Four decades ago, restaurateur and food activist Alice Waters was at the forefront of the now-flourishing locally grown, organic food movement. Her Berkeley-based restaurant, Chez Panisse, has become one of the most famous dining spots in America, known for changing its menu daily to reflect what’s in season and for sourcing ingredients from local farmers.
But as a child, Waters almost never went to restaurants — and was extremely picky about what she’d actually put in her mouth.
“My mother made a lot of things because she thought they’d be healthy for us,” she tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “There were some very unfortunate experiences with whole wheat bread and bananas. I always tried to get rid of that sandwich and eat one of my friends’ lunches.”
Waters first began to view food differently while in college, when she left the University of California-Berkeley for a semester to study abroad in Paris.
“It was really an awakening for me,” she says. “I felt like I had never really eaten before. I had liked certain things but I didn’t understand how it fit into people’s lives in a delicious way. When I went [to Paris] and walked past the markets and ate in the little restaurants, it was like a revelation. … So when I came home, I felt like I could really make this happen in my own life.”
Chez Panisse opened in 1971 in a house in Berkeley, Calif. Over the past 40 years, the restaurant has received honors from Gourmet Magazine and Michelin and inspired hundreds of prominent chefs across the world to use locally sourced ingredients. Now the restaurant — and Waters — are both the subject of a new coffee table book, 40 Years at Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering. The book collects stories and memories from the owners, patrons, restaurant critics, suppliers and chefs who have collectively shaped the restaurant over the past four decades.
Starting Chez Panisse
When Waters opened Chez Panisse in 1971, she says she assumed that her friends — who she had been feeding for free for several years — would just start to pay her for their meals. She also imagined, she says, that she would be able to linger over the meals with them, sharing stories over dessert.
“I, of course, didn’t imagine that I would have to be in the kitchen and I couldn’t be at the table,” she says. “So I didn’t see my friends for a very long time.”
In 1983, Waters had a child and decided to hire a chef for Chez Panisse. It was a difficult decision for her, she says, because it meant she would no longer be in the kitchen.
“I decided that my attention would be in the dining room,” she says. “I haven’t cooked in 28 years at Chez Panisse. … I didn’t intend to be out of the kitchen. … Now I’m in a different world and I contribute to the collaboration of the kitchen and I’m always working with a group of colleagues who inspire me, but I really miss being actually in the solving of the performance, that effort to really come up with dishes that are delicious and right.”
Today Waters oversees Chez Panisse, writes cookbooks, helps design menus and tries to preserve local food traditions through her work with the slow food movement. She also works to bring healthy, local food into public schools around the country. Her foundation has created several “Edible Schoolyards,” where students at public schools learn to harvest and grow ingredients that are then used in their lunches.
“We’re trying to bring children into a new relationship with food where they have an opportunity to work in a garden,” she says. “They know what it is to plant the seeds and pick the weeds and they’re learning about what it takes to cook the food. … We’ve been separated from this experience through a kind of fast-food indoctrination that’s been going on for the last 50 years. So we need to really come back to our senses and really understand, like most every other country in the world, that food is something precious.”
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