Alice Waters: 40 Years Of Sustainable Food Waters founded her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, long before "organic" or "locally grown" entered the vernacular. In 40 Years at Chez Panisse, Waters looks back on the sustainable food movement and the momentum it has built in recent years.
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Alice Waters: 40 Years Of Sustainable Food

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Alice Waters: 40 Years Of Sustainable Food

Alice Waters: 40 Years Of Sustainable Food

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting while I was on vacation last week. It was good to get away, and it's good to be back.

My guest today is Alice Waters. She founded the now-famous restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week. The ideas she developed at her restaurant have influenced how many Americans think about food. She thinks great food uses great ingredients that come from the local farmers, fishermen and ranchers who take the best care of the food they're growing and the animals they're raising. They're as celebrated at her restaurant as the chefs who prepare the food.

As part of her Edible Schoolyard project, Waters helped create gardens at or nearby schools so that students in cities can see vegetables grow and eat them for lunch. She created a model sustainable foods menu at Yale University dining halls using locally grown ingredients.

She started advocating for a White House vegetable garden back in the '90s - mission accomplished. Waters and friends have put together a new anniversary book called "40 Years of Chez Panisse."

Alice Waters, welcome to FRESH AIR, and happy anniversary. So before we talk a little bit more about, you know, your menus and the restaurant and your personal food biography, how would you describe your approach to preparing food? Like if you had to describe it to somebody who's never heard of you...

Ms. ALICE WATERS (Founder, Chez Panisse; Author, "40 Years of Chez Panisse"): I guess I begin with the idea of touching and tasting and some kind of connection with the senses. I always ask people who want to become cooks at Chez Panisse, you know, what do they like to cook for themselves. What do they find in the market? And I'm very interested in creating a great smell in the kitchen, a great smell in the restaurant, and I make an effort to present food very simply and have it taste of what it is.

GROSS: Have it taste of what it is, and what it is - your emphasis is on very fresh, locally grown or locally raised ingredients.

Ms. WATERS: It is, but my real emphasis is on the farmers who are taking care of the land, the farmers who are really thinking about our nourishment. And so I'm looking for them, and I know very well that in order to cook something that is really flavorful that you need to have ingredients that are grown in a place where they really thrive, and so you're looking to the farmer to plant the right seeds in the right place and care for them and know when to pick them. That's kind of 85 percent of cooking, is about finding those ingredients, and then it's so easy after that. You just let them be themselves.

GROSS: Your restaurant, Chez Panisse, is one of the most famous restaurants in America. Did you go to restaurants as a kid? And if so, like, what kind of restaurants did your parents take you to?

Ms. WATERS: I never went to restaurants as a kid. We ate at home, and I can remember, I think, the three restaurant experiences of my childhood. And they were at a local...

GROSS: Three?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATERS: Just about three. It's - all I wanted to do on my birthday was to go to the Automat in New York because I could choose for myself from those little - put my money in and get out my lemon meringue pie. But that was - I don't know whether you consider that a real restaurant.

But the kind of restaurant that I think you're talking about I really didn't experience very often. The William Pitt in Chatham, New Jersey, I think that was it.

GROSS: Is this because your parents didn't have the money to eat out, or they didn't have the interest in eating out?

Ms. WATERS: They didn't have the money to eat out. And we mostly ate from their garden, and that's the way it was. My mom wasn't a very good cook. So I didn't look forward to dinners, but we all had to be home and sitting at the table before my dad - just when my dad arrived.

GROSS: So did you grow up with things like canned carrots and peas and canned creamed corn?

Ms. WATERS: I believe so, lots of frozen things, too, lots of frozen things.

GROSS: TV dinners?

Ms. WATERS: Later on, TV dinners, yes, we had those, but I never was particularly interested in those. I don't know why. They seemed full of sauce, and I liked my food very plain. I was a very picky eater. And, you know, I liked corn and tomatoes in the summer, but when I look back, I think it's because they really were coming right there from the garden.

