Alice Waters

America's high priestess of chow has shown a nation raised on meatloaf that fresh, nourishing food, organically grown and simply prepared, ranks right up there next to godliness.


It’s impossible to fathom, but there was a time when fine, upstanding gourmets didn’t find words like “free-range” and “organic” on their dinner menus; a time when Americans thought frisee was a ballet position and mesclun a hallucinogen. But that was before Alice Waters had her way with our palates. Not only would the founder of Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse restaurant single-handedly change what we ate. She would alter how we thought, how we “felt,” about our food.

If Waters weren’t so passionate about the healing life force teaming inside natural foods organically grown and simply prepared, she would never have managed to communicate her message to a nation of people raised on canned peas and meatloaf. For we have Waters to thank for those sublime baby greens — the kind you see in profusion at even the most commercial chain supermarkets — that mercifully replaced iceberg lettuce.

And iceberg’s demise is just the tip of Waters’ contribution to our culinary evolution. We also owe Waters thanks for introducing our taste buds to simple pleasures, saying no to the overwrought cuisine that dominated “gourmet” dining for decades and abolishing the pretension that masked the elegant essence of unadorned, nourishing fare. As San Francisco food critic Patricia Unterman noted, “Julia [Child] set the stage for the culinary boom in America by teaching people how to cook, and then Alice Waters took everyone to the next step by teaching about ingredients.” We are in Waters’ debt for teaching us how to eat a peach, how to savor every bite. And to America’s small, organic farmers, she is, as the New York Times dubbed her, “a patron saint” who has shown chefs and diners alike that unprocessed, unadulterated, chemical-free food ranks somewhere up there next to godliness.

Among foodies — critics, gourmands, colleagues, farmers — Waters is the top of the food chain, an innovator whom the New York Times dubbed the “Mother of American Cooking.” Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker called her the “Materfamilias to a generation of chefs.” And not only American chefs. Waters’ aesthetic has had a dramatic impact on European cuisine as well, most notably in France (not a country that has taken kindly to America’s sense of taste) where, Gopnik writes, the legendary winegrower Aubert de Villaine, co-director of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, the greatest wine estate in France, “speaks of her in hushed tones.”

Indeed, she is regarded as a sort of high priestess — a spiritual leader who showed the way to serve and eat locally grown food in season. Yet for all the fanfare, Waters is a most unusual flavor of celebrity chef. Though she’s had an abundance of offers over the years, she has never marketed herself or franchised her restaurant. Neither has she starred in a nationally syndicated cooking show or hawked a line of frozen pizza or BBQ sauce. Her only commercial endeavors include a line of cookbooks and Cafe Fanny Granola. Compared with the likes of Julia Child, Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse, Waters is a culinary wallflower.

Included in Waters’ family tree — those who’ve worked under her charge — are such renowned chefs as Paul Bertolli, founder of Oakland’s Oliveto Cafe and Restaurant and co-author of several Chez Panisse cookbooks; Mark Miller of Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe; Deborah Madison, founding chef of San Francisco’s upscale vegetarian restaurant Greens; Jonathan Waxman, co-proprietor of New York’s Jams; and Jeremiah Tower, former proprietor of Stars, one of San Francisco’s trendiest restaurants in the ’80s. Gourmets worldwide make pilgrimages to her flagship restaurant Chez Panisse and the restaurant’s less formal upstairs cafe — both named for French author Marcel Pagnol’s Provengal hero Panisse — as well as to Cafe Fanny (named after her teenage daughter, who was named after another Pagnol character), a diminutive, Parisian-style cafe located a few miles away. Chez Panisse is at the heart of the “gourmet ghetto” of specialty food shops that have sprung up around it in the past 30 years.

President Clinton has dined at Chez Panisse, and Waters has been the chef at several Bay Area dinner parties given in his honor. And Martha Stewart makes a point of stopping at the restaurant when she’s in the Bay Area. Waters’ five cookbooks, most notably “The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook” and “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” are classics. Her cornucopia of food awards includes being ranked one of the world’s 10 best chefs by the prestigious Cuisine et Vins du France magazine and receiving, in 1992, the James Beard Foundation’s award for the Best Restaurant and Best Chef in America. Most recently, she’s been invited by the French to open a restaurant at the Louvre, a project that, if realized, will be completed in the next decade.

What’s so remarkable about Alice Waters is that ever since she began her mission more than 25 years ago, she has been at the helm of a revolution. What Waters has in mind is social change on a grand scale. She says that once we return to the land — spurning homogenized, mass-marketed artificial foods that deaden our spirits, separating us from our essential selves — we will return to one another. She believes that sitting down together for a family meal is the best way to instill family values.

