give recipes. She explains the theory behind them and she teaches you how to do it yourself.
Alisa Bowman´s last [type] ..The Art of Being Happily Married- Part 3

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Sarah Henry October 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm

Good point, Alisa. I think that’s what a lot of people like in a good cookbook.

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MyKidsEatSquid October 22, 2010 at 5:18 pm

So cool. I remember years ago, getting my copy of The Enchanted Broccoli Forrest. My brother bought it for me and he’d cook dishes for our family out of it all the time. Her dishes are so creative and fresh. That’s great you were able to talk to her–gives me goosebumps.

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Sarah Henry October 23, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Hate to break it to you, MKES, but the cookbook you reference was actually written by Mollie Katzen, whom I’ve also written about on this blog, if you’re interested in reading more about another cookbook author you admire.

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Vera Marie Badertscher October 22, 2010 at 6:35 pm

It is great to read an interview with a great icon and find out she’s just a friendly person. I agree about the people who give her crap. Whole lot of hateful envy going on, there, I think.
Vera Marie Badertscher´s last [type] ..William the Conqueror and Me in Bayeux

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Sarah Henry October 23, 2010 at 5:18 pm

There’s some of that, for sure, Vera Marie, everyone likes to know down a Tall Poppy, as we say where I come from.

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Alexandra October 23, 2010 at 5:24 am

Exciting interview! Slowly this movement is coming to Cape Cod. Hurray!
Alexandra´s last [type] ..From the Truro Dump to Ptown in One Day- Part 2

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Sarah Henry October 23, 2010 at 5:25 pm

The Slow Food movement moves slowly…sorry, Sandy, couldn’t resist that one;)

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Kerry Dexter October 23, 2010 at 11:27 am

I just got through reading In The Green Kitchen, and was thinking how I appreciated the gentle touches of humour and friendliness as well as the techniques and recipes. You bring those aspects out well in your story too, Sarah. Thank you.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..Boston and Irish- Joe Derrane

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Sarah Henry October 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm

My pleasure, Kerry, and I nice observation about Waters’ latest book.

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Mrs. Q October 23, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Great interview. Thanks!
Mrs. Q´s last [type] ..Open thread- Corporations you love

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Sarah Henry October 23, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Welcome, Mrs. Q. Have you and Alice Waters swapped school food stories yet?

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Sheryl October 24, 2010 at 4:17 pm

I really enjoyed this interview. What a privilege to interview such a huge presence in the food movement. I wonder if the day will ever come when there are free lunches for all school children; it would be very nice to see. For so many, that’s the only meal they get all day, I’m sure.

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Sarah Henry October 24, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Good point, Sheryl.

You may be interested to learn that just last week the Washington, D.C. public schools announced it will serve early dinner to some 10,000 public school kids. School-age children often have 2 — and now sometimes 3 — meals a day away from home, making the content of those meals critically important to a child’s health.

You can read the details here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/18/AR2010101806070.html

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Ruth Pennebaker October 25, 2010 at 6:57 am

Here’s the saddest story in the world. When my husband and I were in Northern California in 1989, we had dinner at Chez Panisse. I had a temporary crown on one of my molars, so couldn’t chew or eat. He told me the meal was absolutely delicious.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..Wanted- A Posterior Body Part Future Unlimited

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Sarah Henry October 25, 2010 at 4:19 pm

That is a sad story, Ruth. Sounds like torture! Why didn’t you stay home and eat soup?

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Christine @ Origami Mommy October 30, 2010 at 2:39 pm

This was such an interesting interview. I particularly enjoyed reading about the trajectory of her long career, and how some things have changed (like her feelings about criticism) while other things have remained steadfast and unwavering.
Christine @ Origami Mommy´s last [type] ..Tutorial- A dolls bike seat

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Jared Finkelstein November 2, 2010 at 8:38 am

School gardens are wonderful and can make a big difference in the schools as well as the community as a whole. We have seen it first-hand.

My company, Teich Garden Systems, designs and installs animal-resistant raised bed garden systems primarily for schools and other community organizations. We have installed hundreds around the country although on a smaller scale than the Edible Schoolyards.

We applaud what Alice Waters has done and look forward to the school garden movement continuing to grow.

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Anna, The Lemon Lady November 6, 2010 at 10:40 pm

How fun to inerview Alice Waters. You are a wise reporter, Sarah. Writing on a topic you so enjoy. I didn’t realize her career was 40+ years. Amazing. I would have thought she had touched every single life in America by now. Very inspiring and very necessary to get back to basics. Our health does depend on it!

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