GROSS: So fresh corn and tomatoes are among the foods you liked best. Was there a food that would nearly bring you to tears because you hated it so much, it was so boring, so tasteless, and this is going to be like a flavorless, joyless meal?

Ms. WATERS: Well, my mother made a lot of things because she thought they'd be healthy for us. And so there were some very unfortunate experiences with whole wheat bread and sort of bananas. And I always, you know, tried to get rid of that sandwich and eat one of my friends' lunches.

GROSS: So this was like a banana sandwich on whole wheat bread?

Ms. WATERS: Yes, a banana sandwich on whole wheat bread and a little bit of peanut butter but not the kind of peanut butter that had a lot of butter in it. It was just the kind that was very, very dry. And I think it's kind of put me off bananas for life.

GROSS: So this was like store-bought whole wheat bread?

Ms. WATERS: Yes, Pepperidge Farm. Pepperidge Farm. I remember that. And I always wanted the white bread, but I found a way to eat...

GROSS: Can we get that on the record, Alice Waters says I always wanted the white bread?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATERS: But it's very interesting because I have come full-circle, and I have found delicious whole wheat bread made by artisan bakers, cooked in a wood oven, and I've fallen in love with it.

GROSS: Now, you went to the University of California at Berkeley during the free speech movement in the mid-'60s. You describe yourself as being on the periphery of the movement, but the movement had a profound effect on you. How did the free speech movement relate to your interest in food?

Ms. WATERS: That's a very good question. I was listening to Mario Savio speak, and I was really impressed by this big vision he had for the world and that somehow we could live together in a harmonious whole and that communities could come together.

And I know that he inserted a lot of language that came from his own heritage. He was from Sicily. He sat down at the table and had a glass of wine with every meal. I didn't know that, but I know that somehow came into his speeches and affected me. I mean, that idea of coming around the table and solving problems that way, and then of course I went to France the following year.

GROSS: This was in 1965, you went to France.

Ms. WATERS: In 1965. And it was really an awakening for me. I felt like I'd never really eaten before. I had sort of liked certain things, but I didn't understand how it kind of fit into people's lives in a delicious way. And when I went there and walked to schools, past the markets and ate in the little restaurants in Paris, it just - it was like a revelation. And there was always something very political sort of happening at the table in terms of conversation.

And it was a whole cultural experience that I had there that really impressed me, and so when I came home, I felt like, you know, I could really make this happen in my own life and went about looking for the food and cooking dinners at my house for my friends.

GROSS: So did you think that delicious, sensual food had to be French cuisine?

Ms. WATERS: I'm afraid I did.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATERS: I did. I did think about that. I loved the way that the French ate - you know, they had small courses and always had a salad with a meal and some cheese. It was - it seemed so well-considered, I guess I would say. And I just absorbed that, as if by osmosis. And I just wanted to - I wanted to live like the French.

GROSS: So it seems like your early awakening to food was both, like, a sensual awakening to the taste of food but also a sense that the table could be a wonderful place where people got together and talked and talked about politics, and that sense of conversation about politics at the table preceded your vision of food as a kind of political statement.

Ms. WATERS: I think that's really - that's really right. I was involved with this little newspaper project right during that time, right after I'd gotten back from Paris, and it was called "Alice's Restaurant." It was for the San Francisco Express Times.

And there were a lot of artists and writers who would sort of be working on that, and I would be feeding them. And it was a great way for me to sort of test the waters, if you will, and see how they liked it. And when they enthusiastic, it just sort of lifted my spirits, and I wanted them all to come back for dinner the next night.