Waters is committed to the idea that if we take the time and care to put nourishing food on our plate, we will in turn renew our communities, our world and ourselves. Eat junk, and you demean yourself and destroy the environment. Eat natural, organic ingredients grown nearby and produced in season, and you will improve yourself, the community and the world.

Alice Louise Waters was born April 28, 1944, in Chatham, N.J. She came of age in the tumultuous late ’60s in Berkeley, graduating from the University of California in 1967 with a degree in French cultural studies. During her college years, she was involved with local politics, working for the congressional campaign of journalist Robert Scheer, who to her great dismay was defeated. Still, Waters was committed to doing good. While so many of her compatriots seem to have long ago abandoned their mission, Waters has maintained a crusader’s energy, intent on changing the world, one fava bean at a time.

At age 19 Waters had spent a year traveling in France. “I lived at the bottom of a market street, and I took everything in by osmosis,” she once told the New York Times. “This was my first connection with farmers’ markets and real food. I loved what I ate and I wanted that kind of food here.” What she came to realize was that “the best-tasting food came from the people who were taking care of the land and nourishing it. These were the organic farmers.”

When Waters returned to the United States, she got a job teaching. At night, she would cook for friends. “Chez Panisse began as an offshoot of dinner parties,” says David Goines, who has known Waters since 1966 and designed and illustrated “The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook” and “The Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook.” “Alice wanted to have her friends to dinner every night. The only way to do that was to open a restaurant.” In 1971, Waters took out a $10,000 loan — her father mortgaged his house — and with her friend Lindsey Shere opened a Provence-style bistro in an old wooden house on Shattuck Street, not far from the Berkeley campus.

Goines says that her idea “was to cook foods quite different from the preeminent style” — in other words, haute cuisine. “The food began with very much a French country overtone, simple and uncomplicated. You served a fresh fish and left it alone. You didn’t tart it up with all sorts of sauces. This basic philosophy matured over the years into Alice’s search for fresh, pure ingredients.”

The people who cooked and supped at Chez Panisse during those early days resembled a cabal trying to reinvent the world, not capitalists hoping to launch a posh restaurant. Back then, “There was a joyful abandon in creating a completely inedible meal,” says Goines. “There were several memorable disasters. That was part of the experimentation.”

But the restaurant didn’t make money. For years Chez Panisse lost a small fortune. The truth is, it costs dearly to make a perfect, simple salad. Eventually, Chez Panisse grew up, becoming more of a business and less of a playhouse. And in the process it also became a shrine to new American cooking. Waters’ recipe for success was never a closely guarded secret. Her cuisine has always been basic and down-to-earth, just the sort of Mediterranean cooking Pagnol himself would have loved.

But newcomers to the restaurant can feel shortchanged by its apparent simplicity. If you’re looking for sculptured “art” food, well, don’t go to Alice’s restaurant. Dinner is disarmingly plain, nothing more elaborate than a small watercress and beet salad; a bowl of vegetable broth; grilled fish; and for dessert, a single pear sitting on a plate. And every morsel, perfection.

What does such an effete aesthetic possibly have to do with Waters’ call to arms? Chez Panisse is among America’s best restaurants and is priced accordingly. The five-course, prix fixe dinner costs up to $68 a person. Critics claim that Waters is nothing more than an armchair liberal espousing idealistic notions, meanwhile entertaining the wealthy and privileged. Goines insists that from the beginning, Waters has never aspired — unlike some of her hippie-turned-millionaire brethren — to make a killing off a good idea.

“Alice’s vision is extremely clear,” he says. “She’s not concerned with the restaurant. She’s concerned with good food. If you were to light a fire and burn the restaurant down, she’d keep going. She’s on a mission.”

Waters would argue that indulging in delicious food is not separate from doing good works. The two acts are inexorably intertwined. “The sensual pleasure of eating beautiful food from the garden,” she told the New Yorker, “brings with it the moral satisfaction of doing the right thing for the planet and for yourself.” Chez Panisse is not there to feed the masses. The restaurant is a model for others to aspire to.

In one of several letters to President Clinton, Waters calls on him to publicly address the need to abolish the unhealthy way we grow our food and feed ourselves, to “invigorate public dialogue by turning our attention to how food must be at the center of our lives.”

Why does she feel such a goal is so essential to our country’s future? “Communities are brought together when people care about what they eat,” says Waters. “I continue to believe that the very best way to bring people together is by changing the role food plays in our national life.”

