American restauranteur, Slow Food advocate, and a pioneer of the style of cooking of the late 20th century that come to be known as California Cuisine.
In terms of American chefs, Alice Waters has probably had more influence on what America eats* than anyone since Julia Child (The PBS series American Masters selected Waters as their only chef to appear on that show).
But unless you’re a foodie, or a chef yourself, you’ve probably never heard of her.
She’s not going to appear on Iron Chef, nor does she have her own cooking show. You won’t see her name on a line of frozen entrées, or franchise dining experiences (She does own 3 restaurants, but they are all in the same town). She does have 5 cookbooks available, but they capitalize on the name of her restaturant, Chez Panisse.
Since 1971, Waters, through her restaurant Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, has built her career and her reputation on the idea that great meals starts with great ingredients, and require little or no intervention by the chef. She wanted to re-create the experience of the meals she had experienced as a student in France, buying fresh food at outdoor farmer’s markets.
A little bit of time shopping in farmers markets will save time in the cooking. If you buy ripe tomatoes, all you have to do is slice them. You don't have to add salt and sugar, all that stuff that you do to doctor things up that don't taste very good in the first place.
For Waters, that means vegetables served in season. It means organic or heirloom varieties from small farms, not agribusinesses. Waters is the first to admit that she didn't invent this style of cooking. She credits the influence of traditional Mediterranean cooking, with its use of olive oil (as opposed to heavy sauces) and emphasizes vegetables and grains. (When California chefs combined this style with Asian and Mexican ingredients and flavors, "California Cuisine" was born).
Waters had one problem with her vision: traditional restaurant suppliers couldn’t help her. And in 1973, urban farmer’s markets were rare. So, she called around, and built her own supply network of local small farmers, ranchers, and cheesemakers. Chez Panisse was one of the first restaurants to have its own "forager," someone who locates and contracts with artisan and organic farmers. The restaurant prides itself in these agricultural relationships, and the menu actually list the farms along with the ingredients of each dish (e.g. served with Chino Ranch Turnip or James Ranch Leg of Lamb).
When she started out, the restaurant world did not take her seriously. Visiting chefs, attracted by local word of mouth, dismissed her vision: "That’s not cooking, that’s shopping," they would say. (After all, aren't chefs supposed to transform food? If the food is already great before you touch it... what's the point of being a chef?) But locals kept coming back. The restaurant became an anchor for the neighborhood, and North Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley became known as the "Gourmet Ghetto
" (Other Berkeley culinary
institutions such as The Cheese Board Collective
and the original Peet’s Coffee
were already a stone’s throw from Chez Panisse). It would take nearly 20 years before her work became not only established, but celebrated nationally: in 1992, she would win the James Beard Foundation
’s Outstanding Chef Award and Outstanding Restaurant of the Year.
With its intimate connection to its suppliers, Waters's restaurant, like herself, see eating not only as an agricultural act, but a political one. She says: "We see farming, foraging, cooking, and table service as an unbroken sequence, like food and wine, accommodation and nourishment. Remaining aware of the garden and the farm while at the table, we cannot ignore threats to either end of the sequence."
Waters also sees mealtimes as central to the human experience, and has become a champion and reformer when it comes to reclaiming mealtime as a meaningful gathering: both for the sensual pleasure of eating food, but also for social interaction (This combination of a call for a re-humanizing of food from both the agricultural and social ends has become a global movement, but Slow Food as a meme has been slow to take hold in a fast food culture). And her crusade goes beyond her cookbooks and restaurants.
Once, while visiting the local middle school in Berkeley, she was dismayed to find the cafeteria closed, school lunches provided by a local fast food chain, with many children opting to eat out of snack vending machines to avoid the long lines. With the support of the principal and teachers, within two years the school had a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom. Students learn how to grow, harvest, and prepare meals. Students whose preferred culinary experience was a burrito from Taco Bell were now growing their own beans and making their own salsa. (By year seven, the garden was producing enough to give all four hundred children at the school a hot breakfast during test weeks). The James Beard foundation awarded her the Humanitarian of the Year in 1997 for this work. "The Edible Schoolyard" project is designed as a educational model to be disseminated and replicated elsewhere.
Waters operates three restaurants: the original Chez Panisse (which has fixed price dinners and only two seatings a night), the Chez Panisse Café (upstairs in the same building, what started as an a la carte menu now accepts reservations a month in advance), and Café Fanny (take out breakfast and lunch).
What Alice Waters has taught us is to be interested not just in food but in the history of food: Where does it come from ? Who grew it? How was it grown? What happened to it on the way form the ground to the kitchen? What then happens to it in her kitchen is understood both as cooking and as appreciation of all that has happened before. This makes a difference. At Chez Panisse, the difference is tastable."
* Of course, "America" dearly loves its fast food, coffee shop
s, and diner
s, where dear Alice’s influence is nil
. But perhaps you’ve noticed the disappearance of heavy, cream based sauces on entree
s—if it was the medical profession that campaigned against saturated fat
in the 1970s and 1980s it was Waters that chefs turned to in their quest for a lighter alternative. If the steakhouse
you frequent credits the ranch where the beef came from, that’s her influence. And this, which may be a local phenomenon, with its epicenter
in Berkeley, and concentric rings of influence spreading outward: iceberg lettuce
has disappeared from salad plates, to be replaced by mixed organic greens
--which are also available in every supermarket
in the San Francisco Bay Area; it helps that 30 years of Chez Panisse kitchen staff have started their own restaurants with what they've learned). Our collective palate
has changed… and it’s because of Alice.
Anne Bain. "Interview with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse." OnlineChef. <http://www.onlinechef.com/chez.html> (14 April 2003)
Leslie Crawford. "Salon Brilliant Careers: Alice Waters." Salon.com. 13 November 1999. < http://www.salon.com/people/bc/1999/11/16/waters/> (14 April 2003)
Ken Kelley. "Alice Waters." Mother Jones. January 1995. <http://www.motherjones.com/mother_jones/JF95/kelley.html> (14 April 2003)
"Chef Alice Waters's Interview with StarChefs." StarChefs. <http://starchefs.com/AWaters/html/interview.shtml> (14 April 2003)
"About Alice Waters." Chez Panisse Web Site. <http://www.chezpanisse.com/alice.html> (14 April 2003)
Ruth Reichl. "Alice Waters." Excerpted from American Greats. (Wilson & Marcus, Perseus Books Group, 2000) American Masters Web Site. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/database/waters_a.html> (19 April 2003)
"Nurturing Connections with Farmers: An Interview with Alice Waters." Seasonal Chef. 1997. <http://www.seasonalchef.com/waters.htm> (14 April 2003)
Charles Shere, et al. "Our Commitment to Sustainability." Chez Panisse Web Site. <http://www.chezpanisse.com/commit.html> (14 April 2003)
Alice Waters. Chez Panisse Vegetables. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Alice Waters. "The Garden, the Table, and Educational Equality."A Garden in Every School: A Conference Promoting the Integration of Garden-Based Education, Cooking and Nutrition, and Sustainable Agriculture Awareness in Schools. 14 March 1997. <http://www.edibleschoolyard.org/ppl_aw.html> (14 April 2003)