Alice Waters Was a Foodie Hero. Now She's the Food Police.

Alice Waters

Alice Waters: The famous Berkeley local-foods advocate, seen here looking friendly at a book signing, had a substantially less friendly run-in with another chef at an inauguration party. Scott Wintrow/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

The big story in the food world this week was not that Top Chef host Tom Colicchio might have saved cookbook author Joan Nathan's life by performing a Heimlich maneuver on her at a pre-inaugural party at her house in Washington, D.C. on Sunday.

It's what took place in an upstairs room of that same house.

Marian Burros disclosed the closed-door mano-a-mano between feisty ex-White House chef Walter Scheib and righteous locavore Alice Waters for the New York Times' Diner's Journal blog.

How the feud started and how it ended, and why even a good "-ism" is still just an "-ism," after the jump...

The food feud has long roots, as I wrote in this space two weeks ago; it goes back to Scheib's days at the White House, when he resented having to prove himself to Waters as a champion of local and sustainable farming and fishing practices.

After the election, Waters went public in arguing that the Obamas ought to appoint a White House chef who would be a force for her movement. That rankled Scheib, who had mentored the current chef, Cristeta Comerford. (The Obamas have decided to retain Comerford.)

Waters and Scheib eventually reached a detente, Burros writes.

But that's not the news here. What is? The fact that someone finally had the guts to stand up to Waters' inflexible brand of gastronomical correctness.

A generation ago, her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, birthed a revolution, putting a new emphasis on farms and the importance of mastering simple, elemental things. It changed American food, and it changed American cooking.

But a generation later, it's not hard to see that what Waters espoused was really just an -ism. A good -ism, a necessary -ism — but an -ism all the same. And -isms have their limitations.

Why, for instance, should top-flight chefs content themselves with using only what's local and seasonal when the emergence of new technologies has made it easier than ever to bring in delicacies from around the globe?

Yet many do. I've even seen some chefs so desperate to be perceived as gastronomically correct that they have lied about their purveyors on their menus.

Thanks to Waters' influence, a generation of ambitious chefs now confuse process and result. Shout-outs to their sources fill their menus, and transparency has become synonymous with integrity and honesty.

But do we really need to know the provenance of an egg? And more to the point: Shopping is not cooking.

At the moment, the best, most exciting food in the world, most critics agree, is to be found in Spain. Yes, the country is blessed with an abundance of good natural resources. But its chefs look around the world for inspiration and are more inclined to want to manipulate and enhance flavors than to present them simply.

And why not? Cooking, after all, is not about doing good; it's about tasting good.

Waters, like a lot of radicals, believes the movement will never end. She simply can't see that the revolution she helped lead has calcified into something doctrinaire and even repressive, not liberating and uplifting.

Todd Kliman is a James Beard Award-winning restaurant critic and the food and wine editor of Washingtonian magazine. The Wild Vine, his book about the Rosetta stone of American wine, is due in 2009.

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