Something in the Waters
Alice Waters did not grow up on a farm. She didn't spend her teenage years tilling the earth, talking to carrots and glimpsing her future laid out in the wrinkled skin of a rutabaga.
She was too busy getting kicked out of her sorority, trying acid (just once though), traveling through France and campaigning for radical politicians. In her new memoir, Coming to My Senses, the Chez Panisse chef shares tales from her upbringing that ultimately shaped her restaurant and in turn, the way we eat.
Her life has been as full as the tables at her famed 46-year-old California restaurant over the years. Francis Ford Coppola was among the many voices pushing her to open Chez Panisse; she once turned down an invitation to dinner with John Lennon; and one time, she got LSD as a housewarming present from the same dealers who hooked up The Beatles.
Photo: David Goines
But in some ways, she's just like us: Grilled cheese is her ultimate comfort food, and she prefers rosé, which "seemed like the safe middle ground" when she was young and first choosing between white and red. It's that relatability coupled with her magnetic energy that makes her appeal so enduring. And today, she's more relevant than ever.
She isn't shy about her early years. "I drank a lot of hard liquor in high school," she freely admits, later revealing that some of the funding for Chez Panisse's opening came from "a few unnameable dope dealers." When it came to men, "it was hard to tell between the boyfriends and the friends sometimes," she says.
It was her time spent at UC Berkeley, though, that ingrained in her some of her most steadfast traits—and ones that eventually came to life at Chez Panisse. The Free Speech Movement, which was just taking off in Berkeley when she was a student there, struck a chord with Waters. She wanted a peaceful world, one that embodied "the beauty of a shared culture," not one riddled with war, consumerism and oppression.
At the center of the action, cooking dishes like crème caramel and chocolate mousse allowed Waters to "return to what felt good and right and hopeful about the world." Gathering with friends over good—and French—food brought her solace. So much so, in fact, it led to the creation of her famed restaurant when she was just 27 years old.
Photo: Alice Waters
In last year's seminal book, Ten Restaurants That Changed America, historian Paul Freedman included Chez Panisse among the rankings. He says the Berkeley restaurant "was hesitantly, inconsistently, and unselfconsciously, on the way to pioneering a new American cuisine that would supplant obeisance to France."
Most notably, Chez Panisse was among the first true farm-to-table restaurants. The term may now be taken for granted, or even induce an eye roll, but it was novel at a time when people assumed organic meant dirty, and the way food tasted was not paramount to a place's success.
Chez Panisse also featured an open kitchen before that was such a thing, and Waters was cooking over open fire, well, before it was cool. From the beginning, it was a three-course set menu—just like you were eating in someone's home. Waters wasn't always on the line though. She saw herself more as a film director—fitting, as the restaurant got its name and signature convivial atmosphere from a trio of French films.
While it started out as an ode to French cuisine, however, it morphed into a more regional reflection as Waters's focus shifted to high-quality, locally grown ingredients.
Even though it's a different time now—one where dinner goes for more than $3.95, as it did opening night at Chez Panisse—there are obvious parallels from Waters's formative years to the current state of the world. Every day, we hear of protests, young people standing up for what they believe in and college campuses that are the hotbeds of change. Waters campaigned for 1966 Robert Scheer's Congress run with the fervor that surrounded the 2016 election, and one central tenet of Waters's philosophy has always has been using food as a way to drive change and build community—much like we see today from the likes of José Andrés and the food waste movement.
Though a memoir by nature is a reflection, Waters also looks forward in the book, aware that there's still much to strive for in the future of food. As Waters puts it, "Food is the most political thing in all our lives," which is why you'll see her calling for change from large corporations and writing direct notes to politicians.
A true product of the cultural revolution, she's led her own counterculture efforts against everything from the stringent aspects of French cooking—"It was liberating to be freed from the chains of gastronomy"—to the convenience culture of American foodways, as the founder of Edible Schoolyard and vice president of Slow Food International. Chez Panisse's culinary focus may have morphed over time, but in a twist of irony, Waters's dedication to change itself is the one thing that's never wavered.
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