They loved doing that, and it kind of made it, the whole experience of working on the - at the paper and the deadlines as something that we did as a group. It was a very important time.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alice Waters, and she's the founder of Chez Panisse, one of the most famous restaurants in America, which is in Berkeley. And it's famous for having a menu built around ingredients from locally run, sustainable farms. And Chez Panisse is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and as part of the celebration, there's a new book called "40 Years of Chez Panisse," and it's by Alice Waters and friends. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Alice Waters, who is the founder of the famous American restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and Chez Panisse is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and as part of the celebration, there's a new book called "40 Years of Chez Panisse: The Power of Gathering," by Alice Waters and friends.

When you decided you wanted to open a restaurant, what function did you want the restaurant to serve in the lives of your customers and in your own life?

Ms. WATERS: Well, I had this very naive idea that, well, I'd just open this restaurant, and all my friends would sort of pay for the food that I was giving them for free and that I could make it into a livelihood for myself.

GROSS: This is what you used to give them for free when you cooked for them at home?

Ms. WATERS: Well, and I cooked for them in my own kitchen. So I of course imagined that I would have to be in the kitchen cooking, and I couldn't be at the table, and all the chaos of the opening just hadn't been thought out.

And so I didn't see my friends for a very long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, in fact, I've read, like, you've never even cooked at Chez Panisse.

Ms. WATERS: Oh, I have. I cooked for seven years at the restaurant.

GROSS: Oh, you did, okay.

Ms. WATERS: Oh yes, oh yes.

GROSS: And you gave that up because?

Ms. WATERS: I gave that up because I was having a child. And I decided that I would find someone to cook and that I would focus my attention at home and be in the dining room. So that ended - 1983 I stopped cooking. I haven't cooked in 28 years at Chez Panisse.

GROSS: Wow, do you miss it?

Ms. WATERS: People think I - well, you know, I really do miss it. I opened the restaurant because I really like to cook, and I would - you know, I loved to be in the dining room, too, but I didn't intend to sort of be out of the kitchen, out of the restaurant and doing a whole other kind of work.

I just feel like the rhythm of the kitchen and the everyday kind of way that your life is organized, and you're working on menus, and that -reading of books and writing down notes is something that was very relaxing for me.

And now I'm in a kind of different world, and I contribute to the collaboration of the kitchen, and I'm always sort of working with a group of colleagues who inspire me, but I really miss being actually in the solving of that performance, that - working at that effort to really come up with dishes that are delicious and right.

GROSS: What's a dish you came up with that you're particularly proud of?

Ms. WATERS: I guess really it might be the fruit bowl at the restaurant right now. I know Michael Pollan has written about it in the book, but that was my idea that really came from the roots of Chez Panisse.

Lindsey Shere was the first pastry chef, and her - she came from a family of farmers. And so she would bring fruit back into the restaurant. And it's always been important, but as of probably 15 years ago, we started getting extraordinary fruit in the restaurant from many, many different farms.

And I just thought, you know, sometimes that the fruit was as delicious as any dessert and maybe more so. And so I asked the pastry department to put together a fruit bowl that we have on the menu every single day at Chez Panisse. And it's something that takes a lot of discernment on the part of the cooks and choosing just the right moment for that fruit and connecting with the farmers at the last minute to bring just the most beautiful taste to the table.

GROSS: Michael Pollan, who's famous for writing about, you know, corporate farming and its problems and organic farming and the policy and politics of films - he talks about ordering a bowl of fruit at Chez Panisse.

And he points out, you know, that the menu gave the name of the farmer and the variety of the fruit, and he says he figured that these peaches had to be something pretty special to earn a spot on that menu and to command a price only a dollar or two shy of the desserts like the profiterole and the galette.

He says: So I ordered the fruit for dessert not quite sure whether a plain bowl of fruit on a restaurant menu was best interpreted as an expression of culinary modesty or culinary audacity. Which do you think?

Ms. WATERS: I think it's both, you know, in a way. You just want to bring people into something that's unintimidating.

