Food & Drink

Pioneering chef Alice Waters on Chez Panisse and the future of food

For decades, California’s small farmers, fishers and purveyors of artisanal foods have had no better champion than Alice Waters, the much-honored chef, restaurateur, food activist and cookbook author who opened her legendary Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley in 1971. It’s generally agreed that she has redefined our approach to what we eat, where we source it and how we cook it. Fittingly, she is widely known as “the mother of American food.”

Through Chez Panisse, Waters, 70, helped pioneer a cooking style (California cuisine) that became a food movement. Her passion for seasonal and sustainable ingredients, dedication to local sourcing, entreatment for ecologically sound farming, and insistence on cooking with only the finest ingredients have influenced the nation’s community of chefs and reinvigorated the ages-old farm-to-table template.

Waters will be in town Tuesday to give a presentation at the Community Center Theater for the Sacramento Speakers Series.

Born in Chatham Borough, N.J., Waters graduated from UC Berkeley in 1967 with a reputation for political activism and a degree in French cultural studies. After traveling and living abroad, she returned to Berkeley and, with “a group of idealistic friends,” co-opened the French bistro-style Chez Panisse. Her father helped by mortgaging his house. The name “Chez Panisse” is film aficionado Waters’ homage to Honoré Panisse, a character in a 1930s French film trilogy.

The bistro lost money its first eight years, but then word-of-mouth caused a landslide. To touch the surface: Chez Panisse was named among the best 50 restaurants in the world by Restaurant magazine from 2002 through 2008, and held a Michelin star from 2006 through 2009. The James Beard Foundation gave its Best Chef in America award to Waters in 1992, the first woman to win it. She holds lifetime achievement awards from Bon Appétit magazine and the S. Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants association. Waters is in the California Hall of Fame, holds a French Legion of Honor award and is vice president of Slow Foods International.

Earlier this year, Time magazine included her in its list of 100 Most Influential People. Former Gourmet editor and novelist (“Delicious!”) Ruth Reichl wrote the tribute, which began, “Alice Waters is generally described as a chef. This is wrong. Alice Waters is a revolutionary who wants to change the world through food.”

In March 2013, a fire damaged the front porch of Chez Panisse, a two-story Craftsman-style wood building, causing $200,000 in damage; repairs took several months. At the time, Waters was quoted, “Whenever there is fire, new things sprout up, like in the forest.”

The Cafe at Chez Panisse opened in 1980 above the formal restaurant, and serves as a casual alternative. In 1984, Waters and a business partner opened the breakfast spot Cafe Fanny in Berkeley, which closed in 2012.

Waters’ social consciousness and Montessori affiliation led her to establish the Edible Schoolyard Project in 1996, in collaboration with Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. It teaches “essential life skills” by involving students in organic gardening and in a kitchen-classroom setting. Sacramento Charter High School models its Edible Sac High program after it.

The Bee caught up with Waters on a recent morning by phone at her home in Berkeley.

What does a world-famous chef have for breakfast?

What I have every morning – a cup of fermented Chinese tea and whole-wheat flatbread spread with hummus and a few spices.

Chez Panisse is iconic. How did it happen?

I’d gone to France when I was 19 and when I came home I wanted to live like the French in every way. I was teaching at a Montessori school and started cooking dinners for all my friends. I loved cooking more than teaching, so I decided to open a restaurant (with some friends) so they could have a place to eat and I could do what I love to do. It was as naively and simply thought out as that.

What was it like at first?

It was absolutely a lot of fun, but intense. We’d never cooked for numbers of people like that. I was very intimidated, but I knew the feeling I wanted. I even wrote the menus myself in French. A (prix fixe) dinner was $3.95, but moved very quickly to $4.50 (it’s $80 to $100 now).

What was on the opening-night menu?

Pâté en croûte served cold with cornichons (small gherkin pickles), duck with olives and almond tart. We were lucky to get any food to the tables that first night. Now we have a staff of 115.

How hands-on are you now?

I think of myself as a collaborator with the main people who run the kitchen. I’m either eating and giving them feedback, or sharing things I’ve seen on my travels that they may not have thought of. I’m often in the kitchen when I’m in town, but I’m not at all creating the menus. I am very close with the person who plans the menus, though. I read them every week and we talk about them.

Shockingly, you lost your Michelin star.

I’m not sure why it was withdrawn. I suspect it had to do with our not having restrooms that were palatial. For me, where food comes from is more important than anything else.

You and a handful of other chefs are credited with “inventing” California cuisine. Is there really such a thing?

It’s what’s been around since the beginning of civilization, really: Eat what’s local and in season and cook it simply. (California cuisine) has that, but it also has to do with the things that are associated with cooking in California, what’s possible because of the weather, and the facts that we’re next to the sea and we have vegetables up and down the Central Valley.

But Chez Panisse went beyond that.

I was in that French place of, “You have to shop twice a day to get things really fresh.” I was influenced by the “back to the land” and the “grow your own” movements of the 1960s, but I wanted food to taste like it did in France. That ultimately led us to the farms and ranches and fishermen. It became my mission to talk about sustainable, because I fell in love with the farmers.

How does that interface with Sacramento as the nation’s self-proclaimed Farm-to-Fork Capital?

Perfectly. Some of the oldest and dearest farms we have connections with are in the Sacramento area. Full Belly Farm was a pioneer, for instance. And I’ve watched the growth of Sacramento’s restaurants and think something extraordinary is happening.

You’ve said, “The act of eating is very political.” Please explain.

I have always believed (gastronome Jean) Brillat-Savarin’s declaration that we are what we eat, but I didn’t understand it until about five years ago. When we eat fast food, we don’t just eat fast food that may be hazardous to our health. We eat the values of fast, cheap and easy that come along with that food, and we become like that.

We become a non-voting sort of person living to earn and spend as much money as we can, to leave the politics of the world to someone else because we’re busy in our own little private world. It’s a jail of fast-food culture (in which) we are not having real relationships or connecting to nature or any meaningful rhythm of life. We have to come back to our senses, to our basic connection to nature – and that is putting our hands in the soil and feeding ourselves.

When you walk into a restaurant for the first time, how do you size it up?

First, how does it smell? Then I want a kind of warmth, either from the people or by the look of the room or both. (The restaurant) can come in any kind of packaging as long as it’s authentic. … I want things that are of the moment (such as) tomatoes prepared in the heat of summer and used as a sauce on pasta.

What are your go-to restaurants?

The children of Chez Panisse are very important to me, so I go to restaurants that are owned by friends (who are former Chez Panisse cooks). The Zuni Café (in San Francisco) has always been a home away from home (the late Judy Rodgers was its chef). Places like Charlie Hallowell’s Pizzaiolo and (Russell Moore’s) Camino (both in Oakland).

What about wine?

I have a very good friend in France who owns a winery, Domaine Tempier, and I drink its Bandol rosé until it’s all gone in the spring.

Do you have a favorite snack?

I have a salty palate, but I draw the line. I don’t have such an addiction that I would eat potato chips that aren’t organic.

Home cooks would love a piece of advice.

Support the farmers who are taking care of the land, so go to farmers markets, buy real food and eat with intention.

Any parting thoughts?

Public education should be our No. 1 priority. We need to lift up the teachers and the farmers as the most valuable people in this country.