Interview with Chef/Activist Alice Waters

March 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

In the late 1960s, America’s relationship with food could be divided neatly into two warring sides, the Wonderbread and mayonnaise devotees of the Eisenhower Right and the bean sprouts and tofu flag of the hippie health movement. There was little in between.

Nearly a century of mass production and dubious innovations such as plastic and synthesized flavorings had created a disconnection between farm and table. Angry youth were rebelling by going back to the land, founding communal goat farms and thumbing their nose at the establishment. The rest of the country was about to embrace fast food with a vehemence that continues today.

Alice Waters was a student then on the overtly politicized campus of Berkeley, in Northern California, a young girl studying French Culture and education. In the thick of the era’s cultural upheaval, Waters went off to Europe and had a cultural upheaval of her own.

“I had been very politically disillusioned and I was definitely part of a counter culture movement at Berkeley, “remember Waters, “and I had come back from France, utterly inspired by the food and by those little places that served food, the places that welcomed the neighborhood and bought at the markets nearby. I remember clearly thinking – ‘that’s how I want to live my life, that’s what I want’. It was in that sort of naïve place that I opened Chez Panisse. It was never any question for me that if I had good food – people would come. At least all my friends would come! And I was appealing absolutely to the people of the counterculture.”

Chez Panisse opened in 1971, when Waters was 27 years old. It sits on a busy street at the center of Berkeley’s University district, in an old Craftsman home, warm and inviting, it’s amber lit interior, home, for forty years now to a simple philosophy of “locally grown = good tasting”.

It is a wonderful restaurant, yes, but it is more than that. Over the years, Alice Waters, Chez Panisse (and the many chefs who have trained there) have become hugely influential in spreading the gospel of good food to America – and beyond.

“Needless to say I never imagined anything more than a neighborhood restaurant,” says Waters, “And I wasn’t necessarily looking for organic at first – I was simply looking for taste. I remembered what those green beans were like in Europe and I wanted those green beans again. I wanted the crème fraiche, I wanted the chicken, I wanted everything to taste like I had remembered it tasting in Europe.”

The desire for these authentic, earthy, tastes lead Waters on a journey through Northern California…and eventually, to the to doors of small, family growers who were doing their best to resist the domination of industrialized farming.

“I went on search and of course I ended up on the steps of the local organic farmers. I was not paying attention to money, I didn’t care how much it costs, I wanted the best tasting olive oil, I wanted to give people this sense of hospitality. Of course we went into great debt by doing this, but I was willing to pay the farmers what they deserved for their amazing food. That wonderful network of suppliers still exists and we still work together. That kind of commitment was very, very important to us at the beginning.”

What Waters had stumbled upon, a deep desire for farm to table freshness and sustainable food resourcing, is now – four decades after Chez Panisse opened its’ doors – a worldwide movement.

It makes sense then that Waters herself is at the global forefront. She is Vice President of the Slow Food Movement and an intensely outspoken activist for change in the way American schoolchildren are fed in public schools. Her “Edible Schoolyard” program, which began in her hometown of Berkeley, now helps establish school gardens and healthy menus in public schools across America. Five years ago she became involved with the garden and cafeteria at the American Academy in Rome and it’s Rome Sustainable Food Project. It’s a position, which has offered her insight into Italy’s own forward-thinking food movement.

“I knew that it would have an amazing effect on the artists and scholars who came there to study. We tried to revive the traditions of Roman food and source it locally and it’s become the most energizing and inspiring kind of space. Somewhere like Rome, you have the history of food all around you, is incredibly inspiring. All of these experiences, with Academy, the Slow Food organization, people are over the world trying to make this change – it’s helped me so much to feel connected. Maybe we don’t speak the same language, but we have this bond, this respect and love for food.”

Water cites contemporaries like Jamie Oliver, Michael Pollen and the Prince of Wales as fellow in her good food fight.

“We are all part of a delicious revolution,” she says triumphantly, “we’re trying to find that place of pleasure… and when we touch it, it leads it right to places of sustainability and biodiversity and appreciation for children and elders and farmers – everything…just everything, comes with it.”

Originally published in L’uomo Vogue

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