GROSS: So at what point did you realize that the ingredients were going to be a core part of - like finding exactly the right ingredients, having people who you describe as foragers going to local farms, finding the best farmers, finding the best fruits and vegetables and livestock within those farms and choosing those and bringing those back to the restaurant, how did you realize that that was going to be central to your identity as a restaurant?

Ms. WATERS: Well, really when we started, I was never looking for sustainable farmers or organic food. I was really looking for taste. And so every day, because we had that one simple, you know, four-course menu, we had to come up with these ideas. And we had to go out and look for those ingredients. And I think it might have pushed us more quickly into the realization that the produce and the - all of the ingredients that we get really make Chez Panisse what it is.

And it probably took us 10 years of foraging to come to that realization. And we hired a forager, in fact, who became part of the staff of the restaurant, whose job it was to go out and to find the people who were growing or raising animals, everything from fish to eggs to fruit to vegetables. We were looking for people that really cared about what they were doing and could provide us with the ingredients for the restaurant.

In fact, we did write-ups on the different farms. We'd invite them to come to the restaurant for dinner, and we'd make this arrangement with them to be a reliable buyer so that they could sort of grow for us and be assured of an income.

And that's what happened with Bob Cannard up in Sonoma. He's the one that we buy vegetables from every day.


GROSS: So I'm wondering, a lot of the farmers who you've bought from over the years, are they like old-fashioned farmers who've had family farms in their history and they've always had a farming way of life? Or are they people who had this kind of utopian vision to start a farm and get, you know, get back to the land and produce like in a sustainable organic way, people who right from the start shared your kind of vision about what food and what farming ought to be?

Ms. WATERS: One of the first ranches that we connected to was an old Italian family called the Dal Portos and I met the parents. And it was the son and his wife who began raising the lamb that we have been getting for nearly 35 years of Chez Panisse. It's really remarkable. We encourage them to raise them at a, to a certain age and they bring them to us every Easter for about six weeks.

But then again we have people like Bob Cannard, Warren Webber who started out, he was one of the first farmers - they really believed that it was important to farm sustainably, they shared the same values, they were part of the movement of back to the land. And now we have very young farmers who are involved and it's so reassuring to be invited to their farms and to experience a kind of a sort of cultural renaissance in the country. Because they aren't doing it the way, you know, our grandparents are doing it. They're inventing a way that they can have a rich life and they can work together and they can make it an artistic endeavor. And it means that this is going to really bring a lot of young people into farming.

GROSS: The downside of what you're talking about is the price. You know, when you're dealing with like small farmers who are doing sustainable farming and a more natural approach, it costs more. At least it must cost more, because restaurants that serve that tend to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...tend have more expensive menus. Like the price-fix menu at Chez Panisse in the week that we're recording, in the week in August that we're recording, weekdays it's around $80 for the price-fix downstairs and weekends 95, and that's for, it's for several courses. And, you know, for a fine restaurant that might not be very expensive but for, you know, a typical person wanting to have a meal out, $80 or $95 a person, not counting wine, not counting tip, that's a lot of money.

Ms. WATERS: It is a lot of money. It is a lot of money. But I think that we have to understand that we want to pay the farmers the real price for the food that they produce. And it won't ever be cheap to buy real food. But it can be affordable. And it's really something that we need to understand. It's the kind of work that it takes to grow food. We don't understand that piece of it. And it's what we're trying to do with the Edible Schoolyard in the public schools.

We're trying to bring children into a new relationship to food where they have an opportunity to work in a garden. They know what it is to plant the seeds and pick the weeds and then they're learning about what it takes to cook the food. But I've always thought of Chez Panisse a little bit in the place of a school where we're trying to pass on a sort of a philosophy of food, if you will, and a set of values. And it's nothing new. These are the ways that people have been cooking and eating since the beginning of time, it's just that we've been separated from this experience through a kind of fast-food indoctrination that's been going on for the last 50 years. And so, we need to really sort of come back to our senses and really understand, like most every other country in the world - at least those that have not been indoctrinated like we have been - that food is something precious.