But what about those who can barely get by on food stamps? In response she writes, “Often somebody will complain that it is all very well for me — the owner of an expensive restaurant with a sophisticated clientele located in a mild climate — to prescribe this kind of eating, but for most Americans it is a luxury that is all but out of reach.”

Not so, says Waters. “Fresh, nourishing food need never again be stigmatized as elitist. Wholesome, honest food must be the entitlement of all Americans, not just the rich.” (One is tempted to pause and wonder how much the president, unrepentant Big Mac lover, took to heart Waters’ notion that a reformed America is a junk-food-free America.)

However noble and well-intentioned, Waters’ dream will be a difficult one to realize. She may have changed the way the Brahmins eat, but how do you introduce such rarefied fare to a populace that can buy a Whopper at Burger King for a fraction of the price of a Chez Panisse appetizer? It’s expensive to produce and buy organic, seasonal, farm-fresh food. Which explains why even today Chez Panisse reportedly earns little profit. The ingredients — whenever possible, organic produce and free-range and chemical-free meats — are costly, and the preparation she demands is time-consuming. She lives her own life with as little pretension and as much simplicity as she demands of her food. She doesn’t live grandly. With her daughter, Fanny, and husband, Stephen Singer, a wine and olive oil merchant and painter, Waters lives in an unassuming, slightly ramshackle Berkeley house close to the restaurant. This is in keeping with her broader effort to reach a social utopia. Live, work and eat locally. Stay committed to your community; nourish it and in return it will nourish you.

And if you don’t have what you need in your own community, create it. When Waters opened Chez Panisse, she couldn’t find the kind of food that was so readily available during her idyllic days strolling through the French farmers’ markets. So she established relationships with local farmers and ranchers, encouraging them to grow healthy foods. Where most high-end restaurants have purchasing agents, Waters hired a full-time “forager” to find suppliers who produce quality, ideally organic, ingredients. “Unfortunately,” Waters said in an interview with Online Chef, “it took a long time to develop a local farming system to produce and support fresh, local ingredients.”

But what revolution happens overnight? It takes years for awareness to grow, but eventually that awareness spirals outward. Through the basic principle of supply and demand, everything from pesticide-free corn and berries to steroid-free chicken and beef have become more readily available. Waters’ relentless demand for local ingredients and her allegiance to healthy, organic food has nourished a national trend that encourages community-supported, sustainable agriculture. In the end, Waters has proven herself correct. “The act of eating is very political,” she says. “You buy from the right people, you support the right network of farmers and suppliers who care about the land and what they put in the food. If we don’t preserve the natural resources, you aren’t going to have a sustainable society.”

At least in Berkeley and on the farms and ranches of the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area, Waters has helped create the sustainable society she envisioned. She buys from 75 different vendors. This tight society of food growers and merchants know one another and depend on one another to live. To drive home her commitment to the local farmers, in 1996 — to commemorate Chez Panisse’s 25th anniversary — Waters started the Chez Panisse Foundation. To date, the organization has donated a quarter of a million dollars to nonprofit organizations that promote sustainable agriculture.

In 1990, Waters learned of the Garden Project at the San Francisco County Jail. The program, spearheaded by Catherine Sneed, served as job-training outreach, giving inmates an education in organic gardening and providing them with a place to work when they’re released. After seeing how dramatically the inmates changed their way of thinking after they got involved, Waters joined the project’s board and participates in its planning and development. For almost a decade, Chez Panisse has been one of the Garden Project’s most committed customers.

The county jail’s Garden Project inspired Waters’ own project: the Edible Schoolyard at Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Middle School. The cafeteria at the local middle school had long been shut down, only to be replaced by a “snack shack” that served packaged hamburgers, burritos and pizza. Waters proposed a curriculum to the school’s staff that allowed the students to plant and harvest their own food, then cook, serve and eat it for lunch. At the beginning, the notion seemed too idealistic, a far-fetched plan that would never be realized. Would junior high students who didn’t know from an heirloom tomato scoff at the notion of eating a lunch made from food they raised in their own organic garden? Today the half acre, formerly buried in weeds and cracked asphalt, is a flourishing vegetable and fruit garden.

This is only the beginning of Waters’ dream. She’s hoping that the Martin Luther King Middle School will inspire other schools nationwide. In Waters’ utopia, all children will be reaping the seeds they sow. We will all sit down and break the bread we’ve made together — stopping long enough to realize what we have before us, and what we’ve been missing.

Leslie Crawford is a San Francisco writer.

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