Alice Waters is the doyenne of American cuisine. For nearly half a century, her Chez Panisse restaurant has been one of the finest in the United States. Waters and Chez Panisse elevated modern cooking to an art form and can all but claim credit for the invention of the sort of high-end, farm-to-table “slow-food” dining that has become known as “California cuisine” and has spread all over the world. Located in a converted Arts and Crafts house in Berkeley, Chez Panisse is famed for its high-quality, locally sourced, organically grown food, served in a set menu reflecting what’s in season, in a cozy, romantic setting that echoes the best countryside French restaurants. In her new memoir, “Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook,” Waters describes the early days of Chez Panisse, her personal life and loves, and her embrace of the 1970s Berkeley counterculture that surrounded and influenced her and the restaurant. In this conversation with Will Hearst, Waters talks about Chez Panisse, her life, and Edible Schoolyard, her advocacy for healthy food for children.
HEARST: Chez Panisse has certain characteristics that make it a unique restaurant. There are no exact imitators. There are people who have taken inspiration and adapted it, but there’s a smell, there’s an architecture, there’s the typography. It’s an experience.
WATERS: The basic philosophy of my food is farm-to-table and eating things completely in season. Just cooking simply. There are a number of other values that people have taken away who have worked at the restaurant over the years — or students from Cal who have come and worked for the four years they went to school. It’s a beautiful thing that they feel it, and feel how important it is. It’s the same way that I felt in France when I first went. I went to a certain little restaurant in France in, what year was it? 1964, ’65. It was just a mom-and-pop restaurant. It was very affordable, and it always had oysters that were brought in that day. I just became more discerning.
HEARST: If I walk into Chez today, I notice things that were there the whole time, but after your book, I see this is all part of a picture.
WATERS: It’s all part of the plan to seduce people subconsciously.
HEARST: There’s a spiritual system going on, a value system inside the restaurant. It’s not just good food at good prices. There’s something else, beliefs are being expressed.
WATERS: Absolutely. Absolutely. It came from the counterculture.
HEARST: I did not make the connection that the 1960s Berkeley activist Mario Savio was an influence in what became Chez Panisse — the Freedom of Speech movement and Berkeley and that time period and that countercultural “We’ll do this our way. We’re not following a plan. We’re creating a plan.”
WATERS: Exactly, and Mario Savio was so idealistic and holistic in his big thinking. I just was sure that if we served good food, the people would come. I just felt the empowerment of the counterculture.
HEARST: You were a regular behind-the-stove person for your friends and their friends. Somebody wants to play poker, somebody wants to have a political discussion, Alice is feeding the troops.
WATERS: That’s true. I loved it.
HEARST: Your first trip to France was marvelously described in the book.
WATERS: It really made an impression on me. Not just about the food, of course, but just about everything. It was a slow-food culture then. Sitting at the table. Kids come home from school and have two hours for their lunch, with their family in Paris. Students go to the museums for free. It was a way of living. When I came back, I just said, “I want to look like the French. That’s it. I want to cook like the French.”
HEARST: In your restaurant, one has a sense of being served in a person’s house. The menu is set. Just as when I go to someone’s house, I don’t say “What’s for dinner?” It’s just what the host is preparing this evening.
WATERS: I didn’t think that I could do an a la carte menu. It’s too complicated. How do you know what’s going to be left over? And I don’t want to use that same fish the next day. I want to have it all served the night that it came in. It’s food-driven, and I was just so afraid of the unpredictability of having people choose for themselves.
HEARST: It’s all part of the experience of eating at Chez Panisse. Even the smells. One of the things everyone notices when you walk is the smell of the wood and the hearth. It’s incense.
WATERS: I’m trying to reach them subconsciously. Bread-baking, rosemary-burning, all of these things are things we all have deep inside ourselves. It’s the way we’ve been living, part of our genes from the beginning of civilization. You take care of the land, you eat with your family and friends, you celebrate the harvest. It’s a rhythm. We’ve forgotten about it in the fast-food culture.