GROSS: Sometimes I see like two extremes of food in America. You know, one extreme being like the supersized portion of like...

Ms. WATERS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...the soda with the high fructose corn syrup and the burger with the fries and all the calories and the fat, but it's really cheap. And on the other side this kind of almost rarefied vision of a perfect food world where everything is like locally grown by wonderful people who've paid wonderful attention and haven't used pesticides and can get it into a restaurant or for a Whole Foods market, you know, I mean a natural foods market.

Ms. WATERS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And where people can afford the prices that that commands. And I'm wondering like what's the middle? Where is the middle ground...

Ms. WATERS: Well, we are...

GROSS: ...where food is both generally affordable and also really like decent?

Ms. WATERS: Well, I think the place where we have to go is to school lunch. I think we have to go back to school. And we need to learn how to really eat with intention, understand the consequences of the choices that we make every day. And I'm hoping that we can bring all children into a really positive relationship to food if we begin in kindergarten, because we have this impression that all food should be fast, cheap and easy. I mean that's the, that's the set of values that we absorb when we eat that fast food. And that it's only for people who are, really can afford it that can have that real experience of food. But in fact, we can all have that. But we really need to go back into the classroom and learn together. And that's what Edible Education is all about.


GROSS: Do you ever eat alone? I mean you have a restaurant. You could eat with many, many people who'd be delighted to be sharing a table with you. But how often do you eat alone, including breakfast?

Ms. WATERS: I eat alone a lot now. I taste at the restaurant when I'm there. I eat lunch at the restaurant often. But I sit down and have breakfast every day. It's a little moment of meditation for me. And very often at the end of the day, I will make myself a pasta and a salad and it's a great sort of balance for me. I don't make it very fancy but I always make it delicious for myself.

GROSS: Which means doing what?

Ms. WATERS: Which means I've either gone to the market and I picked out some vegetables or fruits that I really like. Or I take something from the restaurant; I shop at Chez Panisse.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATERS: I know, I'm very spoiled in that way. I can't help myself. I feel like it's just important that I'm in an ongoing tasting. It's what happens really at the restaurant. We we're never satisfied. We constantly are in a conversation of how we could fine tune, how, what does this taste like compared to that? It's a very important process. And so I'm taking food home and I'm thinking about that. And I sometimes just call up the restaurant right in the middle of my meal and say oh, well, I think you should add this to it. Or why don't you use those tomatoes. And it's part of the process of running the restaurant.

GROSS: When I eat alone I tend to read something, a magazine article, a newspaper depending on the time of day, or I'll have the TV on or both.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And granted that...

Ms. WATERS: Dangerous, huh?

GROSS: ...tends to drown out a little bit of a taste of the food but when I'm eating alone that's probably not a major big deal. It's not probably going to be like the most delicious food in the world. But like when you're eating alone do you really like focus in on that food or are you also like, you know, reading or listening to the radio, watching TV, listening to music?

Ms. WATERS: Well, I have to say that I watch Turner Classic Movies. And so sometimes I'm cooking and I'm sort of tasting while I'm cooking, and in that sense it's a very self-reflective endeavor and then I go and watch a film.

GROSS: Okay, so you mentioned movies.

Ms. WATERS: And movies. Yeah.

GROSS: Movies have been very important to you and in fact Chez Panisse is named after the character of Panisse in the Marcel Pagnol film "Fanny." Your daughter Fanny is named after the title character in that film. The only "Fanny" I've seen is what I assume is the remake of it from I guess it's the '60s. But the film you're talking is from I think the '30s, right?

Ms. WATERS: It is. Oh, you will have to see the original films of Marcel Pagnol.

GROSS: Yeah, what's so wonderful about that film? It obviously cast a spell over you.

