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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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