HEARST: There’s a lot of stage management going on at Chez Panisse.
WATERS: There’s a lot of stage management. Every night I find something. It’s like: “Why did they put the flowers there? It’s obscuring them.” There are these subtle aesthetic touches.
HEARST: Is there music at Chez Panisse? It’s escaped my attention.
WATERS: There is jazz, but it’s very low and it’s only late at night because I don’t want music to interfere with the conversation they’re having at the table, whereas at fast-food places they want you to be turning [over the table], so you keep getting a drink and you don’t know where you are, and you can’t talk to your friends. You should eat more and drink more. It’s kind of nuts.
HEARST: It’s different in France because if you buy just a cup of coffee, that table is yours. And you can be by yourself.
WATERS: I love that. I’ve always loved a café. I do wish that we had more of a café at Chez Panisse.
HEARST: Let’s talk about the business of Chez Panisse a little bit. Is it a runaway success? Have you had ups and downs? You must have all the CEO challenges: You’ve got to hire people, do the books, buy things at reasonable prices.
WATERS: We were challenged at the beginning, but I have always wanted the restaurant to be full, as sort of an affirmation that we’re doing something right. If at any point, when the numbers went down, I had to really rethink what we were doing.
HEARST: Restaurants come and go at a rapid pace.
WATERS: I know they do, but I’ve always been prepared to close it. Every year at the birthday, we say, “Oh, we want to do it again?” Then we recommit ourselves.
HEARST: You’ve had a lot of opportunities, I suspect, to expand and open in Las Vegas and have a cookware line. You’ve not done that. Why not?
WATERS: Why not? Because there are always strings attached. Like advertising, which I don’t believe in. I believe in word of mouth. We’ve never done advertising for Chez Panisse. People have, of course, written about it, but we’ve never ever paid for it. The thing that I like about the restaurant is that I know the people who come, and I like to know the names of the people who are working there. I don’t want to be on a plane flying to New York to my other restaurant.
HEARST: You’re very candid, open and matter of fact in your book about your love life and your boyfriends.
WATERS: I was a sensualist. I was living in the ’60s and the ’70s. I don’t think anyone was holding back. It was just the way that you got to know somebody. I was swept away with that.
HEARST: You have a wonderful line in the book where you say, I am paraphrasing: “There are people I was intimate with and now they’re my friends, and I can’t imagine not being friends with someone that you felt that strongly about. Even though there may not be the future to the romantic relationship, you don’t lose the person.”
WATERS: I don’t want to ever lose those people.
HEARST: Your book has many flash-forwards, in italics, to the present time. Yet it’s really a history, a memoir. You didn’t write much about your marriage and being a mother. Is there another book coming? Or did you just feel that was too intimate?
WATERS: I did. I felt it was too intimate. I felt like I have so many friends, I didn’t want to be excluding somebody. It was all just too near. I didn’t really want to talk about [my daughter] Fanny in a way that she wouldn’t like me to. I was just very, very worried about that. I think most of the flash-forwards were trying to say: We did this thing, or I learned it here, I experienced it … and this is how it showed up at Chez Panisse later.
HEARST: You connect Alice now to the origins of Alice.
WATERS: I definitely wanted to talk about everything, from making a fire to the how I buy food. I didn’t want to leave that out, but it was hard to.
HEARST: What’s next? What is the next big project?
WATERS: Well, the next big project is school lunches, trying to focus on our last truly democratic institution, the public school system, to try to reach every child in this country and to bring them back to their senses.
HEARST: It seems like it’s going well. The Edible Schoolyard has gone from an experiment in Berkeley to Michelle Obama planting a garden on the White House grounds.
WATERS: It has to go more quickly right now. The good thing, which I never anticipated in terms of the Edible Schoolyard and teaching, was that once the children fall in love with nature, they’re there. Nature is their teacher. I always say these kids in eighth grade, they could all give a TED talk. They know what’s happening in the world. Maria Montessori felt that way. She connected it to the divine comedy, the education of a child. At the beginning, they need a teacher coming out of hell and going into purgatory. Once they start up the ladder to paradise, they don’t need the guide. They’re there.