Ms. WATERS: It did. He made a trilogy called "Marius, Fanny, and Cesar." And they were made about the life on the waterfront in Marseille back in the early '30s and - black and white films. But there was something about the sort of joie de vivre of the film that captured a kind of life that I wanted to live. They sat down in the cafes in the afternoon with their friends and had a little glass of anisette and there were these kind of lifelong friendships, just a sense of loyalty, a sense of a community, of camaraderie, and a lot that seemed to be missing in my own life. I really wanted to live like that.

And so I really long for the rhythm of nature. I think that's maybe what I long for most, is the changing of the seasons. The beauty of nature is something that is so reassuring and so important. And when we eat in a seasonal way and when we connect back there, I think we have a respect for what's happening around the world in terms of protecting the environment and just understanding how sacred it is.

GROSS: One thing I will say, I'd rather eat seasonal food in the winter in California than during a blizzard in Philadelphia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WATERS: Now I'm not so sure about that. That's a very important issue for me is how do we eat in the winter in a very cold climate. I think we have to prepare ourselves to do that and we have to think about greenhousing, and we have to think about taking the beautiful fruits of the summer and preserving them for the winter in a syrup. We have to find the nuts and the dried berries. We have to, you know, eat the fish and the dried beans.

But we can make a beautiful menu with carrots and turnips that might be stored for the winter. And there's all kinds of ways that we eat at Chez Panisse in the winter. Mind you, we have winter greens. We do have kale and we have salads all year long. But we never see a tomato at Chez Panisse until really the beginning of July.

GROSS: Interesting.

Ms. WATERS: Sometimes a few little cherries come in before that. But basically...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. WATERS: ...we eat eggplant and corn and all of that just for the four months in the summer and then it's gone and we go into nuts and fall fruits.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. In a lot of ways you've created such a kind of harmonious, beautiful, idealized life that's built around food, about around making it, about around serving it, around beautiful food and healthy food. At the same time, running a restaurant has to be a very stressful occupation in so many ways and it never stops. You know, even if you go on vacation, the restaurant is still functioning. So are there times when the stress threatens to overtake the beautiful idealism of the life that you've been able to create?

Ms. WATERS: Well, I've thought about this a lot because when I was cooking I would have - you know, we're open six days a week and I could usually come up with a menu for three days a week and then I didn't have any more ideas. And I'd have to sort of force it and then one day of the week the sous chef needed to cook. And so I thought well, what if we broke this job into two and we had one chef who works three days and another one who worked the other three days.

And in that way, if they were paid for five and they worked three, that they could restore themselves and inspire themselves to come back the following week. And so we put that into practice in the cafe and it really changed the way that the whole team operated. The people that work in the restaurant at various jobs other than the main chef job have an opportunity to work at lunchtime or at dinnertime so that they could have time at home with their family. And then...

GROSS: But you're the founder and owner of the restaurant seven days a week. So I think what you've done for them sounds really wonderful. But that doesn't necessarily relieve any of the pressure on you.

Ms. WATERS: But it does for me. Because when they're operating in that way, they take responsibility as if they were the owner of the restaurant. So we have two chefs that are downstairs at Chez Panisse and each one works six months. And they're paid for the year but they work six months. So when they come back in, they really do take ownership of the restaurant. I mean I'm collaborating and giving my opinion when I eat in the restaurant but they run it as if it's their own and it takes this huge pressure away from me.

I think it's impossible to have your fingers on every problem and you have to give away a kind of responsibility. And I hope at the very best that people who work there really, you know, take that sense of ownership and really are gratified by that.

GROSS: Alice Waters, thank you so much and congratulations on Chez Panisse's 40th anniversary.

Ms. WATERS: Oh, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: That's quite an accomplishment. Thank you so much.

Ms. WATERS: Thank you.

GROSS: Alice Waters' restaurant Chez Panisse is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week. She and several friends and colleagues have put together a new book called "40 Years of Chez Panisse."

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new duo album featuring saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo.

This is FRESH AIR.

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