With the help of The Daily Meal Council, we have selected ten key figures in the history of food to honor this year in our Hall of Fame. Here, Council member Dorothy Kalins, a New York-based writer and editor and the founding editor of Saveur, explains why California chef–restaurateur and activist Alice Waters belongs on the roster.
Several decades ago, a colleague and I lunched with Alice Waters (1944—) in the sunlit back room of her restaurant on Shattuck Street in Berkeley, California. It could have been the day after a birthday dinner she’d hosted upstairs for a winemaker friend, a dinner which I remember only as a blur of Waters madly hopping up from her seat to break the crusts of her bubbling cassoulets. When the next day’s lunch came to dessert, Waters was served a small plate with two blushing apricots. We watched her tiny hands pull the fruit apart and bring a piece to her lips. Suddenly we saw her childlike features darken, grow severe. She summoned a server, held out the plate in disdain, and right there, before two food journalists, delivered a lecture: “Never, ever, serve an unripe piece of fruit.” Alice Waters sent back that apricot. In her own restaurant.
Chez Panisse, which launched in 1971, has been home base, a brick-and-mortar (well, Craftsman wood) embodiment of her philosophy: We should eat good, sustainably raised food. This deceptively simple idea launched Waters as the mother of the American food movement. That, plus her iron tenacity, and the unshakable good fortune to have been there first, have made Alice Waters’ ideas the reigning sensibility of food in America today.
Forever marked by her student years in France, Waters fell deeply and madly for the Provençal world of Marcel Pagnol’s films and the wines and hospitality of Lulu Peyraud at Domaine Tempier in Bandol, on the Côte d'Azur; she brought those ideas home. Myths and stories swirl around Waters: she never wanted to change the way America eats, she’s said, just to change how her friends ate, allowing them to consume joyfully, around big tables full of pure, seasonally appropriate food. She wanted to look in the eyes of the farmers who grew her food; she welcomed them to the back door of her restaurant, and just possibly from that impulse, launched the wave of farm-to-table restaurants that have energized this country with vibrant food scenes from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. From that impulse grew the passionate rebirth of the farmers markets that used to feed our cities in the nineteenth century. So many of this country’s now-famous cooks have passed through the kitchens of Chez Panisse that her restaurant became a kind of culinary university whose graduates spread the gospel throughout the land.
So many of this country’s now-famous cooks have passed through the kitchens of Chez Panisse that her restaurant became a kind of culinary university whose graduates spread the gospel throughout the land. Just a few names tell the story of her influence: Jonathan Waxman, Jeremiah Tower, Paul Bertolli, Judy Rogers, Deborah Madison, David Tanis, the list goes on. A dozen books bear her name. Her quote on any book cover is all the endorsement an author needs.
When Bill Clinton was president (and dined at her restaurant), Waters pressed hard for an organic garden at the White House. And finally, many administrations later, in the hands of Michelle Obama, that garden came to be. A small garden project at the Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley launched the powerful Edible Schoolyard movement, where today, even in inhospitable climates, even in forbidding urban settings, children get their hands in the dirt and get to cook their harvest, forever forging the link from garden to kitchen in their young minds. With the Italian activist, Carlo Petrini, Waters helped launch the Slow Food movement worldwide. When her beloved daughter, Fanny, went off to college in 2001, Waters was appalled at the quality of food in her dorm’s dining room. So she instigated the Yale Sustainable Food Project, which involved, of course, a farm. And, not so obviously, a retraining program for kitchen workers who knew only how to microwave the food they received. Soon, with faculty and student participation, the food in Yale’s 12 colleges became increasingly sustainable and healthy.
Alice Waters doesn’t just have vision, she has the power to communicate that vision to others. Her tenacious beliefs combine with her own delicious ability to appeal to people for help, to engage them in the struggle. Waters’ excited, breathless way of letting you in on a juicy secret becomes a kind of urgent seduction that makes people want to follow her anywhere. And they do! The title of Thomas McNamee’s 2007 biography says it all: Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, Often Eccentric, Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution. Alice Waters believes that eating and everything that leads up to it — farming and the choice of crops, fair treatment of workers, what goes on the plate, and who is around the table — is all a political act. Her ferocity, wrapped in winning charm, has changed eating in America.