HEARST: The Edible Schoolyard is virtually a political movement.
WATERS: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s intended to be that we are what we eat. We are. There is a real movement across the country, around the world, really. People are coming to their senses and understanding how important it is for the future of this planet. Eating is the everyday thing we do. If we do it with determination, we can really begin to change the world. This is a revolution that doesn’t take reading a little red book. This is a delicious revolution.
HEARST: Thank you, Alice.
WATERS: How about a little salad?
HEARST: You don’t have to feed us.
WATERS: Well, I’ve got to feed myself, so stay.
Side Dishes: Alice Waters on chefs and critics she has known and their techniques.
James Beard, famed chef sometimes called the father of American gourmet cooking
“James Beard was just an amazing character, and I had the great good luck to be at many banquet tables at Cecilia Chiang’s restaurant seated next to him. He just knew about everything. Everything.” Beard inadvertently lent a hand when Waters was invited to New York to cook alongside a group of other star chefs. “I thought I’d bring my lettuce salad and make a vinaigrette. Marion Cunningham helped me find a bowl at James Beard’s house, one of his big salad bowls. I proudly went to this event. … I looked around and saw what all the rest of the chefs brought, and I was so embarrassed. I can’t tell you. It was excruciating to stand there when those guys were slicing salmon, there was smoked salmon they made themselves, and cutting up elaborate filet mignon en croute. … There I was, serving a green salad …. I’d say, ‘Ooh, this salad bowl came from James Beard,’ as if that would give me credibility, that I knew him. Maybe that’ll help. Fortunately, the next day they all talked about the salad.”
Richard Olney, noted food writer and cookbook author
“He got me interested in everything. I mean, he was so discerning and he was so emphatic. If those beans aren’t right, they are not right. They are not right. You can’t serve them. No. Out with beans. … Richard was always cooking from his garden. Going out and picking the arugula, bringing it in, making the salad, going down to his wine cellar, coming up, bringing the bottle. He taught me both about wine and food.”
Lulu Peyraud, famed French chef
“She’s 100 years old. One hundred. She is the epitome of joie de vivre. She cooked like Richard Olney, just going down and getting fish that were still alive, bringing them back home, making her bouillabaisse in a big pot over the fire.”
Mario Batali, restaurant impresario and TV chef
“We have a real spiritual connection someplace. He has a summer place up in northern Michigan. Mario just loved all of the summer things from northern Michigan, and I was up there at various times that he was there. He just called me because my brother-in-law just died. He said, ‘Are you here? Can I make you lunch?’ I said, ‘Sadly, I’m leaving today.’”
Craig Claiborne, longtime New York Times restaurant critic
“He came into the restaurant really, really early on. He had his typewriter, and he put it right on the edge of the fireplace. He wanted to just type as I was cooking and talking to him, just there. One of those old-fashioned typewriters. I’ll never forget that.”
Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft executive turned chef and author of “Modernist Cuisine,” an encyclopedia of modern techniques, such as sous vide
“Well, sous vide, I don’t believe in. I don’t believe that food can go down way below zero, freezing, without killing its vitality, and then bringing it up to temperature. I went to a big sous vide factory outside of Washington, D.C., that was owned by the airlines to see how it’s done and, yes, you could get a piece of fish that was cooked to the right point, but it scared me. The whole thing scared me. I’m looking for aliveness in food. I know that when you go out there and pick a salad in the garden, and you eat it right away, you are really connecting to an energy of nature.”
Anthony Bourdain, chef, traveler and TV personality, who has said “Alice Waters annoys the living shit out of me.”
“Actually, you know, we’re friends at some deep level, and I really admire the work that he’s doing now on CNN, which is taking a big cultural view of a country. When he did the episode about Ethiopia, I just thought it was so good. I called him up on the phone; he was in Tasmania, I think. I said, ‘This is so great. So great.’ I know he’s always provocative. He’s saying things about me. It is what it is.”
(This interview has been condensed and edited.)