The Chef Apprentice

Join a self-taught cook as he trains at a top restaurant

Craig and Alice.jpgAlong with local farmers and foodies of all stripes, I spent part of an afternoon Tuesday in a Yolo County walnut grove with Alice Waters, the chef of Chez Panisse.

It was an emotional gathering for Waters and many in the crowd. More than three decades ago, Waters' drive to supply her Berkeley restaurant with fresh, local produce led her to Yolo County and other counties that ring the Bay Area. There she encouraged the growth of organic agriculture and, in turn, farmers influenced the foods that she served.

"She was the wild woman who drove around in her truck, looking for vegetables," recalls Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm, an organic operation in the Capay Valley. "No one knew anything about her."

Now nearly everyone knows about Alice. In her own headstrong and serendipitous way, she's become an icon for the local food movement. Her recent book, Edible Schoolyard, chronicles her efforts to drive out junk food from the public schools of Berkeley, and replace it with fare that is "delicious," as she puts it, and is partly grown and prepared by the students themselves.

On Wednesday, Waters seemed more interested in paying homage to Yolo farmers and young people than in promoting her book or her causes, including a successful effort to bring a vegetable garden to the grounds of the White House.

"I cheerlead anyone who comes out in the heat and works in these fields," Waters said. "They are heroes. I am just so touched by the new population of young people who want to go into farming...They are reinventing farming."

Waters was in our neck of the woods Tuesday for a fundraiser to benefit the Center for Land-Based Learning, a non-profit started by Craig and Julie McNamara that seeks to interest young people with careers in agriculture. The event was held at the Farm at Putah Creek, a walnut grove near Winters that the McNamaras have dedicated to the center's educational activities.

I attended partly to meet farmers like Muller who supply Oliveto, the restaurant where I work as an intern. I also wanted to hear from Waters and meet Craig McNamara, who, as an agriculture leader and son of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, is an intriguing figure.

After growing up in a high-profile Washington household, Craig earned a degree and U.C. Davis and then purchased a walnut farm nearly 30 years ago. (His unlikely transition to farming is recounted here in an interesting profile by Cosmo Garvin of the Sacramento News & Review.)

During their talk on Tuesday, Waters and McNamara discussed the challenges of connecting young people with the sources of their food.

"Our fellow Americans spend 95 percent of their time in houses, cars, malls and office buildings," McNamara said. "We are truly becoming an indoor species."

At the same time, fewer young people are following their parents into farming. As of 1997, the average age of farmers in the United States was 55 and the current figures, says McNamura, is now closer to his own age, 59.

Yet even with the distractions if I-pods, cell phones, computer games and other electronica, a large number of young people are curious about goes on in farms, and how they can enrich their lives (and meals) by making that connection.

Alice sitting.jpg"This is an idea that has been around since the beginning of time," said Waters. "We gather together and eat together and teach our children how to cook. We buy food from farms that nearby. We store the food for the winter months...We have gotten so far away from that now that it sounds revolutionary."

When Waters started Chez Panisse in 1971, she wasn't setting out to be a food activist, she said.

"I was never looking for organic farmers, I was never thinking about big picture sustainability. When I opened up Chez Panisse, I was only thinking about taste. And in doing that, I ended up at the doorstep of many of you."

Waters credits her father, Charles Allen "Pat" Waters, for making inroads into Bay Area farms. Pat approached various counties and asked for a list of all organic farms within one hour of Chez Panisse, she said. Ten farms made the cut, and then the restaurant forged a relationship with Bob Cannard, who continues to farm (and supply restaurants) from his property outside of Petaluma.

"Many things went wrong," said Waters. "There were little leaks, and dirty leaks and not enough leaks."

But slowly, Chez Panisse and restaurants that followed (included Oliveto) helped create a base of small-scale farms that have grown and flourished.

As Laura Shapiro noted in a May 6 column in Gourmet, Waters has come under recent assault as the economy has soured. Bloggers and chefs have attacked her for being an elitist and a culinary cop. Anthony Bourdain called her the "Khmer Rouge" of the food world.

During her talk with McNamara, Waters didn't respond to her critics, nor was she asked about them. But with her voice cracking at times, she seemed a bit emotionally spent as she talked about how her life has spun off in unexpected directions.

Currently she is on a tour promoting an upcoming film documentary, "Food Inc.," an expose of the food industry co-produced by Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation."

Here was her answer when McNamara asked what is the most challenging aspect of her current life:

"People think that cooking is hard work. It has never been that way for me," she replied. "Theoretically, the challenge is making money while doing the work that you really love. But I always thought that we were successful because that was not my primary goal. We used really good tasting food and we didn't care how much it cost...."

"But I don't think of that as something challenging...For me, the difficulty I am having is responding effectively to all the people who want to learn this. That is the difficult thing. The challenge is to figure out how I can live a slow food life, instead of a fast food life. Right now I am just running around."

And therein lies the irony. Alice Waters, crusader for a slow food life, can't seem to get in that groove.

Photos by Stuart Leavenworth
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About The Chef Apprentice

Stuart Leavenworth, an editorial writer for The Bee, will spend the next several months in the kitchen at Oliveto, a highly rated Italian restaurant in the Bay Area. As an apprentice, Stuart will start as a prep chef, preparing vegetables, soups, sauces and pasta fillings. Then he'll move on to more challenging assignments. He welcomes your questions. Read his first installment here. Email him at sleavenworth@sacbee.com.

March 2010

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